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English and Chinese Kinship Terms

by Hua Xin Xu

When I was teaching English in China, I came across many phrases like "Uncle Policeman" or "Aunt Nurse" in English textbooks published in China. Chinese students frequently express their frustration for not knowing exactly what the word "brother" or "sister" means in English kinship terms. They often ask "When you say 'brother,' do you mean older brother or younger brother? How do I know you are talking about the younger brother and not the older brother if you don't say that in your sentence?" They feel they cannot do the translation exercise without knowing exactly whether the "brother" is older or younger.

This is because in Chinese culture, kinship terms are more precise than in English. In fact, this preciseness in kinship terms can also cause problems for American students learning Chinese as a second language. They may think that using so many kinship terms to express one's relationship is a waste and totally unnecessary. who cares whether one's brother is older than the speaker or younger than the speaker. For them, that information is simply not that important.

For these reasons, I think a comparison of English and Chinese kinship terms can help students clarify some of the confusion in learning those kinship termsand also help teachers to explain to students the difference between the two languages.

Kinship terms are unique terminological systems that are used to identify groupings in the society into which one is born. Different societies and cultures have different kinship terms. A brief comparison between English and Chinese kinship terms points to more differences than similarities.

In using kinship terms both English and Chinese share the same semantic meanings of generation, sex and certain kinds of relations. For example, both languages use such kinship terms as "father," "mother," "son," "daughter," and "uncle" to express family relations. While in the dimension of generation, English "son" is contrasted with Chinese "er zi," in the dimension of sex English "father" and Chinese "fu chin" are contrasted with English "mother" and Chinese "mu chin." However, in the dimension of linearity, English "uncle" is contrasted with several Chinese kinship terms such as "bo fu," "shu fu," "gu fu," "jiu fu," and "yi fu," each expressing a different relationship with self, as shown below.

 Semantic Meaning

 Chinese

 English

 father's older brother

 bo fu

 uncle

 father's younger brother

shu fu

 uncle

 father's sister's husband

gu fu

uncle

 mother's brother

jiu fu

uncle

 mother's sister's husband

yi fu

uncle

One exceptional case with regard to sex is the English word "cousin." While it bears no semantic meaning of gender in English, leaving one wonder whether one's cousin is a male or a female, the word "cousin" in Chinese can refer to brothers and sisters depending on the sex and relative age to self. Thus, the word "cousin" could mean self's "ge (older brother), di (younger brother), jie (older sister)," or "mei (younger sister)." These kinship terms then fall into two categories. Chinese call them "biao" and "tong." "Biao" represents affinal relationship, whereas "tong" represents consanguinous relationship. It seems that neither affinal nor consanguinous relationships, as indicated in these kinship terms, are as important in English as they are in Chinese.

Difference is also found in the way Chinese label grandparents. In Chinese grandparents are divided into paternal and maternal grandparents. Paternal grandfather and grandmother are called "zu fu," "zu mu" respectively whereas maternal grandfather and grandmother are called "wai zu fu," and "wai zu mu" respectively. "Wai" in Chinese means "outside," suggesting that this vertical relationship between generations is not related by blood, but by marriage.

Chinese kinship terms also differ from English kinship terms in that Chinese kinship terms reflect age differences within the same generation. For example, general terms such as "brother' and "sister" in English are expressed by two pairs of words in Chinese indicating both age and sex. 

 Semantic Meaning

 Chinese

 English

 older brother

ge ge

brother

 younger brother

di di

brother

older sister

jie jie

sister

 younger sister

mei mei

sister

While it is common in English to say "He is my brother," in Chinese one has to either say "He is my ge ge" or "He is my di di," making it clear whether this "brother" is older or younger than the speaker.

Hia Xin Xu

Assistant Professor of English Studies and Chinese

Salem-Teikyo University

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W VTESOL Newsletter Editor: Linda Yoder

Salem-Teikyo University

lky@wvu.edu

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This page was last updated on February 2, 2000.