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Yet another view of Trobriand kinship categories, from optimality to conceptual structure

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In “Another view of Trobriand kin categories,” Lounsbury analyzes Trobriand kin terms by providing a core genealogical definition for each term, and then showing how a set of reduction rules make it possible to supply terms for more distant relatives. This article revisits Lounsbury’s analysis in the light of recent advances in linguistics and cognitive science. We show that Trobriand kin terms express a conventionalized tradeoff between expressing relevant information and avoiding marked forms. Formally, we follow Optimality Theory in developing a constraint-based approach, an alternative to Lounsbury’s derivational approach, in which reduction rules are not just stipulated but derived. Kin terms are polysemous, with core and extended senses: a collection of markedness scales and a ranked set of distinctive features (1) marshal core referents of kin terms, and (2) select optimal, best-fit terms for kin types outside the core. Apart from its formal merits, this approach clarifies the connection between the Trobrianders’ Crow-type kin terminology and their matrilineal institutions. It may also have implications for the “the Crow-Omaha problem” – the relationship between skewed and unskewed cross-parallel distinctions. Finally, the organization of kin terms may provide a window onto an evolved domain of conceptual structure: our discussion concludes with some thoughts on the relationship between kinship, genealogy, and biological relatedness.

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