The Cultural Connotations and
Communicative Functions of
Chinese Kinship Terms
University of Cincinnati &
Throughout human history people have sought to identify themselves and others in social contexts. This identification comes, in part, through the act of naming, which carries great social significance for us (Trenholm, Jensen, 1992). As we learn to identify and categorize the world around us, we also learn our place within it. Our name sets us apart from every other human being. Just as our individual names connote our uniqueness within society, so do the kinship terms applied to us.
Each culture has defined their own set of kinship terms and the roles they serve in society. To be called the kinship term "uncle" in one culture may hold a distinctively different set of expectations than that of "uncle" in another culture. These expectations may be influenced by the culture’s power orientation, philosophical or religious assumptions, environment, or any number of factors. Through kinship terms, it is possible to understand a culture’s power structure, particular interpersonal communication patterns, and normative elements of the family system, structure, and functions.
Kinship terms, according to E. R. Leach (1958), are "category words by means of which an individual is taught to recognize the significant groupings in the social structure into which he is born" (p. 143). They are the lexically identical terms and unique terminological systems labeled with a distinctive social and cultural nature. In different societies and cultures, there must be different systems of kinship terms. For example, between English and Chinese languages, only a few basic relations such as "father, " "mother, " "son, " and "daughter, " bear the same semantic constants which can be expressed in similar kinship terms. But as soon as we step outside this close circle of basic family relations, quite a number of differences in the terms become obvious. In this paper we will first, develop our rationale for the study and look at past studies on the same topic; second, describe the meticulous system of Chinese kinship terms; third, investigate the cultural connotations of the system; and fourth, discuss its communicative functions in Chinese daily social interaction.
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