Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Categories for kinship vary between languages

Date:
May 24, 2012
Source:
Carnegie Mellon University
Summary:
Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms -- grandmother and grandfather -- to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses four terms. Many possible kinship categories, however, are never observed, which raises the question of why some kinship categories appear in the languages of the world but others do not. A new study shows that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication.

Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms -- grandmother and grandfather -- to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses four terms. Many possible kinship categories, however, are never observed, which raises the question of why some kinship categories appear in the languages of the world but others do not.
Credit: James Thew / Fotolia

Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms -- grandmother and grandfather -- to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses four terms. Many possible kinship categories, however, are never observed, which raises the question of why some kinship categories appear in the languages of the world but others do not.

A new study published in Science by Carnegie Mellon University's Charles Kemp and the University of California at Berkeley's Terry Regier shows that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication. The same principles can potentially be applied to other kinds of categories, such as colors and spatial relationships. Ultimately, then, the work may lead to a general theory of how different languages carve the world up into categories.

For the study, Kemp and Regier used data previously collected by anthropologists and linguists that specify kinship categories for 566 of the world's languages. Kemp and Regier used a computational analysis to explore why some patterns are found in the data set but others are not. In particular, they tested the idea that the world's kinship systems achieve a trade-off between the two competing principles of simplicity and informativeness.

"A kinship system with one word referring to all relatives in a family tree would be very simple but not terribly useful for picking out specific individuals," said Kemp, assistant professor of psychology within CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author of the study. "On the other hand, a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful for referring to specific relatives. If you look at the kinship systems in the languages of the world, you can't make them simpler without making them less useful, and you can't make them more useful without making them more complicated. There is a tradeoff between these two explanatory principles."

Kemp and Regier found that this trade-off explains why languages use only a handful of the vast number of logically possible kinship categories.

"The kinship systems that are used by languages lie along an optimal frontier, where systems achieve a near perfect trade-off between the competing factors of simplicity and usefulness," Kemp said. "English -- with two terms to refer to grandparents -- is more simple than Mandarin Chinese, but arguably a little less useful."

"Interestingly, very similar principles explain cross-language variation in color categories and spatial categories, as well as kinship categories," said Regier, associate professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Berkeley, and an author on the earlier work on color and space. "It's rewarding to see similar principles operating across such different domains."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. C. Kemp, T. Regier. Kinship Categories Across Languages Reflect General Communicative Principles. Science, 2012; 336 (6084): 1049 DOI: 10.1126/science.1218811

Cite This Page:

Carnegie Mellon University. "Categories for kinship vary between languages." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 May 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120524143448.htm>.
Carnegie Mellon University. (2012, May 24). Categories for kinship vary between languages. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120524143448.htm
Carnegie Mellon University. "Categories for kinship vary between languages." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120524143448.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

AFP (July 24, 2014) A so-called drugs rehab 'clinic' is closed down in Pakistan after police find scores of ‘patients’ chained up alleging serial abuse. Duration 03:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) A study by German researchers claims watching TV while you're stressed out can make you feel guilty and like a failure. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
China's Ageing Millions Look Forward to Bleak Future

China's Ageing Millions Look Forward to Bleak Future

AFP (July 24, 2014) China's elderly population is expanding so quickly that children struggle to look after them, pushing them to do something unexpected in Chinese society- move their parents into a nursing home. Duration: 02:07 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins