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  • The Marking of Sex Distinctions in Polynesian Kinship Terminologies1
  • Per Hage and Jeff Marck
Abstract

In Greenberg's cognitive-linguistic theory of kinship universals, it appears that sex, unlike generational distance and genealogical closeness, may not be marked on a consistent basis. This paper presents some systematic evidence on the subject. In Polynesian kinship terminologies, the male point of view predominates. The widespread unmarked status of terms for male child in particular may reflect an emphasis on patrilineal succession in Polynesian societies.

1. Introduction.

In Greenberg's (1966) cognitive-linguistic theory of kinship universals, it appears that sex, unlike generational distance and genealogical closeness, is not marked on a consistent basis.2 "In a number of instances the male term has zero expression where the corresponding female term has an additional morpheme, but the data on neutralizations give conflicting evidence. Further, Lounsbury (1968) in a pioneering contribution on the subject, describes the feminine as unmarked in Iroquois in consonance with purely linguistic facts" (Greenberg 1966:105). In the only cross-cultural study bearing on the problem, Nerlove and Romney (1967) found no conclusive evidence for male or female as the universally marked category in sibling terminologies. In a reanalysis of Nerlove and Romney's data, Kronenfeld (1996) suggested that the marking of male and female kin terms might be correlated with matrilineal and patrilineal descent, respectively, but no evidence was adduced for this hypothesis.

In this paper, we present some systematic evidence on the subject. In Polynesian kinship terminologies, the male point of view predominates. The widespread unmarked status of terms for male child in particular may reflect an emphasis on patrilineal succession in Polynesian societies. [End Page 156]

2. Marking Hypotheses.

Marking refers to an asymmetric relation between two terms of an opposition. The concept applies to all aspects of language—phonological, grammatical, and lexical-semantic. In general, the unmarked term is "simpler in form, more common in usage, and more elaborated in terms of subtypes" (Moravcsik and Wirth 1986:2). Three different hypotheses can be entertained regarding the marking of sex in PN kinship terminologies.

1. Male terms are unmarked. Greenberg (1990), in a later statement of his theory of kinship universals, and, earlier, Nerlove and Romney (1967) assume that male is usually unmarked. In Iroquois, an apparent counterexample, female is unmarked for grammatical, that is, nonsemantic reasons. In the Nerlove and Romney study, only five out of a cross-cultural sample of 245 sibling terminologies were marked one way or the other for sex. Other sets of kinship terms or the application of other marking criteria may give different results. Given an assumption of "universal asymmetry in cultural evaluation of the sexes" (Rosaldo 1974:17), kinship terminologies should reflect a male (unmarked) point of view.

2. The marking of male and female terms depends on context. According to Waugh (1982:310), "markedness values are always context sensitive where the context may be a given culture. ... In our culture for example ... 'female' is marked when found in the context of a professor or doctor, but 'male' is marked when found in the context of a nurse or secretary." Waugh's argument, although it makes no reference to the domain of kinship, is intended to apply to semantic structures in general. In the present case, context might refer to different subdomains of PN terminologies, for example, uncle terms as opposed to child terms, or to entire terminologies, for example, historically conservative as opposed to more innovative PN terminologies.

3. Neither male nor female terms are marked. In a comparative analysis of gender relations in hierarchical societies, Ortner (1981) argues that women in Polynesian, as opposed to New Guinea societies, have a relatively high status. In Polynesia, the "encompassing" structure of descent rather than the opposing structure of marriage alliance generates rank and prestige. According to Ortner (1981:394), Polynesian women are thought of first of all as kinswomen—as daughters, sisters, and aunts rather than wives, lovers, and mothers. Polynesian societies are said to have a "relatively low elaboration of cultural conceptions (both formal ideology and general folklore) of female inferiority; Polynesians simply do not express, in word or deed, many notions of women as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9421
Print ISSN
0029-8115
Pages
pp. 156-166
Launched on MUSE
2001-06-01
Open Access
No
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