Unit 8 Families

Section 1

The basic terminology of family relationships has changed very little since Anglo-Saxon times. You should be able to recognise many of the Old English words in this section as ancestors of the words we use today. Where the words differ, there are several possible explanations: the nature of Old English vocabulary, the nature of society at the time, or later changes in language structure and history. (See Unit 4, Vocabulary.)

Q1a. Using the Modern English word search, look up the word ‘parent’ and read down through ‘father’ and ‘mother’. What words do you recognise as the ancestors of Modern English words? Answer Q1

Many of the words you may not have recognised contain the element ‘cenn’. These words are related by sharing a common root element, as are Mod. E. words such as table, tablecloth, timetable, etc. A knowledge of the roots or etymology of words can sometimes help to explain their meaning.

Q2. Go to the Old English word search, Wildcard search, Beginning of word, and enter ‘cenn’. Does the list of headings enable you to work out what this element means? Answer Q2

Almost as basic as mother and father are other words for people in the close family group, such as son/daughter and brother/sister. Here too we might expect little change between OE and Mod. E.

Q3a. Go back to the Modern English word search and look up ‘son’ and ‘daughter’, choosing the headings ‘A son’ and ‘A daughter’. What are the ancestors of the Modern English words? Can you deduce anything from the lists of headings? Answer Q3a

Q3b. Now look up ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Find the ancestor words and compare the two sets of headings. Answer Q3b

Many Mod. E. words are formed in the same way as OE words, although the spelling may be different. The OE suffixleas becomes Mod. E. –less, as in broþer + leas > brother + less.
Likewise OE –lic gives us Mod. E –ly, as in broþer +lic > brother +ly.

Q4. Go to the Old English word search, Wildcard search, End of word, and enter leas. Scroll down and find OE words meaning ‘childless’, ‘friendless’, ‘fatherless’, ‘motherless’. (You could try a similar search for –lic, but you would get 1546 hits and it might take some time!) Answer Q4

OE kinship terms often distinguish relatives, such as aunts and uncles, on the mother’s side of the family from those on the father’s side. This reflects the fact that the two groups had different roles in society. For example, when she got married a woman became part of her husband’s family. If anything happened to him, his brothers or other relatives were usually responsible for the welfare of the children. We no longer make such a distinction in Mod. E. since the difference between maternal and paternal kinsfolk is not socially important.

Q5a. Look up ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ in the Mod. E. word search. What evidence do you find to support the statement above about these relationships in OE? Answer Q5a

Just as a child distinguished between aunts and uncles, so the aunts and uncles had words to describe their nephews and nieces more precisely than we do today.

Q5b. Look up ‘child’ in the Mod. E. search and choose ‘child of brother/sister’. Find four words which indicate the child’s parentage. You may notice that the set does not seem to be complete. From your knowledge of OE compounds, can you suggest two more words which might be added to it? Answer Q5b

Although we may talk confidently about what words meant in Old English, it is often difficult to be sure. For a historical language there are obviously no speakers to consult and we have to rely on written evidence. Many OE words are rare, which makes it difficult to establish their meanings. The surviving OE vocabulary was much smaller than that of Mod. E. The compound words we have been looking at have very precise meanings, but other words carry a broader range of meaning than we expect nowadays.

Q6. Go to the Old English word search, without length marks. Type in the word nift and note its possible meanings. Then look up nefa, genefa and (ge)nefa in the OE search. These are all forms of the same word, the ancestor of Modern English nephew, but had quite a variety of meanings in Old English. Answer Q6

You may have noticed that the terms ‘maternal’ and ‘paternal’ are used in the headings in this section. These words come from Latin, not OE. The OE equivalents would be ‘fatherly’ and ‘motherly’. There are similar pairs in fraternal/brotherly and sororal/sisterly. In Mod. E. we tend to use the words in different ways – does ‘my paternal uncle’ mean the same as ‘my fatherly uncle’, for instance? This example makes the point that languages don’t really need exact synonyms; words that were originally synonymous tend to differentiate in meaning over time.

Section 2

Kinship systems show us the structure of families and their wider networks of connections based on blood relationships. Such systems, and the vocabulary associated with them, have been much studied by anthropologists, often with a view to comparing familiar and remote societies. Their methodologies can also be applied to comparing different stages of a single society, thus showing how linguistic changes mirror social change.

If we look at the vocabulary of English in this way, we can see that the very basic terms haven’t changed much: words such as mother, father, daughter, son, brother, sister all have their roots in Old English. Core vocabulary items such as these tend to have a high survival rate over time. Less central Modern English words, including aunt, uncle, cousin, spouse and the in-law terms, such as brother-in-law, derive from French and reflect the social changes that took place after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Anglo-Saxon kinship system reflects a society where exact relationships were important. Your family, and its place in the wider system of relationships, affected your personal status and role in society. You also had obligations based on kinship – if one of your relatives was attacked, for example, you had an obligation to go to his aid. There is evidence for this situation in vocabulary, in Anglo-Saxon law, and in literature. Ancient poems in many cultures, including Germanic and Celtic, begin with an account of the hero’s ancestry, thus putting him in his social context. A person without any kin to protect him was in a precarious situation. A moving Old English poem, the Wanderer, tells of the plight of a man without friends or family who achieves wisdom through his suffering.

Kinship obligations were also at the root of the legal system. If your kinsman broke the law and was punished by a fine you had to help him to pay it – but the amount you had to pay varied according to whether the offender was on your mother’s or father’s side of the family, with the latter paying the larger share. (See also Unit 2, Section 2.) The OE vocabulary reflects the different expectations and obligations of the two sides of a family. There are, for example, different words for your maternal aunt (mother’s sister) and paternal aunt (father’s sister). Systems such as this are quite common, occurring, for example, in Scandinavian and Celtic languages.

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they were organised in the tribal groups characteristic of their Germanic homelands. As they settled down in England, however, they began to live in settlements of two or three families, which gradually enlarged to become villages and towns. The nuclear family of parents and children, together with near relatives such as aunts and uncles, became increasingly important.

Such families were based on marriage in various forms. For high-ranking people, where property was involved, marriages were arranged by contract, but humbler people might simply declare their intention to live together. Members of the same family often had names that either alliterated or shared a common element, as with Æthelstan, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Ælfred (the Great), the sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. Surnames had not yet come into use, so this was an important way of indicating relationships.

We know very little about the lives of Anglo-Saxon children; evidence from burials, and occasionally from literature, suggests that they were well-cared for, though many did not survive into adulthood. Many parents didn’t live to see their children grow up. Even if their parents were alive, well-born children might be fostered by other families, in order to give them a wider circle of friends to protect them. Another important relationship was between a child and its godparents, who were responsible for spiritual welfare. Education was provided mainly in religious institutions, which prepared people for work in the church. Children could be placed there at an early age by their parents as an act of piety, or be taken in as orphans.

In the course of the Anglo-Saxon period, the power of the king grew greater. The broader kin group became less important and a person’s primary loyalty was increasingly to his overlord, who might not be a kinsman. This changing situation, like much else in English society, accelerated after the Norman Conquest, when the French legal system was adopted. This system, the feudal system, was based on social class, with a primary duty of obedience (rather than loyalty) to one’s feudal overlord, who was generally a member of the French nobility. The new kinship terms mentioned above appear in English mostly in the late thirteenth century, by which time the French system had become well-established and the older kinship system, with its roots in Germanic society, had virtually disappeared.

See further Unit 2, Life in Anglo-Saxon England, especially sections 6 and 7. For information on Anglo-Saxon personal names, see Unit 3, section 4.5.

Section 3

Further reading

Crawford, Sally. 1999. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England. Sutton: Stroud.
Fell, Christine, with C. Clark and E. Williams. 1984. Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the impact of 1066.
          Bloomington: Indiana University Press and London: British Museum Publications. (See ‘Sex and
          Marriage’ 56-73; ‘Family and Kinship’, 74-88.)
Fischer, Andreas. 2002. ‘Notes on kinship terminology in the history of English.’ Of dyuersitie & chaunge
          of langage: essays presented to Manfred Görlach on the occasion of his 65th Birthday
, eds Katja
          Lenz and Ruth Möhlig. Heidelberg: Winter, 115-128.
Fischer, Andreas. 2006.’Of fæderan and eamas: avuncularity in Old English’. The Power of Words: Essays in Lexicography, Lexicology and Semantics in Honour of Christian J. Kay, eds Graham D. Caie, Carole Hough and Irené Wotherspoon. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 67-77.
Foley, William A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. (See Chapter 6
          for an introduction to anthropological approaches to kinship.)
Goody, Jack. 1983. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge
          University Press.
Hough, C. A. 2013. Entries on ‘Kinship’, ‘Marriage and Divorce’, ‘Widow’ and ‘Women’. The Wiley Blackwell
          Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England
, eds M. Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 277-278, 308, 493, 505-507.
          473, 485-87.
Kitson, Peter R. 2002. ‘How Anglo-Saxon personal names work’. Nomina 2, 91-131.
Loyn, H. R. 1974. ‘Kinship in Anglo-Saxon England’. Anglo-Saxon England 3, 197-209.


For information about Anglo-Saxon marriages set in a modern context, see Julie Coleman’s essay on the ‘Dragons in the Sky’ website, http://users.ox.ac.uk/~stuart/dits/contents_marriage.html

A teaching programme with a lot of interesting information about kinship systems generally is run by Prof. Brian Schwimmer at the University of Manitoba:

To read the Wanderer, with parallel OE and Mod. E. versions, go to Sean Miller’s Anglo-Saxon.net,

is the database of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England project, which aims to list all named persons from the period.

gives some information about how adults and children might have spent their leisure time.

Ideas for essays or projects

1. Go to the Mod. E. word search and look up the word ‘Kinsman’. Make an examination of the words you find there. Consider such things as the structure of words (using the thesaurus or an OE dictionary to help you define the meanings of elements in compounds); what the words tell us about Anglo-Saxon society; what they tell us about the subsequent history of English. Further evidence can be found by looking up ‘Ancestry’.

2. Write an essay comparing Old English and Modern English kinship terminologies.