Kinship refers to how people relate to one another as a family. In keeping with their focus on taxonomy, literate people often think of kinship principally in terms of genealogy. In keeping with their own focus, oral people like the people of the Fifth World often see kinship more in terms of relationship.
Families in different regions do not necessarily reckon kinship in the same way. Anthropologists know of seven different kinship systems.
- Sudanese Kin Terms: In this system, the family uses a different word for each possible relationship (father's brother, father's sister, father's brother's son, father's brother's daughter, and so on). This system generally correlates with societies that have marked class differences. Since those societies have gone extinct in the Fifth World, Sudanese kin terms have become less common.
- Hawaiian Kin Terms: In this system, the family's language only differentiates between generation and gender. A single word may refer to any brother, sister, or cousin, while another word refers to your mother or any of your aunts, and a third refers to your father or any of your uncles. Families that use Hawaiian kin terms may still distinguish between parents and aunts and uncles in behavior, even though they make no linguistic distinction. Hawaiian kin terms often appear alongside ambilineal descent systems, whereby an individual may choose at one point or another to belong to either her father's family or her mother's family.
- Eskimo Kin Terms: This system makes distinctions about the distance of a relationship. English uses this system, giving unique names to relatives in the immediate family (e.g., mother, father, sister, brother), but collapsing distinctions as it moves further away (e.g., cousin). This system works well in societies that emphasize the nuclear family — a point that hunter-gatherers have in common with some industrialized societies. The spread of English in the past means that many families in North America in particular speak languages derived from it, which includes the use of the Eskimo system.
- Iroquois Kin Terms: Families that observe unilineal descent (whereby a child descends from her mother's family or her father's family, but not both) often use this system. It distinguishes by generation and whether or not someone belongs to the same descent group. So, for example, this system provides one word for mother and mother's sister, one word for father and father's brother, and one word for brother, sister, mother's sister's child, and father's brother's child. Other relatives, like your father's sister's child (which would fall into a different descent group) have different names.
- Omaha Kin Terms: This system operates like the Iroquois system for the most part, but adds patrilineal skewing. These families extend the word for father or father's brother to also include your father's sister's son. This emphasizes patrilineal descent.
- Crow Kin Terms: This system operates like the Omaha system, but with matrilineal skewing instead of patrilineal skewing. It extends the word for mother or mother's sister to also include your mother's sister's daughter. As the Omaha system emphasizes patrilineal descent, this system emphasizes matrilineal descent.
- Dravidian Kin Terms: This system resembles the Iroquoian system (and, in fact, anthropologists failed to distinguish the differences between them for a long time). It draws a distinction between relationships that involve an odd number of gender links from those that involve an even number. For example your mother’s father’s brother’s daughter’s child involves two women, making it even, and so the term differs from that for your mother's mother's brother’s daughter’s child, which involves three women, making it odd.