The Evolution of Dravidian Kinship Systems in Oceania: Linguistic Evidence

By Hage, Per | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Dravidian Kinship Systems in Oceania: Linguistic Evidence


Hage, Per, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


In Allen's world-historical theory of kinship, humanity began with a tetradic-Dravidian system based on cross-cousin marriage and defined by alternate generation, prescriptive, and classificatory equations. In the course of time the dominant trend has been towards the irreversible breakdown of these equations in just this order. Comparative linguistic evidence is obviously crucial for an evaluation of Allen's theory and for similar grand theories of irreversible change in kinship systems. This article presents some linguistic evidence from Oceania, a part of the world not covered in the recent symposium on transformations of kinship systems (Godelier, Trautmann & Tjon Sie Fat 1998).The Polynesian evidence shows, consistent with Allen's theory, that leftward movements towards the Dravidian pole are unusual and can be explained as substratum effects. But the broader Oceanic evidence shows, contrary to Allen's theory, that endogenous developments of Dravidian systems, although they may be improbable, are indeed possible.

Grand theories of the evolution of human kinship systems usually take as their starting-point a Dravidian-like system based on cross-cousin marriage as in the transition from elementary to complex (Levi-Strauss 1969), prescriptive to non-prescriptive (Needham 1967), and tetradic to non-tetradic systems (Allen 1986; 1989; 1998). In Allen's world-historical theory; humanity began with a tetradic-Dravidian system based on cross-cousin marriage and defined by alternate generation, prescriptive, and classificatory equations. In the course of time the dominant trend has been towards the irreversible breakdown of these equations in just this order. Allen's arguments in support of his theory are semantic and historical. Semantically, it is implausible that the introduction of a rule of cross-cousin marriage could generate the entire pattern of equations and discriminations of a Dravidian or tetradic system. Historically, the available documentary and linguistic evidence reveals 'rightward' shifts away from Dravidian as in the Burmese (Spiro 1977), Chinese (Benedict 1942; Feng 1937), Mon-Khmer (Parkin 1988), Nasupo (Kryukov 1998), and Algonquian systems (Hockett 1964; Wheeler 1982), but not 'leftward' shifts towards Dravidian. [1] Apparent exceptions can be accounted for as substratum effects as in the case of Sinhalese outliers in Sri Lanka, Indo-Aryan-speaking communities that adopted the Dravidian kinship systems of earlier inhabitants (Trautmann 1981). Kryukov (1998: 312), whose theory begins with a bifurcate merging Dravidian system, compares the evolution of kinship systems to linguistic drift: 'changes in kinship, determined by the underlying development of social structure, have an overall direction, just as, according to Edward Sapir (1921: 150, 155) "language moves down time in a current of its own making. It has a drift . . .". The linguistic drift has a direction.' According to Kryukov, 'no evidence of Dravidian having been formed as a result of the transformation of a system of any other type has been found s o far'. Parkin (1997), in his recent text on kinship, comes to the same con- clusion as Allen and Kryukov. He adds that the widely separated world distribution of Dravidianate ('two-line symmetric') systems argues against their diffusion and convergence and in favour of their historical priority. An apparent counter-example is given by Guermonprez (1998), who attempts to show that the prescriptive Central Malayo-Polynesian terminologies developed from a cognatic system, but his analysis is purely typological in nature.

Comparative linguistic evidence is obviously crucial for an evaluation of Allen's theory and for similar theories of irreversibility in the evolution of kinship systems. Here, I present some linguistic evidence from Oceania, a part of the world not covered in the recent symposium on transformations of kinship systems (Godelier, Trautmann & Tjon Sie Fat 1998). …

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