Some of my notes on etymology.
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language
All evidence points to a large number of languages across Europe and Asia all descend from a common language spoken around 3500 BCE (over five thousand years ago). Scholarly reconstruction of this language labels it as PIE in common etymologies.
A two words are cognate if they both come from the same etymological roots. The fact that two words can be cognates but mean something different shows why the etymology of a word doesn’t set in stone it’s current meaning and use.
- Shirt and skirt both ultimate trace back to the PIE word for “to cut.”
- Gard and ward both trace back to the PIE word “to perceive, watch out for.”
- Chef and chief both come from the French word meaning “head.” They just were imported far enough apart that the sounds changed in English.
- The English word starve and the Dutch sterven (“to die) are cognates.
- Dish and the German tisch (table) come from the Latin word discus.
False cognates are coincidences that people think are cognates:
- Latin habēre and German haben, both mean ‘to have’ but come from completely different histories.
- Much and Spanish mucho mean something similar, but actually have completely different histories
Words like this and that we use to indicate what we are referring to are demonstratives. Apparently, most third party pronouns (he/she) in most languages trace their roots through early demonstratives.
She / He
In Old English (a thousand years ago) heo meant she and he meant he. They both came from the word for ‘this/here.’ (Demonstratives.) She was the feminine form, and he was the masculine form of ‘this/here.’
Around the eight hundred years ago the words heo and he started to be pronounced the same way, and this caused some confusion. Probably because people didn’t realize they were different words, making love poetry confusing. There were two options: go gender neutral, or select a different word for she.
Scholars are divided on how the word she came about. In some region it seemed they have switch to the word seo (feminine the) which became she. Other scholars believe that the pronunciation changed to ‘she’ directly from ‘heo’ over time. There is evidence that shifts like this have happened. Which one was the greater influence? We don’t know.
Her / Him
Once you understand the above, it become clear why he and him are so similar, but she and her are so different. He and him both derive from heo. But she comes from seo but her didn’t change and still related the word heo.
Woman / Man
In Old English around a thousand years ago adult women and men were called wif and wer respectively. At the same time man meant human being.
Woman comes from wiman, meaning ‘woman-human.’ It’s apparently derives from wifman meaning female servant.
Wer is still used today in ‘werewolf’ (man-wolf). However, wer began to disappear around 700 years ago, and was replaced with man. Mankind (man-kende) was already used to mean all people at that time.
Wife / Husband
Wife comes from the Old English term wif, for woman. Husband comes from the word husbonda meaning the master of the house. The feminine form husbonde disappeared.
Female / Male
Female and male come from the French words for woman and man: femelle and masle. They both from from Latin. Femelle came from femella, meaning young women or girl. Masle came from masculus for adult male / worthy of a man.
Female on Online Etymology Dictionary
Male on Online Etymology Dictionary
Sexism male/female terms in English
There are two competing claims regarding sexism of these words in the English language. One is mostly false, while the other is mostly true. The ultimate difference comes down to if intention is assumed.
The first claim that English is sexist is that the words were constructed in a way to show the subordination of women. I consider this claim to be false. Woman is not taking man as the default and adding ‘wo’ to it. Female isn’t taking ‘male’ as the fault and adding fe to it. They all derive from other world in English.
However, a more general claim seems true. That English words reflect the sexist history of it’s culture. It seems to me that since women were oppressed legally it became easy for man to change it’s meaning to male human. That’s why wif turned into wife but husband comes from the term master of the house. That’s why mistress meant someone you cheat with, but master does not. There wasn’t much intentional effort to devalue women. Instead, because women weren’t valued, and language changed it shifted to become a sexist reflection of society. (Examples from here.)
The second claim is that language affects how we think. This is true. It doesn’t matter if the intention was sexist or not. It also doesn’t matter if language changed to become sexist because of the sexist culture it grew in. Even if both were false, English seems sexist. (And I think it is sexist.) People who only speak English have their thoughts shaped by our language. The language can reinforce sexist ideas. This is true even if the original terms didn’t come from a sexist etymology.
Basical sociolinguistics says that language both reflects and constructs society. Related, the Thomas Theorem says, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
As my sociology 100 professor said: words matter.
- Several times I’ve linked to this Tumblr thread. I have found it very helpful in explaining ideas.
- I also found Can we say that “he” and “she” are cognates? on the English Language Stack Exchange to be helpful, and linked it above.
- Likewise, Which came first: he or she? added flavour and is linked to above.