All in the Family – Aboriginal Kinship

The Aboriginal kinship system is one of the most complicated in the world. One of our favourite cultural awareness activities at Evolve is to play the ‘Skin Game’ where we place people into Skin groups and get them to find their relatives. The result is nothing short of amazing as participants walk away with better understanding of Aboriginal culture and deeper appreciation for how clever and smart our people are.

Before we start, people want to know things like, “What is the Aboriginal word for grandmother?” My first response is, “in which language?” (There are only about 120 or so to choose from).

My second response is, “Which one? Maternal grandmother or paternal grandmother?”

English speakers are stumped by this because they aren’t aware of this cultural distinction. People from an Italian or other European background or people who speak a language other than English are more attuned to this.

Like Italian, most Aboriginal languages have four sets of kinship terms for grandparents to indicate their relationship to one’s parents. In other words, whether the grandparent is on the mother or father’s side. (In Aboriginal English-speak, we refer to this commonality as ‘same same’ or ‘same kind’).

For example, in Bardi the maternal grandmother (on Mother’s side) is Garminy whereas the paternal grandmother (on Father’s side) is Golli. By the same token the maternal grandfather (on Mother’s side) is Nyumi and the paternal grandfather (on Father’s side) is Galoonoordoo or Gooloo for short! Some people have suggested that the Australian tendency to shorten English words like ‘arvo’ for afternoon or ‘brekky’ for breakfast is because of our influence. (Don’t even get me started on the Australian accent!)

The other amazing fact about Aboriginal languages is that there are additional words for certain relationships that have no equivalent words to describe them in English.

So although English has terms for in-laws such as father-in-law, daughter-in-law and so on, other relationships go unrecognised. For example, if Joe is Mike’s brother-in-law because Joe marries Mike’s sister Mary, what is the relationship between Mike and Joe’s wife Sue? While there may be some acknowledgement at family gatherings and the like, there is no actual kinship term to describe this relationship unlike in Aboriginal languages.

In English, there is a focus on the nuclear family and close-knit relationships whereas in Aboriginal culture, kinship is extended to what are called ‘classificatory’ relationships. Not surprisingly therefore, our kinship terms are all-embracing and more numerous.

While there are no outsiders or ‘orphans’ in Aboriginal culture, nonetheless there is special recognition of a child who has lost their mother as opposed to a child that has lost their father. For example, in the Dyirbal language of northern Queensland, wulunggulaa describes the former and dungun describes the latter.

There are even words to describe people that share the same name! For example, back home we refer to each other as goombarli. This is because everything in the Aboriginal universe is all about relationships to one another and the world in which we live.

These and other interesting facts about Aboriginal languages are presented in Munya’s new book, Can you speak Googaburra? which will be published soon.


(c) Evolve Communities, 2020

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