Family/Kinship words

Family relationships are the foundation of all societies in the world.   Every group has names for types of family relationship.  These relationships and their names are called the ‘kinship system’ or more often 'terminological system' of a group.

Traditionally, in Indigenous Australia, family members lived together, worked together and relied on each other throughout their lives.  People remained strongly connected with their families.  These connections were strengthened by traditions of land ownership, religion and ceremony, which linked families to countries and languages.  Today, many Indigenous people continue to keep these strong connections between family, country and ceremony.

Groups vary enormously as to how many kin relationships they give names to, as to what relationships have names, and as to how these kinship systems fit into the way the group lives. So there are many different kinship systems around the world. Australia is no exception. There is no one single Australian kinship system.
 Each of the several hundred languages has a different set of names for family relationships, and the family relationships that they give names to may vary from group to group. 

Aboriginal kinship systems are different from English kinship systems in several important ways.  Aboriginal people have lots of mothers, lots of fathers, lots of sisters and brothers.  Everyone with whom you interact for a long time is included in the kinship system.   We explain below in more detail how this works.

Sisters and brothers

The relation between people born to the same parents is important in all societies. English speakers use ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ to describe it. Some people use ‘sibling’ if they don’t want to specify the gender of the person.  In Australia, there are different ways of describing this relation. For example, here are the terms for people born of the same parents used by two neighbouring groups in Central Australia, Warumungu and Gurindji.

Gurindji Warlumungu
older sister kapuku kapurlu
older brother ngapa papparti
younger sister karlaj kukkaji
younger brother kukurnu kukkaji

You can see that, as in English, gender is important.  Different terms are used for females and males. Unlike English, birth order is important - is the person younger or older than you? If the person is younger, Gurindji has two words, distinguished by gender, while Warumungu has just one word meaning ‘younger sibling’.  So Warumungu and Gurindji have slightly different kinship systems.  The kinship systems do not stand apart from life; younger siblings should respect their older siblings because older siblings have to look after younger siblings. They are accountable for any harm that happens to their younger siblings.

Next page: Classificatory kinship systems