Family/Kinship words (continued)


The relationship between a woman and her child is different from the relationship between a man and his child.  In English we use the  words ‘child’, ‘daughter’, or ‘son’ regardless of whether the parent is a woman or a man.  But in many Aboriginal societies, separate words are used for ‘child of woman’, and ‘child of man’.  That is seen as a more important distinction than whether the child is female or male.  Here are examples from Gurindji:

female child of woman kurturtu
male child of woman kurturtu
female child of man ngalawuny
male child of man ngalawuny

Importantly, a woman and her brother will both call her children kurturtu.  So the word kurturtu covers  ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’ as well as ‘daughter’ and ‘son’. A woman and her brother will both call his children ngalawuny.  So both words mean ‘niece’, ‘nephew’ ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, but which word is used will depend on who is the parent, a woman or a man.


Words for grandparents vary a lot. Some Aboriginal societies are like English, and have one term for ‘grandfather’, regardless of whether you are talking about your mother’s father or your father’s father. Others have special words for mother’s father and father’s father, and also for mother’s mother and father’s mother.  From the table you can see that speakers of the Central Australian language Gurindji use different words for each of these grandparents.

Great great….. grandparents

The English kinship system is linear; we add ‘great’ to ‘grandparent’ or ‘grandchild’ to extend upwards many generations. And we add ‘second, third, fourth..’ to ‘cousin’ to describe the children and grandchildren of our parents and grandparents’ cousins. 

Australian Aboriginal groups generally have non-linear kinship systems; they may cycle around, so that great great grandparents may be called the same as grandparents.  Some Australian Aboriginal groups may use one word for more than one generation.  For example, they may use the same word for one’s mother’s mother’s brother and one’s mother’s mother’s brother’s child.  This is called ‘skewing’.

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