Old English Kinterms

Prior to the adoption of French terms after the Norman conquest, Old English terms assumed a pattern which conformed to the Sudanese terminology. According to this system, every possible relationship gets a separate term. Not enough is known about Anglo Saxon terms to reconstruct them completely, but their highly descriptive character is clearly represented in the parental generation where there are six separate terms that distinguish between father, father's brother, and mother's brother, and mother, mother's sister, and father's sister.

old english

An extension of the logic of the terminology would also suggest 8 separate terms for each type of cousin, as well as a distinction between brother's and sister's children. Old English actually merged the nephew categorization in a manner that is equivalent to the modern Eskimo system.

The following table demonstrates the contrast between the merging apparent in Modern English and the finer distinctions formed in Old English, where each kin type receives a distinctive term.

Modern English Kin Type Old English
Father F Faeder
Mother M Modor
Uncle FB Faedera
MB Eam
Aunt FS Fathu
MS Modrige

The logic of the former system and the reasons for its replacement are difficult to interpret in the absence of detailed historical information. Sudanese terminologies are usually associated with patrilineal societies with a high degree of social stratification. However, the reasons for this correlation are not particularly clear, and don't seem especially applicable to early Anglo Saxon society. A more appropriate interpretation would emphasize the importance of extended bilateral relationships and the formation of kindreds in which significant distinctions between relatives on the father's and mother's side had to be made for purposes of inheritance and other legal processes such as wergeld payment. Changes in the system may have come about in the wake of the weakening of extended kinship ties and the emphasis on the nuclear family that occurred in the course of the Medieval period.

For fuller examples of Sudanese terminology, see Turkish Kin Terms and Latin Kin Terms.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Date Created: September 1997
Last updated: September 2003