Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Kinship Distinctions According to Sex

  • Sam PassmoreEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1504-1



Most if not all languages make distinction between kin according to gender: for example, in English, mother versus father, brother versus sister, and uncle versus aunt (Greenberg et al. 1978). In each of these cases, the distinction is applied to kin who are otherwise of equal genealogical distance to the speaker (ego). Cousin, in English, is an example of when kin are not distinguished according to gender.


Gender is used to distinguish kin in one of three ways: gender of relative name, speaker’s gender, or gender of the linking relative (Kroeber 1909). Gender of relative is when the kin term used depends on the gender of the person being referred to; in English, female relatives include sister, mother, and aunt, but not cousin, which could refer to a male or female relative. When kin terms depend on the sex of the speaker, the terms used by a man would differ to those of a woman. A special case of this distinction is when kin terms denote that the referent is the same or different gender to the speaker. This is common in the Pacific; for example, in Tongan, a man would call his elder brother ta’okete, and a woman would also use this term for her elder sister. This term could be translated as “sibling of the same gender, who is older than me.” The third way gender is used to distinguish kin is through the gender of the linking relative: this is when the term used for a relative that is connected though another relative (e.g., uncle is connected to ego through their mother or father) is determined by the gender of that connecting relative. In English, the term “uncle” makes no distinction between mother’s or father’s brother, so the parent’s gender does not have an influence on kin terms. However, if gender of the linking relative is a constraint on the language, different terms will be used for the mother’s brother and father’s brother. This distinction is also how cross-cousin terminologies are generated, where parent’s siblings of the opposite gender’s children are given different terms to parent’s siblings of the same gender’s children.

Distinctions of gender are overwhelmingly common across languages, so it is of interest when they do not occur. This is the case in Malay, where marking relatives by gender in ego’s generation is only reckoned through use of an optional suffix (Banks 1974). However, the core terms, adek and anak, refer to older or younger siblings regardless of gender.


Why gender distinctions occur (or do not occur) is an interesting question and one that is not fully resolved. Possible reasons for distinguishing gender between equally distant relatives could relate to societal gender biases or sexual reproduction, although other explanations are possible (Fox 1967; Keesing 1975). Societal gender biases are when women and men have specific roles or are treated in particular ways within a society, which may be reflected and reinforced through language. An example of this is the comparison of mother and father in English, which have clearly defined parental roles in society (Stone 2014). Other hypotheses suggest gender-biased inheritance patterns, household roles, or more broadly gender roles may encourage gendered kin terms. Sexual reproduction and gendered kinship terms can relate to one of two possibilities. Firstly, it posits that the biological nature of parenthood leads to gendered distinctions at least within the nuclear family. However, this hypothesis is heavily contested and does not explain many of the cultural differences between men and women (Collier and Yanagisako 1987). Secondly, if a society practices cross-cousin marriage, it makes sense to distinguish those cousins who are marriageable to those who are not. In societies where the language only reckons the gender of the referent relative, then it is necessary to also separate marriage partners for male or female egos. However, within each of the possible explanations for kinship distinction for gender, there are numerous counterexamples. It seems unlikely that a universal explanation for distinguishing kin by gender will ever be established.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of BristolBristolUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kevin Bennett
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPennsylvania State University, BeaverMonacaUSA