Igbo Kin Terms

The analysis of Igbo kin terms presents several complications, as they do not easily conform to a standard pattern. They partially exemplify an Omaha system insofar as they involve the application of a skewing rule that identifies members of a personís motherís partilineage as a special category. However two other principles are at work: a strong emphasis on generational and seniority distinctions that reflects a Hawaiian system and a distinction between basic descent lines that is peculiar to the Igbo terminology. In spite of its complexity, the Igbo system provides an interesting basis for an understanding of how kin terms reflect and reveal basic principles of social organization.

The basic feature of the Igbo system (Ardener 1954) that is the most readily apparent is the Hawaiian generational pattern in which all of Egoís relatives of the same generation are placed into a single category.

Igbo Kinship Terms

Referring to his parentís generation, he uses essentially the same term nna for his father, fatherís brother, and motherís brother, and similarly classifies his mother, motherís sister and fatherís sister as nne. (The terms nna/nne ukwu are basically variants on the nna/nne theme and can be glossed as  ďbig father/motherĒ, thus implying seniority.) The seniority principle is also applied to younger siblings of Egoís parents who are actually given brother/sister terms that tend to emphasize similarities and differences in chronological age. This reflects a basic emphasis in Igbo social organization that is incorporated into a formal system of age sets and age grades that we will investigate in a later module. The generational principle is also apparent in Egoís own generation where alternative forms of the basic sibling terms, nwa nna/nwa nne (fatherís child/motherís child) are applied to a wide range of relatives. Broad generational identification is further apparent in Egoís childrenís generation in the application of the nwa (child) term. Seniority is marked in the special terms for Egoís oldest son (okpara) and daughter (ada). These designation mark special age based statuses. The okpara is Egoís main heir, and both he and the ada perform  leadership functions within the immediate family and the wider descent group.

A second look at the terms applied in Egoís own generation indicates the significance of two other factors (polygamy and complementary filiation), which in
combination create a delineation and contrast of three major descent groups:

  1. the children born of a single mother, the umunne, literally motherís children;
  2. Egoís patrilineage, his umunna (fatherís children); and
  3. Egoís motherís patrilineage, his umune (this term cannot be reduced to components).
  4. Igbo Terms According to Patrilineal Descent

    The umunne, indicated in yellow, includes Ego and his full brothers and sisters (individually references as nwa nne), who, as children of a single mother, form a special domestic and social subunit within the larger patrilineal family. They also comprised the core of an actual or potential patrilineal segment that will assume increasing importance over time as membership grows on the basis of patrilineal descent. (Note that inclusion in this unit is extended only to the children of its male members).

    The umunna, indicate in blue, includes Ego's half brothers and sisters (individually referenced asnwa nna) who are born to Egoís fatherís wives other than his mother. He is less close to them than to his full siblings, and interacts with them in terms of inclusion with a broader patrilineal group that also incorporates a large group of relatives descended from an ancestor several generations removed.

    The umune, indicated in red, comprises the relatives of Egoís motherís patrilineage, with whom, as we have noted in the previous unit, he has an extremely special relationship involving joking, indulgence, and even protection from punishment within his own patrilineage. This pattern is partially marked in the terminology by the extension of the more intimate nwa nne sibling term to cousins in this group. However, the group is also distinguished from Egoís more immediate maternal group, the umunne, in two ways. Firstly, in spite of the fact that Ego uses several terms to mark different relatives within his motherís patrilineage, they use only a single term for him, okele. (You can observe this usage in the application of this term to all of the children of the women in Egoís own patrilineage, i.e., his sistersí and daughtersí children for whom he is an umune member.)  Secondly, the head of his motherís patrilineal receives a special term, nna oce, which originally marks his motherís father, but which eventually passes on down the lineage to Egoís motherís brother, and then motherís brotherís son, after their deaths in much the same way as the agya (father) term is inherited the Crow based matrilineal Akan system.

    Igbo Terms, Skewing Rule

    Both the succession of the nna oce status and the corresponding use of the okele term reflect the application of the Omaha skewing rule to accomplish its main
    purpose, to identify the members of a personís motherís patrilineal group. A third relevant term, nne oce, has a somewhat more complex dynamic. It is originally applied to Ego's mother's mother. It follows a succession rule from the original relative to the wives of subsequent nna oce, i.e. from mother-in-law to daughter -in-law, and not through patrilineally related women, the more usual pattern in a Omaha system. This peculiarity makes some sense in terms of the Igbo territorial system. Since the rule of village exogamy specifies that all the umune's women must move to other villages upon marriage, the many block of women resident in the groups territory, and who are actually or potentially nna oce, have married in and are related within it as affines.

    Insofar as it is basicallly an Omaha system, the Igbo terms indicate similarities to Dani kin terms. Note especially the similarities between the nna oce term, as it descends over time, and the Dani equivalent, ami, and the strict equivalence between okele in Igbo and ejak in Dani. Of course the Dani use of a single term, akoja, for women in mother's lineage is not followed in the Igbo system.

    Brian Schwimmer
    University of Manitoba
    Created: April 2002