Our way of referring to or addressing our relatives does not help us to remember more distant relations. The system forms linguistic rings like the layers of an onion. In the innermost ring is our close family. We call people mother (mummy), father (daddy), brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They are our close relatives and we think of them as special. We cannot marry or have sex with them.
Then there are various other categories. Our parent’s sisters we call aunts, their brothers are uncles. Our aunts and uncles’ children we call cousins and our siblings (brothers and sisters) children we call nephews and nieces. There are elaborations like ‘first, second, third’ cousins – referring back up the generations, or ‘once or twice removed’, which refers to the level of generation.
To this system we have to add a few terms to fit in the non-blood relations created by marriage. A relationship created through marriage is called a relation in law, in other words an ‘in-law’. So our sister’s husband is our brother-in-law, our husband’s mother is our mother-in-law. If a marriage has occurred and then been disturbed by a re-marriage or divorce, we use the word ‘step’. I married your mother’s mother and so I am your step-grandfather. I am not related to you by blood, but through a step relationship. The wicked step-mother, who married a man after a child’s biological mother had died, is famous in fairy stories and legends because it is such a difficult relationship.
All of this, even if only half familiar, may seem natural to you, but it is in fact unusual. Normally the terms by which you refer to and address relatives are much more precise and elaborate, describing each separate relative by a special word. This helps people to know exactly whom they are trying to address when they have hundreds of relatives living nearby.
In a Nepalese village your father’s oldest brother is called ‘biggest father’, his younger brother ‘younger father’. Your mother’s brother is called by a special term. This mother’s brother is the most important relative of the senior generation apart from your parents. Your cousins are individually called by terms which sharply differentiate those whom you can marry, and those you cannot because they are thought of as close blood relatives.
Our systems of descent and the names we give our relatives have worked quite well since they were introduced by the Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century. However, in the last two generations there have been several major changes which have put great strains on this system..