i’ve got this idea that the more specific a group’s mating patterns, the more specific their kinship terms — and vice versa.

so, if you’re the arabs, and you prefer father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage, you’ll have some rather specific kinship terms for all of your different aunts and uncles and cousins, because you want to be able to identify who your bint ‘amm is. if you’re the chinese, and you have an historic preference for mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage, you’ll also have specific kinship terms for all of your relatives. in fact, both of these societies have the most complicated of kinship terminology systems: the sudanese kinship system.

on the other hand, if you’re not picky about which cousin you can marry OR if all of your cousins are off-limits (like in christian europe), then you might not bother to designate any differences between your cousins (or other relatives). in the hawaiian kinship system, for instance, the only differentiation between relatives is sex and age, so all your brothers and male cousins are just “brother” and all your sisters and female cousins are just “sister.” and in traditional hawaiian society, marriage was very flexible.

meanwhile, in pre-christian europe, most all european populations had different terms for male and female, paternal and maternal cousins — like the arabs or chinese. after converting to christianity and adopting the church’s cousin marriage bans, the kinship terminology shifted to one in which cousins were no longer individually identified (see, for example, German Kinship Terms, 750-1500: Documentation and Analysis and this previous post). as michael mitterauer describes, this process took a few hundred years to happen [pgs. 68-69]:

“Fundamental trends in the changing kinship systems in Europe can best be deduced from the modified kinship terms in various European languages. Initially, terminological analyses will only yield very general clues that other indicators can differentiate and refine. Above all, these analyses cannot allow us to conclude anything about how some of the concepts used mirror a certain contemporaneous social order. Kinship terminology often outlasted by hundreds of years the conditions that gave rise to it. We frequently come upon phenomena of cultural lag when tapping this linguistic source in the attempt to learn about historical kinship systems, but that a change in a social situation must have preceded a change in vocabulary lies beyond a shadow of doubt.

so what does any of this have to do with archaic greece (800 BC – 480 BC)? (or classical greece and athens for that matter?)

well, from mitterauer again we have [pg. 69]:

“Greek was the first European language to eliminate the terminological distinction between the father’s and mother’s side, a transition that began as early as between the fifth and third century BC.35

so that’s just at the transition point between archaic greece and classical greece. but starting at least in the early part of the archaic period and lasting throughout to the classical period the archaic greeks were outbreeding! at least the upper class ones were — difficult/impossible to know about the lower classes. from Women in Ancient Greece [pg. 67]:

“Marriages were arranged by the prospective groom and the prospective bride’s guardian, and the wife usually (although not always) went to live with her husband’s family. In the early Archaic Age [800 BC – 480 BC], to judge from the evidence of Homer’s poems (e.g. ‘Odyssey’ 4.5), male members of the upper classes generally married women who were not related to them, and who came from different areas. This upper-class habit of exogamy — marrying outside the community — was related to the political importance which marriage possessed in these circles. Marriage exchanges were one of the means by which noble families created political alliances with groups living in other areas, and in this way they made a considerable contribution to the aristocracy’s stranglehold on power. This practice survived to the end of the Archaic Age. However, with the emergence of the *polis*, exogamy began to give way in some places to endogamy — to marriage within the community. For the upper classes, this meant marriage within a tight circle of aristocratic families living in the same *polis*.”

so there was outbreeding in archaic greece for a few hundred years (at least amongst the upper classes), and, then, eventually — after about 400 years or so — there was a linguistic shift to more general kinship terms which reflected that outbreeding. in other words, there was a lag time between the “social situation” (or mating patterns) and the linguistic shift in the kinship terms. in medieval german, the shift to more general terms for cousins began in the 1100s, about 300-600 years after the cousin marriage bans arrived in northern europe (depending on what region you look at).

that’s all for now. more anon!

previously: loosening of genetic ties in europe started before christianity? and demokratia

(note: comments do not require an email. archaic greek chicks.)