Intercultural Communication

Course Website for Tunghai FLLD Seminar

More on kinship terms

Posted by thuicc on November 25, 2006

In Thursday’s class, we discussed the different functions of language covered in our textbook. One part of the discussion that was particularly interesting to me was when we compared Chinese and English kinship terms and saw how the use of kinship terms in Chinese affects how English kinship terms are interpreted.

We found, for instance, that if I said, “My uncle is a farmer”, you felt a need to specify in their minds whether that uncle was on my father’s side or mother’s side, and whether the uncle was older or younger than my parent. (Some students automatically thought in terms of a father’s brother, but Weiting said she was closer to her mother’s side of the family, so thought in terms of a mother’s brother.) You also seemed a bit surprised when I suggested that if I said the same sentence to a native speaker of English, that person might (but probably wouldn’t) ask if I meant my father’s or my mother’s brother, and most likely wouldn’t wonder about whether or not the uncle was older or younger than my parent.

The powerful role of kinship terms is also discussed in “The Cultural Connotations and Communicative Functions of Chinese Kinship Terms” (American Communication Journal 3.3 [2000]). Shaorong Huang and Wenshan Jia argue that there are three main communicative functions served by kinship terms in Chinese:

  1. They serve a “linking function,” in that they serve as a way of connecting individuals to their social groups. Huang and Jia point out–as we did in class–that kinship terms are not just used among family members, but are also used to address non-family members.
  2. They serve a “mentation function”–meaning that they are involved in stimulating “the development of higher mental processes.”
  3. For instance, when a child addresses her maternal grandfather by the kinship term of [外祖父] “wai zu fu,” she may at least understand, or try to understand, the following: 1) she has a family relation with the old man, but the old man does not live in her family; 2) as a senior member, the old man has certain power over her, and she must respect and obey him; and 3) comparing with her paternal grandfather, this man is less powerful and less strict with her behavior. The single kinship term works as a stimulus in the child’s mind to help the child go through a complicated cognitive process.

  4. They serve a “regulatory function” because use of kinship terms “helps individuals regulate their personal behavior in speech communication.”

I’m not sure I agree with everything they say in this article (for instance, they imply a uniqueness for the Chinese family system that I’m not sure about–our textbook suggests that Indian kinship terms are also quite complicated). But the points I cited above extend what we were discussing on Thursday about how kinship terms fit into both the naming and the interactional functions of language.

3 Responses to “More on kinship terms”

  1. Weiting said


    I think Aaron was like me- thinking of his mother’s side first, then after the class I asked him whether he is closer to his mother side. The answer is “YES.”

    I heard a lot that Taiwanese often ask foreigners- On which side of family? or Older one or younger one? I sometimes see their stunned face with a slight look of “does that matters to you?.” haha~~
    I once saw a Enlgish speaking lady asked-on which side of family? from a movie conversation, however, that was a situation that MATTERS.(since the couple were about getting married, they have “rights” to know more about each other, I guess.)

    I like the idea of “regulatory function” of the kinship terms. Another example, in Chinese 他(he) 她(she) 它(it), because they share the same pronunciation even they are literally different.We can tell HOW we ignore thinking of genders when we often mix he /she/ it in speaking English. :>

    One thing funny happened before, because Chinese people mix using he/she /it, I heard foreigners always ask “Is it a he or she?.” One time, my foreign friends was describing his family members and he swtiched roles too fast. I misundertood and thought he made a mistake like Chinese people did. Then I asked- “Is it a he or she?.” And he was shocked and replied- “come on, I’m a foreiner. I don’t that knid of mistakes.”


  2. ghazale said

    I’m a linguistics student in iran.i’m working on a paper with the sobject of comparative study of kinship system in english chinese and persian so need to ask u some questions let me know is there any term for these relations in chinese we have some terms in persian for husband’s brother’s wife ,wife’s sister’s husband , sister’s husband , brother’s wife and the second wife of a man.i have read some on line articles about kinship terms in chinese but i could’nt find these terms i want to be sure if there is any term for these relations or not
    i’m looking forward to your kind reply
    ghazale hossenzade

  3. thuicc said

    Hi Ghazale,

    I’m not a native speaker of Chinese, but from what I know there are terms for husband’s brother’s wife, wife’s sister’s husband, etc. In fact, I often get confused about these because the term for the wife’s older sister’s husband is different from the term for the wife’s younger sister’s husband. (The same with the wife’s younger brother’s wife and the wife’s older brother’s wife.) There’s a pretty long list of terms like this at this site. Look for the section titled “Your generation”. Hope this helps!

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