The nature of kinship

From dad and mum to god and society

– Kin terms appear to be a language universal
– They are transmitted through child-directed speech
– They conflate natural concepts and social concepts in our minds
– They are the moral essence of human cultural evolution

Author: Jose Maanmieli

Abstract: Why do we call our parents mother and father? Why do we call ourselves these general words as parents? 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. It suggests that the use of kin terms is characterised by a conflation of address and reference that corresponds to a cognitive conflation of social and natural concepts. This analysis rests on a biological view of language, morality and human sociality. From this grounded perspective, I integrate findings across the behavioural sciences. I argue that myth has a basis in child-directed speech, and that child-directed speech is a means of socialisation, not so much a means to help children learn to speak or relate to others. I also discuss the theoretical issues 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 the origin of societies to the current questioning of gender and parenting roles.

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


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