Understanding Family Relations

South Africans sometimes find themselves confused when talking to each other about their family relationships. The number of terms for family members in the caucasian community pales in comparison to the intricate terminology used to describe the various relationships in the traditional African family. There are also instances in Zulu culture where people will refer to each other by family names, when they’re not related in any way, a sign perhaps of the strong sense of community experienced in traditional Zulu life.

Terms for the nuclear family don’t differ that much between the two, with umama being the word for mother, ubaba for father, udadewethu for sister, and umfowethu for brother. Undodakazi is how parents will refer to their daughter, and undodana their son. But these words can also be used by people unrelated to the family as a sign of hierarchy, with a young girl, for example, referring to an older man as ubaba, despite the fact that the two are unrelated by blood.

As in western culture the familial terms are adapted for in-laws, where for example a woman would refer to her husband’s mother as mamezala, but in addressing her directly she would use the name mama, not something that happens that frequently in English households. A man’s in-laws are umukhwe for his wife’s father, and umkhwekazi for her mother – an added layer on the English versions that don’t discriminate between the in-laws of the wife and husband.

The terms for brother and sister-in-laws, bhuti and aresisi respectively, seemed to have been adapted from other languages, and again aren’t that different to the western versions, but with the Zulu names for cousins we see differences starting to seep in again. A child of an English aunt or uncle is always a cousin, irrespective of which side of the family they’re linked to, whereas there are two terms for cousins in Zulu, mzala and gazi, with the latter term being used predominantly by cousins who are related through their mothers.

The terms for aunts and uncles are also far more convoluted than what the English are used to – a father’s brother is referred to as bab’omkhulu or bab’omncane, depending on whether he is older or younger than the father, but a father’s sister is called babekazi or anti (derived from the English, aunty) regardless of her age. The same applies to the maternal side with a mother’s sisters called mam’khulu or mam’ncane according to whether they are older or younger, with only one term for a maternal uncle, malume, regardless of age.

And the differences extend beyond names, to the importance of certain relationships over others. Matrilineal kin, for example, are considered vital and are expected to appear at important ceremonies involving a daughter or sister’s children. Where a woman has a child out of wedlock, the child is deemed to belong to the mother’s family.

So while family is family, regardless of race or ethnicity, there are cultural differences in South Africa that are definitely worth learning about, if only to make ourselves more easily understood.

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