Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 7. Words Derived from the Terms for Kinship


Greek here offers a group of new designations—huiōnós ‘grandson’, páppos ‘grandfather’, adelphidoûs ‘nephew’—which, with adelphós supplanting phrátēr, are evidence for the passage from a system of classificatory kinship to a descriptive one.
Latin has three adjectives derived from pater. Only one is Indo-European: this is patrius, which, in fact, goes back to *pǝter in its most ancient “classificatory” sense (patria potestas); we know that there was not, and could not have been, a corresponding *matrius. On the other hand, paternus corresponds to maternus, and both terms are on the same personal level: amicus paternus is the “friend of my father.” As for patricius, it exhibits the characteristic Latin suffix of derivatives denoting official functions (cf. tribunicius, etc.) and is thus attached not to pater, but to patres ‘the Senate’. In Greek, the opposition of pátrios on the one hand and patrṓïos (Homer, Herodotus)/patrikós (Attic) on the other, corresponds exactly to the Latin opposition patrius : paternus—and betrays the same evolution of the notion of “father.” (The form mētrṓïos, derived from mḗtrōs ‘maternal uncle’ and not directly from mḗtēr, preserves the memory of the ancient role of the mother’s brother).


A complete history of Indo-European kinship must consider not only the attested terms, but also the less direct pointers, which are sometimes just as instructive, like those provided by the derivatives of certain words for kinship.
In the list given above (Book Two, Chapter Three) of the words for “grandson,” we have pointed out, without going into detail, that Greek has, in opposition to *nepōt, a new derivative huiōnós (υἱωνός), which does not correspond to any of the terms employed elsewhere. A derivative of huiós ‘son’, the term huiōnós is used by Homer and does not show any variations of sense. A derivative like this poses an a priori question. This secondary formation in –ōno– (-ωνο-) occurs in few examples and these are obscure words. It is difficult to see why this suffix, which seems quite unmotivated here, was used to form a derivative from huiós.
There are, however, two or three terms, the formation of which may enlighten us to some extent: principally oiōnós (οἰωνός) and korṓnē (κορώνη), two names of birds. Oiōnós, probably related to Latin avis, is the name of a bird of prey, the great bird whose flight was regarded as an omen. Korṓnē ‘crow’, compared to Latin corvus ‘raven’, shows the same formation. We may here add khelṓnē (χελώνη) ‘tortoise’, a doublet of khélus (χέλυς).
From these two, or perhaps three, examples we may conclude that the suffix –ōnos produced a doublet with an augmentative force from the basic noun. At first sight, one would, on the contrary, attribute rather a diminutive value to huiōnós. But the apparent contrast is due to the fact that the French generalize, quite unjustifiably, the notion familiar to us of petitfils (‘grandson’). There would be just as good a reason to say grandfils. The designation by means of the qualifications grand and petit is traditional in French, but arbitrary. The English equivalent of petitfils in French is “grandson,” like “grandfather,” both being one degree further removed from EGO than his son and father. We should probably give a similar interpretation to huiōnós. In this way we could reconcile the sense of huiōnós with other words of the same formation. Besides, there is a separate term for “grandson” which is used in Attic, while huiōnós is rather Ionic. This is huidoûs (υἱδοῦς) (Plato, Xenophon), “son’s son,” coined after the model of adelphidoûs (ἀδελφιδοῦς) ‘brother’s son’.
Here we have an important fact: a new term for “grandson” in Greek. It is conditioned by the transformation of the general structure which took place in Greek.
If we consider the Greek system as a whole, one of the most notable changes is the appearance of a new term to designate “brother”: phrátēr, which had a classificatory value, was replaced by adelphós (see above, Book Two, Chapter One). At the same time, the Indo-European term *awos ‘grandfather’ was eliminated: this archaic term was furthermore connected, via a derived form, with the word for “maternal uncle.” Neither has left any trace in Greek. Correlatively, the word for “grandson” disappeared. Just as *awos had a double value and represented two relationships which are differently situated according to the patrilineal or matrilineal point of view, so the term *nepōt, which was its counterpart, oscillated between the sense of “nephew” (sister’s son) and that of “grandson” (son’s son).
The Greek system marks the transition from one type of designation to the other: all the terms of kinship tend to be fixed with a single signification and are exclusively descriptive. This is why the word for “brother” was replaced by a term meaning “co-uterine.” This explains the variety of the terms for “grandfather”: we have either an analytical phrase, like “the father of my father” (Il. 14, 118), “the father of the mother” (Odyssey 24, 334), or descriptive compounds like mētropátōr (μητροπάτωρ), patropátōr (πατροπάτωρ) (Homer, Pindar), or simply páppos (πάππος), a term of familiar and affectionate address for the grandfather without distinction of paternal or maternal descent. In the same way, the word for “nephew,” adelphidoûs, and for “niece,” adelphidḗ, was based on the term for “brother.” But in this new terminology, “nephew” and “grandson” constitute two distinct relationships; and just as the term for “nephew” was refashioned into “son of the brother,” adelphidoûs, similarly that for the “grandson” became “son of the son,” huidoûs. It was the elimination of the ancient term for “grandfather” and “grandson” on the one hand and of “brother” and “sister” on the other which brought about the innovations in Greek terminology.
We thus see that despite the archaic nature of the terms for the wife’s relations, the Greek vocabulary presents a recent system. Recourse to descriptive terms became necessary from the moment when classificatory kinship was abandoned.
By contrast, the Latin vocabulary reveals its great antiquity; in Roman society kinship is dominated by the preponderance of the father, which gives it its “patriarchal” character. The vocabulary has remained very stable; the form itself of the Latin terms also offers evidence of a more ancient state of affairs than that of Greek. This conservative character of Latin is also marked by the morphology as well as the vocabulary. Certainly, here as in other fields, Latin has constructed a new system with the use of archaic elements. But if we take the Latin system to pieces, we find without difficulty the elements of a much older system, which they help to reconstruct.
If we now examine the derivatives from the word for “father,” we find one which exists in several languages in the same form and which therefore can be attributed to the common period of Indo-European: this is the adjective patrius, Skt. pitrya-. Gr. pátrios (πάτριος).
We have already pointed out that there is a corresponding adjective derived from the word for “mother.” This difference is explained by the respective position of the father and mother. An adjective indicating what belongs to the father, what pertains to him, is justified by the fact that in society, the “father” alone can possess anything. The ancient laws of India say so explicitly: the mother, the spouse, the slave possess nothing. All that they hold belongs to the master, to whom they themselves belong. Such is the constant situation of the man and the woman respectively; in the light of this we can understand why *matrius is missing everywhere.
However, there is in Latin a specific adjective derived from the word for “mother”: maternus. The form maternus is instructive in itself. Attested from the most ancient texts on, and deriving phonetically from *māterinus, it is characterized by a suffix in –ino-, which has a precise usage in Indo-European and Latin; it indicates the material, Gr. phḗginos ‘of the beech’, derived from phēgós; láïnos ‘of stone’, from lȃas; anthinós, ‘of the flower’, from ánthos; Lithuanian auksinas ‘of gold’, from auksas ‘gold’; in Latin, eburnus ‘of ivory’, from ebur, etc.
From the beginning, maternus made a pair with patrius, which resulted in uses like: non patrio sed materno nomine (‘not in the father’s but in the mother’s name’). The disparity of the formation prompted an analogical creation, and at an early date a new adjective paternus was made on the model of maternus. In the course of history, paternus coexisted at first with patrius; later, it gained territory and ended up by supplanting it: it alone survived in the Romance languages. [1]
We may ask whether analogy was the sole reason for the triumph of paternus for, as Wackernagel observes, paternus was exclusively employed from the beginning in certain combinations: in particular, as an epithet of certain words, such as amicus, hospes, servus; patrius is never found in these cases. The reason for this usage is difficult to see, adds Wackernagel without any further explanation. We now observe that by a parallel process, to which we shall come back, Greek employs a new derivative, patrikós (πατρικός) which is also used exclusively with terms like “friend,” “companion,” etc. These combinations must have been the determining cause; we must only discover how and why.
From the moment when the inherited patrius and the analogical form paternus were used simultaneously, they tended to be distinguished to a certain extent. Patrius was employed exclusively in set expressions such as patria potestas; paternus is never found in these cases. But we have exclusively paternus amicus. The patria potestas is the power attaching to the father in general, which he possesses in his role as father. But the relationship is of a quite different nature in amicus paternus, where it means “my father’s friend.” In fact, paternus used with hospes, amicus, servus indicates a personal connection from man to man and refers to the father of a given individual. This difference between patrius and paternus may thus be defined as that between a generic adjective and a specific adjective. For instance, in Livy: odisse plebem plus quam paterno odio (II, 58, 5) ‘he hated the plebs more than his own father did’.
We see here the reason for the creation of paternus. If paternus was modeled on maternus, it is because Indo-European *patrios refers not to the physical father, but to the father in the classificatory kinship, to the *pǝter invoked as dyauṣpitā or Iupiter. Maternus, on the other hand, indicates a relationship of a physical kind: it means literally, according to its suffix, “of the same material as the mother.” If patrius was given a doublet paternus on the model of maternus, this was to specify a relationship to the physical father, the personal ancestor of the speaker or the person spoken about.
We even have in Latin, apart from patrius and paternus, a third adjective derived from the word for father: patricius ‘patrician’, that is, a man descended from noble and free fathers. The formation in –icius, peculiar to Latin, forms adjectives taken from words for official functions: aedilicius, tribunicius, praetoricius.
Thus each adjective refers to a different notion: patrius is classificatory and conceptual, paternus is descriptive and personal, and patricius refers to the social hierarchy.
In Greek the adjectives “maternal” and “paternal” have a curious formation: mētrōîos (μητρῷος) and patrōîos (πατρῷος). Over and above its use as an independent word, we find patrōîos in the compound patroûkhos (πατροῦχος) from patrōiookhos (παρτωιο-οχος); it designates the “heiress” who, in her legal status, is called epíklēros (ἐπίκληρος). If the daughter happens to be the sole descendant, since according to Greek law she cannot inherit, her status is described by a number of juridical terms, which are enumerated in the Law of Gortyn, to secure that the inheritance remains in the family: patroûkhos literally signifies “who possesses the paternal fortune.”
In the article by Wackernagel already mentioned, he makes the observation that mētrōîos ‘maternal’ is not derived from mḗtēr ‘mother’, but from mḗtrōs ‘mother’s brother’. On the model of mḗtrōs, which produced the adjective mētrōîos, patrōîos was coined from pátrōs, ‘father’s brother’. Wackernagel did not elaborate any further on his remark. It is, however, strange that the adjective “maternal” in Greek should literally signify not “of the mother” but “of the mother’s relation”; this was not the most natural expression of this notion, and it would be wise to check the use of the word. Homer only has mētrṓïos once (the reason being that the Homeric poems are more interested in the father than the mother), but the example is instructive. Autolycus addresses his daughter and son-in-law and says of their new-born child, who has just been named Odysseus: ὁππότ’ ἂν ἡβήσας μητρώϊον ἐς μέγα δώμα ἔλθῃ (Od. 19, 410) ‘when he is grown up and comes into the great house of his mother’. From Autolycus’ point of view the “house of the mother” is necessarily the house of her mother’s brother and father, that of her original family. Such a use of mētrṓïos explains the reference to mḗtrōs as “relative on the mother’s side,” when the adjective is connected with what belongs to the mother, which in fact is what belongs to her own relations.
We must now see how patrṓïos, which is abundantly represented in Homer, is used alongside pátrios, which is not Homeric, but nevertheless ancient. The Homeric use of patrṓïos well illustrates its specific value. We find it in expressions such as: skḗptron patrṓïon (Il. 2, 46, etc.), témenos patrṓïon (Il. 20, 391), qualifying a scepter, an estate; with mê̄la, the flocks of sheep (Od. 12, 136); finally and frequently, with “guests” xeînoi patrṓïoi (Il. 6, 231 etc.) and “companions,” hetaîroi patrṓïoi (Od. 2, 254, etc.). That is to say, on the one hand, with words for objects which are possessions (skḗptron, témenos, mê̄la), on the other with words indicating social relations. Particularly instructive is patrṓïon ménos (Il. 5, 125), which in its context signifies “the warrior ardor of your father.” In Herodotus pátrios and patrṓïos coexist: pátrioi theoi (I, 172), nómoi (II, 79, cf. Thucydides IV, 118), thesmoí (III, 31), but patrṓïa khrḗmata (I, 92), patrṓïoi doûloi (II, 1), etc. We see that the difference exactly parallels that which exists in Latin between patrius and paternus. The qualification pátrios signifies “from the fathers, ancestral,” and is applied to the ancestral gods, to the laws which were accepted for all times by the ancestors. But patrṓïos is what belongs to the personal father: wealth, slaves. By an inevitable extension, but this only occasionally, patrṓïos is sometimes also applied to a person of an earlier generation than the father: but it is always a personal ancestor, as in Herodotus’ patrṓïos táphos (II, 136; IV, 127) ‘family tomb’.
The third adjective, patrikós (πατρικός) is an Attic creation which historically replaced patrṓïos, an Ionic and poetical term. In fact, phílos patrikós (exactly like amicus paternus), xénos patrikós, hetaîros patrikós signify “friend (companion, guest) of my father.”
To sum up, the adjectival couples Lat. paternus/maternus, Gr. patrṓïos/mētrṓïos have a complex history; the two terms were not symmetrical and could not be. In Latin, the older one, maternus, implies physical, material relationship to the mother; the masculine paternus was created to differentiate the legal pater from the personal pater. In Greek, mētrṓïos ‘maternal’ was coined from mḗtrōs ‘the mother’s brother’, because what belongs to the mother is not a possession, but a relationship; on the mother’s side, the maternal uncle is the most important relative. It is interesting to establish thus a close connection between a derivational relationship and a characteristic form of kinship.
It seems, therefore, that patrius refers only to kinship of a classificatory type. When the notion of personal kinship came to prevail, it was necessary to characterize it by new adjectives, but these have been produced independently in each separate language and so there is not exact correspondence. Parallel with this, the formation of the adjective mētrṓïos reveals indirectly the importance of the maternal uncle. The detailed study of the history of these derivatives thus confirms some of the conclusions dictated by the terms themselves.
These terms are very instructive both because of their interrelations and their etymological meaning. The vocabulary of Indo-European kinship testifies to several successive stages and reflects to a great extent the change which Indo-European society underwent.
This society was certainly, as has always been stated, of a patriarchal type. But here, like in so many other parts of the world, different pointers reveal a superposition of systems, especially the survival of a type of kinship in which the maternal uncle was predominant.
The historical facts indicate a compromise between these two types of kinship: the patrilineal system indubitably predominated at an early date. But there remain clear traces of the role which devolved on the maternal uncle. The relationship of the sister’s son to the mother’s brother coexists in several societies with patrilineal line of descent.
On the level of terminology pure and simple, we must distinguish two series of terms: the one classificatory and the other descriptive.
Where the common Indo-European state of affairs has been preserved, it is characterized by terms of classificatory kinship, which tend to be eliminated in favor of descriptive terms. Depending on the society concerned, this transformation was more or less rapid and complete. The vocabulary offers us proof of this, particularly in Greek. The Greek situation is complex because, on the one hand, it has preserved archaic terms such as dāḗr ‘brother of the husband’ or gálōs ‘sister of the husband’; on the other hand, it manifests the passage from one type of designation to another by the coexistence of the two different words for “brother,” phrátēr and adelphós. In one and the same terminology, the Indo-European heritage and Greek innovations overlap, thus testifying to a transformation which culminated in terms of a descriptive type.
However, we must guard against trying to establish too-precise correlations between the changes which happened in the society and those which appear in the terminology, or, conversely, between the stability of the vocabulary and that of the society. It is not possible to conclude directly, nor in all cases, that a new term implies an innovation in an institution, or that preservation of the terminology indicates constancy in kinship relations. Three considerations must be borne in mind: (1) The word for kinship may continue to exist even when the etymological sense which determined its original structural place, has been lost: thus avunculus, now separated from avus, continues in Fr. oncle, Engl. uncle; (2) the ancient word may be replaced by a more transparent term without a change in the position of what it designates: Old French avelet has been replaced by petitfils ‘grandson’, or, in our own days, bru has ceded its place to bellefille ‘daughter-in-law’; (3) the change may be due to some local cause which often eludes us; this is the case with a number of kinship terms in Armenian, which have no known correspondents. They are attributed to a “substrate language” which was spoken by the ancient peoples who later adopted an Indo-European language. The hypothesis is plausible in itself although up to the present it is incapable of proof. In the past history of languages this factor was probably responsible for many alterations and innovations. This is not surprising.
What is surprising is that, despite so many vicissitudes and after the passage of so many centuries of independent life, the Indo-European languages have preserved a vocabulary of kinship which, by itself alone, would suffice to demonstrate their genetic unity and which has retained to our own days the mark of its origins.


[ back ] 1. This history, with some judicious remarks on the derivation of kinship terms, has been the subject of an article by Wackernagel in the Festgabe Kaegi, 1916, pp. 40ff., reproduced in his Kleine Schriften, I, 468ff.