The nature of kinship terms: From dad and mum to god and society

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Author: Jose Maanmieli

Abstract: Why do we call our parents mother and father? Why do we call ourselves these general words around children? These personal questions have not sufficiently drawn the attention of linguists and psychologists, yet any account of language and human cognition must be able to provide a good answer. Indeed, our minds have evolved and develop in a social setting that is primarily governed by norms of kinship. This article demonstrates how those norms encapsulate the relationship between language and reality, individual and society. I suggest that the use of kinship terms is characterised by a self-deceptive conflation of address and reference, which corresponds to a cognitive conflation of particular and universal meanings. This analysis requires a distinction between acts of address and reference that is consistent with a biological view of the individual. From this grounded perspective, I argue that 1) Mother and Father are elementary mythical characters, 2) myth has a basis in child-directed speech, and 3) child-directed speech is mainly a means to transmit societal norms, not so much a means to help children learn to speak or relate to others. I also discuss the conceptual issues in developmental linguistics that result from this lack of metalinguistic awareness, issues that go back to the beginnings of philosophy. Because nature is prior to nurture, and the concepts of parents and kin appear first in life, understanding the nature of these concepts elucidates central problems, from those of epistemology to the current questioning of gender and parenting roles.


Keywords: child-directed speech, evolutionary psychology, language socialisation, self-deception, definition of morality, origins of language, philosophy

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