Bioethics News

In search of new kinship terms

I am really working above my paygrade here, but I propose a thorough revision of Lewis Henry Morgan’s classic text, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Back in 1871 he identified six fundamental systems that languages have for classifying relatives: Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha. (English is regarded as an Eskimo-type language.) 

Of these six systems, the most complex is the one used in southern Sudan. Every possible relationship has a unique word to describe it, whether it is “mother” or “mother’s brother’s first son’s youngest daughter”.

In the course of probing research into kinship terms over the past 20 minutes I discovered that nowadays Morgan’s classifications are considered outdated. At least one more system has been discovered, the Dravidian system, and some languages add refinements like distinguishing between older brother and younger brother. Some Australian Aboriginal languages use the same terms of address for alternating generations.  

If you have got this far, you are probably getting a bit impatient.

My point is that we need a new burst of creativity to invent new words for relationships created by assisted reproductive technology. In this week’s newsletter, for instance, we have a biological mother acting as surrogate mother for her biological son. A couple of weeks ago, we reported a lesbian using her brother’s sperm to impregnate her partner. English is already poor in kinship terms. Can it possibly cope with the pressure of surrogacy and gamete donation or even gamete creation? 

We have reason to hope.

The roots of modern English are in Anglo-Saxon and (remotely) Latin.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.