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Relatively Speaking: Researchers Identify Principles That Shape Kinship Categories Across Languages

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Published on May 21, 2012

Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms -- grandmother and grandfather -- to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses four terms. Many possible kinship categories, however, are never observed. For example, no known language includes a term that can refer to a maternal grandmother or a paternal grandfather but not to other kinds of grandparents. These observations raise the question of why some kinship categories appear in the languages of the world but others do not.

A new study published in Science by Carnegie Mellon University's Charles Kemp and the University of California at Berkeley's Terry Regier shows that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication. The same principles can potentially be applied to other kinds of categories, such as colors and spatial relationships. Ultimately, then, the work may lead to a general theory of how different languages carve the world up into categories.

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