Aunt refers to a sister of one's mother or father or the wife of one's uncle. In different cultures, both the terminology and the social significance of an aunt's role in a kinship network vary considerably. In English-speaking countries, the word aunt is typically used for the mother's sister, the father's sister, and an uncle's wife. The lack of distinction between these three kinds of relatives may reflect the structure and organization of modern industrial societies. In Western countries, kinship systems are bilateral: Family members trace descent through both females and males, and both parents have equal social weight in determining kinship. In bilateral kinship, neither side of the family has economic or social control over relatives. As a result, for instance, both nieces and nephews have equal inheritance rights (Farber 1966; Radcliffe-Brown 1950). Some families in the United States do not use the uncle-aunt terms at all but refer to these relatives by their first names (Coombs 1980).
In contrast to English-speaking countries, many other societies differentiate aunts on the mother's side and on the father's side. The terms also specify whether the relationship is through blood or marriage and indicate the gender of the person through whom a relationship exists. In Denmark and Sweden, for example, families distinguish between maternal and paternal kinship relations: A moster is the mother's sister (and usually also the wife of the mother's brother); a faster is a father's sister (and usually also the wife of a father's brother). According to anthropologists, kinship terminology provides guides for proper behavior and usually has social significance (Linton 1964; Schusky 1983). It is not clear, however, why the kin terms of some Western countries refer to aunts (and uncles) more precisely than others.
In many nonindustrialized cultures, distinctions between a paternal aunt and a maternal aunt are important because they reflect authority, ties to the mother's clan, or close kinship bonds. Whether the kinship system is matrilineal (descent is traced through females) or patrilineal (descent is traced through males), the father's sister is treated as a sort of female father. Among the Bunyoro, Swazi, and Ashanti in Africa, as well as Australian aboriginal tribes, for example, the father's sister may discipline her brothers' children, commands the same respect and authority as her brother, and arranges her nephew's marriage or may forbid it if the nephew chooses an unacceptable mate (Beattie 1960; Fortes 1969; Hart and Pilling 1960; Kuper 1950; Reed 1975).
Beattie, J. (1960). Bunyoro: An African Kingdom. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Coombs, G. (1980). "Variant Usage in American Kinship: The Nomenclator Effect." In The Versatility of Kinship, ed. L. S. Cordell and S. Beckerman. New York: Academic Press.
Farber, B., ed. (1966). Kinship and Family Organization. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Fortes, M. (1969). Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.
Hart, C. W. M., and Pilling, A. R. (1960). The Tiwi of North Australia. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Kuper, H. (1950). "Kinship among the Swazi." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linton, R. (1964). The Study of Man. 1936. Reprint, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1950). "Introduction." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reed, E. (1975). Woman's Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Schusky, E. L. (1983). Manual for Kinship Analysis, 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
NIJOLE V. BENOKRAITIS