Kinship terminology in general may be used to refer to the various systems used in languages to refer to the persons to whom an individual is related through kinship. As Robert Parkin states, a kin term or kinship term or relationship term designates a particular category of kin or relative regarded as a single semantic unit. It can be conceptualised as containing one or more kin types, though empirically it will be applied to a number of different individuals occupying different genealogical positions. The whole ensemble of kinship terms is referred to as kinship terminology or relationship terminology. The kin term product was first discussed by D.Read (1984) and is defined as follows: Let K and L be kin terms in a given kinship terminology, T. Let ego, alter1 and alter2 refer to three arbitrary persons each of whose cultural repertoire includes the kinship terminology, T. The kin term product of K and L, denoted K or L, is a kin term, M, if any, that ego may (properly) use to refer to alter2 when ego (properly) uses the kin term L to refer to alter1 and alter1 (properly) uses the kin term K to refer to alter2. Kinship terminologies have discernable patterns, but these vary from society to society and are not always internally consistent in the logical sense; for example some languages distinguish between affinal and consanguine uncles, whereas others have only one word to refer to both a father and his brothers. Also, kinship terminologies include the terms of address used in different languages or communities for different relatives and the terms of reference used to identify the relationship of these relatives to ego or to each other. As Parkins notes, the terminology of direct address often differs in detail from the terminology of reference used in the same society. The reference terminology represents what might be described as the ‘true’ classification, the definitions one might expect in dictionaries. For example, in English cousins belonging genealogically to previous generations may be addressed by names or as ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ (‘cousins’ rarely being used in address), but they still remain cousins in what society regards as the ‘real’ classification. The address terminology has more relevance in respect of the ways in which people behave in face-to-face interaction, though it has to share its sphere of application with other designations such as names or titles. It is the reference terminology that is normally used in formal analysis, for which purpose it is deliberately collected as such through direct questioning of informants. (It is noteworthy that the terminologies used by a female ego may also differ in detail from those used when the ego is male.) In this paper I will reflect upon the various notions that have developed around the concept of ‘kinship terminology’ by focusing on the views put forward by eminent anthropologists such as Henry Morgan, Radcliffe Brown and the likes and also attempt to analyse the kinship terminology of my own society (i.e. Assamese community) on those grounds.
In many ways the decisive contribution to the study of kinship was that of L. H. Morgan (1818–1881), in his master work, the Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), which conceptualized kinship as existing in the form of a limited number of systems that, as such, could be rigorously compared; for by doing so he conceived an object for anthropology that was complex and required extensive study. Kinship terminologies were central to this conception of kinship, and thus to the creation of anthropology itself.
Morgan performed the survey of kinship terminologies in use around the world. In the nineteenth century, while living with the Iroquois, Morgan was impressed by their method of referring to kin and began to collect schedules of ‘kinship terminologies’ from all over the world and from societies of classical antiquity. He noted that a few nations far...