Back to ‘mother’ and ‘father’: Overcoming the Eurocentrism of kinship studies through eight lexical universals

Anna Wierzbicka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


This paper addresses one of the most controversial issues in cultural anthropology: the conceptual foundations of kinship and the apparent inevitability of ethnocentrism in kinship studies. The field of kinship studies has been in turmoil over the past few decades, repeatedly pronounced dead and then again rising from the ashes and being declared central to human affairs. As this paper argues, the conceptual confusion surrounding ‘kinship’ is to a large extent due to the lack of a clear and rigorous methodology for discovering how speakers of the world’s different languages actually navigate their kinship systems. Building on the author’s earlier work on kinship but taking the analysis much further, this paper seeks to demonstrate that such a methodology can be found in natural semantic metalanguage theory (developed by the author and colleagues), which relies on 65 universal semantic primes and on a small number of universal “semantic molecules,” including ‘mother’ and ‘father’. The paper offers a new model for the interpretation of kinship terminologies and opens new perspectives for the investigation of kinship systems across languages and cultures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)408-429
Number of pages22
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.


We apologise to all our colleagues whose work could not be cited due to space restraints. T.A.M.B. is a recipient of a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship, jointly funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society ( 202231/Z/16/Z ). T.A.M.B would like to thank the Vallee Research Foundation , Action Medical Research Charity for Children (grant GN2634 ), the Cystic Fibrosis trust and the John Fell Fund for support. J.B. is supported by a Medical Research Council graduate studentship. The authors would like to thank Dr. Charlotte Melia for critically reading the manuscript.

FundersFunder number
Action Medical Research Charity for ChildrenGN2634
Vallee Research Foundation
Wellcome Trust
Medical Research Council
Royal Society202231/Z/16/Z
Cystic Fibrosis Trust
John Fell Fund, University of Oxford


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