Woman as a dminutive
Posted: 17 April 2018 06:36 PM   [ Ignore ]
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A friend, contemplating the marriage of his son to his son’s future wife, is wondering whether “woman” is somehow a diminutive of man.

The Big list has:

The female counterpart wif survives today as wife, but to the Anglo-Saxons the word meant any woman, not just a spouse. You can see this usage in the word alewife, a woman who brewed and sold beer, and in midwife. In addition, Old English also had wæpman, literally meaning a human with a weapon and used to refer to a male human (weapon was an Old English euphemism for the penis), and wifman. Wifman survives today as woman.

Is that then the “wife of the man?”

My friend’s question is whether “woman” is a diminutive of “man” and he asks whether other languages have such diminutives for woman.

In the languages I know a bit about, like German, they are “ der Mann” and “die Frau.” Not related words etymologically I don’t think. Not one the diminutive of the other.

I once did a wedding in Spanish and the old version of the vows was “Jo N te recibo a ti N como mi ‘Mujer.’” (I, N. receive you as my woman). (She was fluent in both English and Spanish, her betrothed wasn’t.) The young woman asked that I change it to “como mi esposa.” She thought that “Mujer” to be too abrupt or somehow sexist. I don’t know.

The modern English vows are “I take you to be my husband/my wife.” I recently did a marriage between two woman, and I believe I used “wife” for both, but I can’t remember. I don’t think I used “spouse.”

[ Edited: 17 April 2018 06:40 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 18 April 2018 05:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Diminutive isn’t the right term for the concept; it’s markedness.

The unmarked form of a word is the default, and the marked form designates a deviation from the norm. For example, Actor is unmarked; actress is marked. In English, and pretty much all other languages I can think of, the masculine form is unmarked and the feminine marked—with exceptions like widow (unmarked, female) / widower (marked, male). Markedness is not just about gender. Cat is unmarked, while cats is marked as plural. Old is unmarked; young is marked, as in How old/young is Bob? where using young presupposes youth while old makes no assumptions about Bob’s age.

Woman is certainly a marked form, at least now and probably even in old English. Wæpman was not a common term, and mann in Old English, just as in present-day English, could refer to humans of either sex or male humans. Wifman, on the other hand, only referred to female humans.

A diminutive is a type of marked term that marks for smaller size, youth, or affection/close affiliation. A duckling is a young duck, and a droplet is a small drop. Names can have diminutives. Davy is a diminutive of David; Sasha is a diminutive of Alexandra/Alexander. Diminutive names are also referred to as hypocoristic terms.

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Posted: 18 April 2018 08:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Very helpful, Dave! Is it possible to look at unmarked and marked as “marked” is derivative of “unmarked”? That is, in the case of “man” and “woman,” the latter is derived from the former. Same might be true of “male” and “female” though the prefix “fe-” seems to mean lit., “she who suckles” (etymonline)

literally “she who suckles,” from PIE root *dhe(i)- “to suck").

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