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Descent, Naming, and Kinship Systems of Boreanesia [LONG]

From:Kristian Jensen <kljensen@...>
Date:Thursday, February 25, 1999, 22:48
After the thread on naming systems, I did some research on the
Boreanesian naming system and in the process discovered a whole lot
on the Descent and Kinship systems as they are ultimately
interconnected. This is a border-line topic for conlang and
conculture. But rather than crossposting to both conlang and
conculture (and respecting And's request), I have decided to post
the details of all systems here on conlang-l since most (if not all)
members of the conculture-list are here on conlang-l.

The technical term for the Boreanesian descent system is a dual
descent unilineal moiety system. That is, like Matt's Tokana, the
Boreanesians trace their affiliation through both a patrilineage and
matrilineage at the same time. But rather than belonging to various
matrilineal and patrilineal clans like the Tokana, the Boreanesians
trace their affiliation towards their matrilineal and patrilineal

A moiety descent sytem is an unusual form of unilineal descent
system that involves the occurence of descent groups in linked pairs
which assume complementary positions and functions. Each moiety (or
half of a pair) is exogamous, meaning that members of one moiety
will take their wives or husbands exclusively from the matched
group. In other words, one is forbidden to have sex with one member
of the same moiety as oneself.

Since the moiety system of the Boreanesians is a dual descent
system, then the moieties are further divided into patrimoieties
(patrilineal moieties) and matrimoieties (matrilineal moieties).
Thus, one's patrimoiety affiliation is determined through one's
father and one's matrimoiety affiliation is determined through one's

Note that the residence rules are matrilocal, meaning that children
are raised at their mother's household, and upon marriage a husband
will move to his wife's household. Thus, a patrimoiety is associated
with fluidity and change, while a matrimoiety is associated with
permanence. Consequently, the patrimoieties are called /L@salh/
"water" and /p@haih/ "air", and the matrimoieties are called /j@ka?/
"earth" and /s@su@h/ "fire". These names reflecting the four
elements of Boreanesian metaphysics.

To illustrate how the descent system works, I have prepare the
ascii-diagrams below representing a simplified situation that may
well occur in a small isolated Boreanesian village where cross
cousin marriages are more frequent. (This must be viewed in a
monospace font like courier):

     Key: / \ = male
          ( ) = female
           =  = marriage relationship
           |  = offspring relationship
           -  = sibling relationship
           E  = earth matrimoiety
           F  = fire matrimoiety
           W  = water patrimoiety
           A  = air patrimoiety
           numbers designate generation

           1. (EW)=/FA\     (FA)=/EW\
                  |             |
           2. (EA)-/EA\     (FW)-/FW\

              (EA)=/FW\     (FW)=/EA\
                  |             |
           3. (EW)-/EW\     (FA)-/FA\

              (EW)=/FA\     (FA)=/EW\  <-same situation
                  |             |        as the first
              (EA)-/EA\     (FW)-/FW\    generation.

In the first generation, the couple to the left involves a marriage
of a female member of the "earth" matrimoiety and "water"
patrimoiety with a male member of the "fire" matrimoiety and "air"
patrimoiety. They produce offsprings (male and female) that are
members of the "earth" matrimoiety and "air" patrimoiety. The couple
to the right is almost the same differing in the gender of the
respective moiety members. They thus produce offsprings that are
members of the "fire" matrimoiety and "water" patrimoiety. When the
second generation intermarry the exogamous rules are applied
forcing a female member of the "earth" matrimoiety and "air"
patrimoiety to marry a male member of the "fire" matrimoiety and
"water" patrimoiety. And so on...

Boreanesian society is built on the interdependance of the different
moieties. Each moiety is associated with a specific type of work.
The "ethereal" moieties of "fire" and "air" are associated with work
using the mind (mental work like governing, spiritual work, or
teaching), while the "corporeal" moieties of "earth" and "water" are
associated with work of the body (physical work like farming,
defense, or mining). Thus, a Boreanesian aristocrat is always a
member of both "ethereal" moieties, while a Boreanesian laborer (and
probably a debt-slave as well) is most likely a member of both
"corporeal" moieties. But because of the exogamous rules associated
with moieties, an aristocrat must marry one from the lower class. So
even if there are debt slaves, Boreanesian society could be thought
of as a forced egalitarian society, at least with regards to
marriage. The children of such marriages would thereby be members of
both an "ethereal" moiety and a "corporeal" moiety. If one parent
was a debt slave, the children would only inherit half the debt.

Note that the moiety names are associated with the four elements of
Boreanesian metaphysics: /j@ka?/ "earth", /p@haih/ "air", /s@su@h/
"fire", and /L@salh/ "water". These moiety names constitute the
first part of a Boreanesian name appearing in the following order:
matrimoiety name followed patrimoiety name if male, patrimoiety name
followed by matrimoiety name if female. These are often only used in
formal contexts. In fact, they can be translatable as "Sir" or
"Madame" in English, but are more status graded than in English. For
instance, /p@haihs@su@h/ "air of fire" would be used to address a
male aristocrat formally because someone from the /p@haih/ "air"
patrimoiety and /s@su@h/ "fire" matrimoiety is most likely an
aristocrat. The title /L@salhj@ka?/ "water of earth" would be used
to address a male member of a lower class.

The second part of a Boreanesian name is the /l@mah/ name or
"homeland" name - the name of the Boreanesian village, territory, or
tribe of origin. (Boreanesians are divided into several Lumas or
"tribes"; some occupying vast territories, some occupying only a
single village). This name would be inherited from the mother since
the residence rules of Boreanesian society is matrilocal - ie., the
children are raised at their mother's household, and upon marriage a
husband will move to his wife's household.

The third part of a name is the name given at birth by the parents.
Most are names of revered parts of animals, plants, or trees - eg.
"dogheart" "hawkeye" "bananaleaf" "sagopalm fiber". But others are
inherited from a well known family ancestor.

Thus, the name /L@salhj@ka? L@t[@kai? tahn@ku?/ is the name of a
male man "Tahnekai, the water of earth from Lhethekai'". If he
married a woman from another Luma "homeland" named /s@su@hp@haih
su@?k@naih lahn@lai?/ "Lahnelai', the fire of air from Sue'kenaih",
and if they had a male child named /p@?k@la?/, then that child's
full name would be /L@salhs@su@h su@?k@naih p@?k@la?/ "Pe'kela', the
water of fire from Sue'kenaih".

The fact that an exogamous rule exists with members of both a
patrilineal and matrilineal members of the same moiety creates a
situation where it is important to distinguish between father's and
mother's sides for social relations. The distinction between
different kinds of cousins reflects this division between descent
lines but also marks a second important difference: parallel
cousins, like brothers and sisters, are prohibited from marrying;
cross cousins are not and may very often be chosen as preferential
marriage partners in small isolated Boreanesian villages. The result
is something called a bifurcate merging where one distinguishes
between relatives on one's mother's side of the family and those on
one's father's side (bifurcation), and lumps or merges father with
father's brother and mother with mother's sister. Accordingly,
father's brother's children and mother sister's children (parallel
cousins) are merged with brother and sister. This principle creates
a system that conforms to the Iroquois classificatory pattern of kin
terms. This is exemplified below (using the same symbols as the
earlier diagram):

   |             |               |               |             |
(H)-/G\       (D)-/C\  (D)------[*]------/C\  (D)-/C\       (H)-/G\
                        |        |        |
                     (L)-/K\  (J)-/I\  (L)-/K\

[*]= "EGO" (oneself)
  A = /?@paih/     E = /?@naih/     I = /s@wah/
  B = /?@maih/     F = /?@taih/     J = /l@wah/
  C = /p@jaNh/     G = /t@jaNh/     K = /s@pu@h/
  D = /m@jaNh/     H = /n@jaNh/     L = /l@pu@h/

A comparison between Boreanesian and English terms is provided
below, as per a male ego addressing a relative. (M = mother, F =
father, D = daughter, S = son, Z = sister, B = brother, W = wife,
and H = husband):

/?@paih/  F    Father
---"----  FB   Uncle
/?@taih/  MB   --"--
/p@jaNh/  B    Brother
---"----  FBS  Cousin
---"----  MZS  --"---
/t@jaNh/  FZS  --"---
---"----  MBS  --"---
---"----  WB   Brother-in-law
---"----  ZH   ------"-------
/s@wah/   S    Son
---"---   BS   Nephew
/s@pu@h/  ZS   --"---

Note that Boreanesians once practiced a system of village endogamous
cross cousin marriages. As a result, the cross-cousin terms /t@jaNh/
and /n@jaNh/ also means "husband" and "wife" respectively. For
instance, a man's term for his female cross-cousin, /n@jaNh/, is
also the term for "wife". The term for male cross-cousin, /t@jaNh/,
also denotes "brother-in-law", in both senses of the term, since
ego's wife's brother would normally have been married to ego's
sister. In a similar fashion women classifies male cross cousins and
husbands within one category and female cross cousins and
sisters-in-law within another.

The inspiration for this descent and kinship system comes from the
Yanomami Indians of Southern Venenzuela who also practice a system
of village endogamous cross cousin marriages. I took their village
endogamy with a moiety system resulting from this bilateral cross
cousin marriages, and then asked myself, "What if this were to be
applied to a larger society?" I removed the village endogamy and
voila! But I'm sure there are other cultures out there that have a
similar system to the Boreanesian. Moieties also occur in Papua New
Guinea for instance and I wouldn't be surprised to find out if there
was a dual-descent moiety system in PNG as well.

I hope I wasn't too far off-topic for a conlang post.

-kristian- 8-)