Criteria of Semantic Distinction


A second way in which semantic systems may differ is in the criteria by which a domain is defined and appropriate items included within it, and in the dimensions of contrast according to which the domain's contents are sorted into different categories. Thus, there are different ways of including people as "kin." Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions focus heavily on biological definition of kin as "blood" relations linked through both parents. Other cultures may consider only one parent as contributing a genetic component and the other to be an "in-law." In the Mediterranean and Latin America, previously unrelated people are incorporated into the kinship network as godparents and godchildren, and, in the Kalahari, people with the same name are considered to be related ,independent of any previous connection or history of common ancestry. Furthermore, within the variously defined domains of "kinship," relatives may be grouped into significant categories and assigned social roles according to different principles to create systems which anthropologists call kinship terminologies. We shall be analysing these extensively in a subsequent unit but will briefly discuss the Dani system to illustrate a radically different system from our own.

Dani and English define kinship in a similar way and have the same number of kin terms, by which they refer to and address acknowledged relatives. However, the two terminologies group basic biological relationships in radically different ways. Accordingly, there is no accurate English translation for the relevant Dani words. For example, both Dani and English have two words to classify relatives enumerable as "father,"  "father's brother," and "mother's brother". The Dani words are opaije and ami, and the English words are "father" and "uncle." The term opiaje is used for the relative that we classify as "father," but it also includes the speaker's father's brothers as well. Ami is applied to mother's brothers only. The differences between the two terminologies can be diagrammed as follows:

We can observe in this example that English and Dani use different dimensions of meaning to divide up the same semantic domain. The English terms are distinguished in terms of collaterality. My father is a direct ancestor, but my uncles stand at the beginning lines that branch off from each of my parents, who are of equivalent value in recognizing relationships. The Dani terms are distinguished according to paternal and maternal sides of the family. My father's brother is grouped with relatives in my father's lineage, my mother's brother with my mother's kin. The difference in the semantic dimensions apparent in the two systems suggests a major contrast in the system of social relations that the terminologies help to chart. We shall discuss the implications of these terminological differences in unit 3.


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