Feminine Nouns as Insults.

Amanda Montell writes for Medium about the well-known phenomenon of the negative marking of nouns for women:

Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at some point during its lifespan, been colored some shade of obscene. The main piece of evidence for this tendency toward women’s linguistic disparagement appears when you examine certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept mistress or prostitute, and then, finally, a woman who manages a brothel. All that excitement while the meaning of sir just stuck where it was.

A similar thing happened with “master” and “mistress”: These terms came to English by way of Old French, and initially, both words indicated a person in a position of authority. Only the feminine term was contaminated over the decades to mean a sexually promiscuous woman with whom a married man, as linguist Muriel Schulz puts it, “habitually fornicates.” […]

In some instances, the process of pejoration rebrands a feminine word as an insult—not for women, but for men. Take the words “buddy” and “sissy”: Today, we might use sissy to describe a weak or overly effeminate man, while buddy is a synonym for a close pal. We don’t think of these words as being related, but in the beginning, buddy and sissy were abbreviations of the words “brother” and “sister.” Over the years, the masculine term ameliorated, while the feminine term went the other way, flushing down the semantic toilet until it plunked onto its current meaning: a man who is weak and pathetic, just like a woman. Linguists have actually determined that the majority of insults for men sprout from references to femininity, either from allusions to women themselves or to stereotypically feminine men: wimp, candy-ass, motherfucker.

She discusses hussy, tart, slut, bitch, and cunt; unfortunately, her attempts at pre-English etymology are misguided (bitch is not “derived from the ancient Sanskrit word bhagas, meaning ‘genitals'” [it can only be traced back to Old English] and cunt is not from “the Proto-Indo-European word sound ‘cu,’ which indicated femininity” [!]), but she has a lively way of describing the within-English developments. Thanks, Trevor!

And I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team for their splendid World Cup victory. To quote the magnificent Megan Rapinoe, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!”

Comments

  1. (What kind of name is Rapinoe, anyway?)

  2. I assume she’s not from Easter Island?

  3. Italian, according to the genealogy records. Probably Rapino or Rapini?

  4. Ah, that makes sense. Then the -e was stuck on at the end as Americanization/mystification.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Potatoe, potahtoe.

  6. Her ggf was born in Italy in 1903, immigrated in 1913, listed himself as Rapinoe or Rapinoa, but naturalized as Rapino so we have to assume that the latter name was used on arrival docs

  7. I’m not a historical linguist, but I get the impression that it’s also common for the word for ‘woman’ itself to get frequently replaced, more so than the word for ‘man’–related to what the article’s about, I guess, if the original word for ‘woman’ keeps becoming pejorative, so you need a new one. There seem to be lots of languages where the word for ‘woman’ originally meant ‘noblewoman’ (German, Zulu, at least some of the Romance languages…), and the Algonquian languages that I’m familiar with have pretty consistent words for ‘man’ but a bunch of different words for ‘woman’, including some that are clearly nominalizations (the Passamaquoddy one seems to mean ‘the one who habitually sits’).

  8. Interesting, thanks!

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Hungarian has asszony “woman” from Alanic *xšinya “queen”, according to p. 5 of this summary of more general issues.

  10. A nice article, and I was struck by this:

    [Hungarian] híd ‘bridge’ < Alanic *hīd < Old Iranian *haitu, cf. Helmand in Afghanistan < *haitumant– ‘bridged’

    I never knew that was the origin of Helmand!

  11. Lars (the original one) says:

    And then there is queen, which has come up in the world when applied to women, and is also a pejorative term for an effeminate man…

    Kvinde is still the most neutral term for a woman in Danish, on the other hand, and uncompounded it has no pejorative or otherwise transferred uses that I recall. (The compositional kvindagtig is of course pejorative or at least dismissive of men). Not quite unchanged from PIE, but it’s a miracle that such an old word has escaped the various treadmills.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    English, however, has gueen < Gmc. *kwenan- or some such < PIE *gwen- “woman”.

    A just as likely reason is that of politesse or galantry. If it’s obligatory to speak of women in the most honorable term available, the neutral word becomes an insult by pragmatic implication.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    How widespread is the replacement of the word for “male adult” by the word for “person”, I wonder? (One can construe that too as part of the patriarchal conspiracy, what with implying that male persons are the default humans and all.)

    It’s happened in Romance and Germanic, and in Welsh too, as far as the modern colloquial goes. The public conveniences in South Wales are for (what would be in older Welsh) dynion “people” on the one hand, and merched “girls” on the other.

    Kusaal and its relatives still do the proper Latin threefold thing: dau “vir”, pu’a “mulier”, nid “homo.”

  14. Norvin – see French jeune fille “girl” because fille by itself came to be a euphemism for prostitute.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    Although this is a blog for linguistics enthusiasts, no one has remarked on a salient feature of that article and the discussion here so far: the use of “feminine/masculine words” to mean “words denoting a type of woman/man”. Linguists generally use “feminine/masculine words” to refer to the “gender” of nouns in languages that have it. But since here we have predominantly English speakers talking about English words, and English has no gender, “feminine/masculine words” is taken to mean “words denoting a (type of) woman/man”. The departure from traditional linguistics use goes unnoticed.

    The fact that I have been immersed in German for decades, might be supposed to imply that I have developed special receptors for the notion of “grammatical gender”, and expect it to dock on them whenever possible.

    But this is not the case. I have often said that in linguistic contexts I spit on free-associative extensions of “masculine/feminine” beyond their use as mere conventional terms of art to refer to der/die/das/le/la/el stuff.

    But this is just me. In German public-media discourse (words in the internet) I find a curious asymmetry in the interpretation of “männliche Wörter” and “weibliche Wörter“. In the initial search results for the latter I find school grammar contexts, but also those where people fret about the lack of job/role description nouns ending in “-in“. In the search results for “männliche Wörter” I find the usual school grammar stuff, but also discussions about adjectives – not nouns denoting types of men or the jobs/roles they conventionally have had, but “manly qualities” such as “assertive” and “analytical”, as found in job descriptions in job offers.

    There are plenty of disobliging words for men: dickhead, bully, pervert … I don’t know why they are not mentioned as counterparts to slut, tart etc. Merely because they did not originally mean something else ?

  16. Bully and pervert aren’t gendered, for me anyway.

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    Nor are “slut” and “tart”, for me anyway.

  18. @Stu Clayton: My first expectation of about the meaning of masculine and feminine in a linguistics context would also be that they referred to grammatical gender. However, pragmatics told me that was wrong almost instantaneously.

    @Trond Engen: An example of a facially neutral word for a female being construed as negative occurs in the Merchant Ivory* film version of Howards End:

    Annie: There’s a woman to see you, ma’am.
    Margaret: A woman and not a lady, Annie?

    I know that I have commented before that the film version by Merchant Ivory is practically identical to E. M. Forster’s novel. However, this episode plays out differently in the book, with a bit of wordplay:

    As she spoke, the door was flung open, and Helen burst in in a state of extreme excitement.
    “Oh, my dears, what do you think? You’ll never guess. A woman’s been here asking me for her husband. Her what?” (Helen was fond of supplying her own surprise.) “Yes, for her husband, and it really is so.”
    “Not anything to do with Bracknell?” cried Margaret, who had lately taken on an unemployed of that name to clean the knives and boots.
    “I offered Bracknell, and he was rejected. So was Tibby. (Cheer up, Tibby!) It’s no one we know. I said, ‘Hunt, my good woman; have a good look round, hunt under the tables, poke up the chimney, shake out the antimacassars. Husband? husband?’ Oh, and she so magnificently dressed and tinkling like a chandelier.”
    “Now, Helen, what did happen really?”
    “What I say. I was, as it were, orating my speech. Annie opens the door like a fool, and shows a female straight in on me, with my mouth open. Then we began—very civilly. ‘I want my husband, what I have reason to believe is here.’ No—how unjust one is. She said ‘whom,’ not ‘what.’ She got it perfectly. So I said, ‘Name, please?’ and she said, ‘Lan,** Miss,’ and there we were.
    “Lan?”
    “Lan or Len. We were not nice about our vowels. Lanoline.”
    “But what an extraordinary—”
    “I said, ‘My good Mrs. Lanoline, we have some grave misunderstanding here. Beautiful as I am, my modesty is even more remarkable than my beauty, and never, never has Mr. Lanoline rested his eyes on mine.'”
    “I hope you were pleased,” said Tibby.
    “Of course,” Helen squeaked. “A perfectly delightful experience. Oh, Mrs. Lanoline’s a dear—she asked for a husband as if he was an umbrella.*** She mislaid him Saturday afternoon—and for a long time suffered no inconvenience. But all night, and all this morning her apprehensions grew. Breakfast didn’t seem the same—no, no more did lunch, and so she strolled up to 2, Wickham Place as being the most likely place for the missing article.”

    * Partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory appear to have consciously branded their work together with both their names. Since the end of the “studio system” in Hollywood, it has been very common to identify directors as the nominal creators of films. People talk about films like “Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects,” all the time, but it would not sound right to talk about “James Ivory’s A Room With a View.”

    ** The husband’s name (which should be familiar to the reader by this point) is “Leonard Bast.”

    *** This is dramatic irony, since the only reason Mr. Bast initially did try to locate Miss Helen Schlegel was to recover his umbrella.

  19. Green also has lady ‘a crooked or hunchbacked woman’ (among others, mostly pejorative meanings) and abbess ‘a brothel-keeper, a madame, “of the highflyer sort”’.

  20. SFReader says:

    According to Hollywood, drill instructors in boot camp call new recruits “ladies”.

    That’s the only example of pejorative use of “lady” I can recall.

  21. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Is it a feature specific to languages like English which doesn’t have a steady, persistent layer of intercourse-and-sex-organ words, and has to reinvent them over and over again in a serial bowdlerization sort of a process? In contrast, contemporary Russian notoriously lacks a neutral-connotation word for women (with the void left unfilled after the demise of the gender-neutral “comrade”) but seems to also lack the semantic downward spiral of the “female words”. The endless runaway euphemization is known in Russian too, like for crappers and stinks and even for some taboo animal spirits, but not so much for the sex trade?

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    That’s the only example of pejorative use of “lady” I can recall.

    Also Diego in Ice Age. Evidently, male sabre-toothed tigers find it pejorative too.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    I suspect that female sabre-toothed tigers wouldn’t like being called “mannish”, but I can adduce no evidence.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    The endless runaway euphemization is known in Russian too, like for crappers and stinks and even for some taboo animal spirits, but not so much for the sex trade?

    What is the reason, though, that the default word for “whore” is блядь – and not курва as in seemingly all other Slavic languages plus Hungarian?

  25. PlasticPaddy says:

    I think it may be related to kurit’=to smoke in Russian but something obscene in at least one other Slavic language (Croatian?).

  26. SFReader says:

    it’s related to chicks surely

  27. PlasticPaddy says:

    @sfr
    Sorry. I meant the (taboo/non-taboo) meaning of kurit’ was different across Slavic languages. Not that kurit’ and Kurva are etymologically connected. I suppose though that kurit’ could have been made taboo by attraction to Kurva. This did not happen in Russian, of course.

  28. There are plenty of disobliging words for men: dickhead, bully, pervert … I don’t know why they are not mentioned as counterparts to slut, tart etc. Merely because they did not originally mean something else ?

    Also, both “bully” and “pervert” did originally mean something else. “Bully (adj)” meant excellent; “bully (n)” meant a fine person, or a sweetheart. Teddy Roosevelt talking about the Presidency as a bully pulpit did not mean that it was a position from which to abuse or insult people; he meant that it was a very good position to speak from. “Pervert” simply meant someone who had lost their moral compass, without the connotation of sexual wrongdoing; in England it was commonly used for people who had converted to Catholicism.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    According to this, “bully” was more or less cognate to “buddy” in Medieval Dutch but then eventually got pejorativized. https://www.etymonline.com/word/bully. Deriving ultimately from a diminutive of “broeder,” it might be a specific counterexample to her claim (which, to be fair, is not proposed as exceptionless, unless she is taken to be claiming so strongly that “dick” is the sole and only counterexample that any other counterexample is fatal to her point). Note also the standard/classic insult “son of a bitch” which is predicated only of males but combines both an explicitly male-referent component and an explicitly female-referent component. Which column does that one go in? How about “bastard” (which could be taken to imply a negative evaluation of addressee’s mother, or the addressee’s father, or both)?

  30. Stu Clayton says:

    So when can we expect the next article, with the title “A Cultural History of Male Nouns Turned Into Insults”, and ending with:

    # In English, our negative terms for men necessarily mirror the status of men in Western society at large. #

  31. J.W. Brewer says:

    More generally, I have a sense that the high-minded reformers who have been self-consciously promoting increasing use of gender-neutral phrasing in English over the last half-century or so have not done very much work in the area of insulting/offensive/vituperative language. As a result, the vocabulary of insult remains fairly highly gendered, which might be unfortunate insofar as it will predictably result in petty side controversies about whether someone using such language was being sexist on top of just being insulting. E.g., if the fellow who would predictably react to seeing the image of a disfavored male elected official appearing on the tv over the bar by yelling “shut up, you stupid dickhead” at the tv reacts to a disfavored female elected official in the same context by yelling “shut up, you stupid bitch,” I don’t know that that should be treated as misogynistic — given the confines of the available lexicon and the general sense that it is weird-to-ungrammatical to address a woman as “dickhead,” the specifically gendered nature of “bitch” is not actually gratuitous on the part of the speaker. But one cannot expect everyone to reach that charitable reading of the situation.

  32. The original post is a bit off in some places; “Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address” – and indeed both still are today. Army officers are addressed as “sir” if male and “ma’am” if female. “Madam” is the female counterpart of “Mr” in phrases like “Madam Secretary”, “Madam Ambassador”. And while “mistress” has been downgraded, so has “master” – it’s specifically the form of address for small boys, while “Mistress” has become “Mrs”, the form of address for adult married women.

    “A Cultural History of Male Nouns Turned Into Insults”

    It would be an interesting one. Quite a few are words for male organs turned into insults – dickhead, plonker, talking bollocks etc. But non-anatomical male words turned into insults – hmm. “Bully” we’ve already covered. “Boy” is definitely an insult in some contexts, in which I don’t think “girl” would be. “Bastard” was a descriptive term, albeit for an unfortunate state; it became a specifically male insult. “Pimp” is another specifically male term which became first a general BrE insult and then an AA and AmE aspirational compliment. “Villain” was a tied labourer in mediaeval Europe, therefore (presumably?) male. “Varlet” is a bit obsolete as an insult but it’s another male term.

  33. Kristian says:

    “Knave” is an example of a word for males that become pejorative, archaic of course.

    “John” meaning the client of a prostitute is another.

    According to the OED, “tart” is probably short for “sweetheart” (so not necessarily derived from calling lovers after pastries) and can also mean “a young favourite of an older boy or man (not necessarily a catamite). Also a male prostitute.” I would guess that in history there have probably been several words that meant “boy” and were degraded to mean “catamite” but that aren’t widely known.

    “Bimbo” is a word that apparently first applied to men (e.g. in P.G. Wodehouse) and then was transferred to women and became sexualized.

    In Barbara Pym’s novel “Excellent Women”, published in the 50’s, Helena Napier tells the narrator ‘”You’d hate sharing a kitchen with me. I’m such a slut,” she said, almost proudly.’ and later on the same page ‘I hope you don’t mind tea in mugs…I told you I was a slut.’ The narrator doesn’t react to this in any particular way, despite her primness, so apparently “slut” still meant “untidy women” even relatively recently.

  34. SFReader says:

    Russian “muzhik” is the opposite example.

    It started as pejorative for lower class males and went on to become the normal word for a “male peasant” and now it’s just a low register word for “man”.

    Though professional criminals in Russia apparently have very good grasp on etymology and still regard it as pejorative – according to rumors, you can get killed in prison, if you use this word to the wrong people.

  35. “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!”

    Very confusing statement, isn’t it?

  36. I don’t think she meant any championship in anything, ever. Context is important.

  37. @Kristian: The sense of slut related to household (particularly kitchen) upkeep and cleaning seems to have persisted at a low level for a long time. I remember British television characters using that sense in the late 1990s (although the adjective form was sluttish, not slutty). These are typically used jocularly, and often in reference to the speaker herself (or himself, even more jocularly). In fact, the word has a long history of teasing and nonpejorative uses, with the oldest OED cite for them being Samuel Pepys.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    I recall the vile Farage using “slut” to describe women who didn’t clean behind the fridge properly.

    Mind you, in the Faragiste Weltanschauung, for a woman not to clean the house properly probably counts as sexual deviance.

  39. I don’t think she meant any championship in anything, ever.

    “Scientifically”, the statement is a bit silly — if 5% of the population is gay, then about 30% of the time, a 23-person team will have no gay members (assuming there’s no bias for or against gay players). Even if you up the percentage to 10%, then 9% of the time you’ll get an all-straight team. (Unless she’s somehow either verified the sexual identity of every team member of every winning team, ever, or else is arguing that gay players are statistically better enough athletes that an all-straight team will always lose in championships. Which I doubt she’s claiming.)

    (But, yeah, the majority of the time there have probably been gay players on winning teams, so the general point is perfectly valid.)

  40. SFReader says:

    Wouldn’t “birthday problem” apply here?

  41. Unless she’s somehow either verified the sexual identity of every team member of every winning team, ever

    Assuming, as I do, that she’s talking about U.S. Women’s National Soccer Teams that have won the World Cup, there are only four of them (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019), and she’s in a pretty good position to know whereof she speaks. She would not have to know “the sexual identity of every team member,” just enough to know there were no teams with zero gays. Which is highly plausible.

  42. I thought that line was consciously and blatantly exaggerated. That’s why I like it so much.

  43. It could be read that way too!

  44. David Marjanović says:

    apparently “slut” still meant “untidy women” even relatively recently

    So Schlampe is a literal translation! I had no idea. This goes halfway to clearing up what promiscuity has to do with being schlampig “sloppy”.

  45. ajay- bully meaning excellent is unrelated to bully meaning to intimidate, a person who intimidates. Neither one has anything to do with cattle.

    The TR bully is from a root meaning to boil, bubble and is related to ebullient.

    Bully/intimidate is from a Dutch diminutive of broeder (brother) and originally was something like buddy, comrade, or even boyfirend, then became tough guy.

  46. On slut –
    I recall in college reading an essay by Virginia Woolf and being positively shocked when she described arriving at a friend’s home very early one morning and having to step around the “slut” who was scrubbing the doorstep (as I eventually figured out, Woolf was emphasizing how early it was – cleaning the doorstep was a dirty job performed by a very low-level servant who was not supposed to be seen by company.)

  47. @Bloix: According to the OED T. R.’s sense of bully is from the term of endearment and related uses noun sense, of which it says the etymology is “obscure.” On whether the a swaggering fellow, a ruffian, and similar senses are also derived from the term of endearment, is states:

    There does not appear to be sufficient reason for supposing that the senses under branch II. are of distinct etymology: the sense of ‘hired ruffian’ may be a development of that of ‘fine fellow, gallant’ (compare bravo); or the notion of ‘lover’ may have given rise to that of ‘protector of a prostitute’, and this to the more general sense.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    Not to the point at all, but I’ll note that No. bølle “bully” is grammatically feminine while referring stereotypically to males. Han er ei skikkelig bølle. “He’s a real bully.”

    Oh, there’s a point after all: In the Norwegian title of the eighties’ detective series Moonlighting, Bølla og blondinen “The Bully and the Blonde”, the very much female blondine is grammatically masculine. This is a matter of style and register — since code-switching is avaliable, using colloquial blondina rather than Dano-Norwegian blondinen might have indicated that she’s a tramp. Similarly, some see moren min “my mother” and søsteren min “my sister” as more respectful than mora mi and søstera mi. Insult by pragmatic implication.

  49. Bloix: thanks!

    “Bimbo” is a word that apparently first applied to men (e.g. in P.G. Wodehouse) and then was transferred to women and became sexualized.

    It’s an interesting one, actually.
    Yes, Wodehouse characters use it as a synonym for “chap”. But at around the same time (1927), AP Herbert is using it in one of his “Misleading Cases” as an example of a word that cannot be libellous because it has no meaning. “…one man might say to another, ‘You are a Bimbo’, or ‘You look like a Togg’, without offence; for these expressions, though presumably hostile in intention, have no known significance, discourteous or otherwise…”

    On “slut” William Gibson resurrects the BrE term “slut’s wool” for the tangles of dust and fluff build up in a room that isn’t cleaned (under furniture, etc).

  50. Lars (the original one) says:

    But Dano-Norwegian only has common and neuter genders, or?

    The funny thing is that in the Copenhagen standard, it was the forms of the feminine gender that became the common gender — it was manni å konen in three-gender areas. As usual we blame the Low Germans. And if I understand correctly, the Dano-Norwegian common gender is interpreted as masculine when used in (I’m guessing) the regional varieties of Norwegian that are maintaining the three gender system — I assume ‘pure’ Nynorsk would not accept them.

    (What are the basilectal masculine endings, by the way?)

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Pure Dano-Norwegian has a two-gender system, but the common gender declensions is identified with the masculine.

    It’s interesting that in Norwegian dialects the feminine gender is split into several declensions while the masculine has basically one, while in Danish the situation is opposite, and that the regularized form of the feminine forming the common gender in written Danish could be interpreted as a regularization of the masculine in Norwegian. I’ve suggested before that the koiné paradigm formed between Danish and Norwegian, streamlining the Danish feminine declension and the Norwegian masculine.

    The colloquial masculine varies across the country. In Eastern Oslo-like varieties, which I suppose is what you mean when you say basilectal, there’s a divide between the southeastern coast and the inland region north of Oslo. Oslo itself has more in common with the latter.

    mann m. :
    Standard Bokmål: en mann – mannen – menn – mennene
    Standard Nynorsk: ein mann – mannen – menn – mennane
    Oslo: en mann – mannen – menner – menna
    Southeastern: en mann – mannen – mennær – mennane

    This example is problematic because of the inherited irregular plural, which is partly regularized in the colloquials. Gutt “boy” is regular:

    gutt m.
    Standard Bokmål: en gutt – gutten – gutter – guttene
    Standard Nynorsk: ein gut – guten – gutar – gutane
    Oslo: en gutt – gutten – gutter – gutta
    Southeastern: en gutt – gutten – guttær – guttane

  52. Lars (the original one) says:

    I meant it literally when I say we blame the Low Germans — the suggestion is that the change in Copenhagen (for a long time an isolated 2-gender variety in 3-gender ‘island Danish’) was influenced by Lübecker merchants whose LG variety had the forms ên, mîn, sîn in both masculine and feminine.

    This does not rule out that it was a Copenhagen-Bergen koiné that was thus influenced, that scenario almost makes it more likely because of the Hansa trade between the cities.

    There must still have been a tension between the uses of anaphoric pronouns, with Danes wanting hun for the merged forms, while Norwegians would prefer han and the Germans he or se according to the gender in Low German. Or maybe everybody just kept using han/hun aso. even when it clashed with the form of the nouns, stranger things have happened.

    I don’t know when den started being used anaphorically for the neuter gender, but I think it was later than the period we’re talking about. I can look it up when I get home. Its source is the oblique forms of ON sa/so where I think the masc. and fem. merged early on and maybe that’s why han/hun took over in anaphoric function.

  53. John Cowan says:

    ‘You are a Bimbo’

    In reprints, Bimbo was changed to Bumbo to preserve its meaninglessness.

  54. Ah, interesting. My edition (I think from the 1970s) has “Bimbo”.

  55. Lars (the original one) says:

    han/hun/den — according to Det danske sprogs Historie (Skautrup 1944), the syncretism of masculine and feminine noun forms in the written language dates back to the 12th to 14th centuries, and the replacement of anaphoric han/hun by den for non-people happened in parallel.

    So the common/neuter system was established in written Danish before Olav V inherited the throne of Norway, I don’t know how well that fits your koiné theory, Trond.

    (And Skautrup confirms that han/hun are younger forms, they did not exist in the rune language and I believe not in Icelandic either, but replaced a paradigm of sa at a stage where the oblique forms of masculine and feminine may have become too similar. So the pendulum swings).

  56. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t know how well that fits your koiné theory, Trond.

    Not at all, I think. Oh, well.

  57. Lars (the original one) says:

    I would not rule out Lübecker influence on the Danish written norm in the 13th, however, or the employment of German-born clerks. Skautrup doesn’t mention anything like that, possibly because 1944.

    The three grammatical genders were alive and well in the dialects into the 20th century at least, overriding biological sex for non-human animals. Hunni ha’ har fået hvalpe was mentioned as late as 2007 as something ‘elderly people’ in Funen would say, similarly to German Der Hund hat Welpen geworfen.

    (Note that Funen dialects have kept a distinction between /ɲ/, spelled nd, and /n/ which is why you can’t spell ‘dog’ as hund as in the standard).

  58. David Marjanović says:

    The distribution of one, two, and three grammatical genders in Danish dialects. In Zealand, the transition from three to two genders has happened fairly recently. West of the red line, the definite article goes before the word as in English or German; east of the line it takes the form of a suffix.”

    No idea how old the map is.

  59. Trond Engen says:

    I guess the questions to ask are how early the two-gender system is attested in Norwegian documents compared to Danish, and how the written standard corresponds to contemporary spoken Norwegian and Danish. The rudiments of a common class of nobility and high officials developed already in the 14th century. The common educated class came with the establishment of the University of Copenhagen before 1500. I’ll check what Norsk Språkhistorie has to say when I get home.

    I think Oslo was more important than Bergen on the Norwegian side. Bergen did develop a two-gender system, quite likely under influence from Low German, but the dialect is otherwise not much like the Dano-Norwegian norm.

  60. BTW, what gender was människa/menneske originally? In Swedish, it’s människan and is referenced by the female hon, but it’s neutral in Danish and Bokmål.

  61. Trond Engen says:

    It’s an original adjective (“mannish”), so one answer may be that it was nominalized in different genders, depending on the underlying noun. Another may be that as an abstract it was declined as neuter with individual referent and feminine with a collective. When the word took on a concrete meaning and was adapted to the gender system, it didn’t happen in the same way everywhere.

  62. It’s feminine in Icelandic:

    manneskja no kvk
    http://islenskordabok.arnastofnun.is/islob?ord=27580&nlo=1

  63. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. In German it’s a n-stem* (OHG mennisco) formed from the adjective, and therefore masculine like its Slavic equivalent.

    * Still identifiable as such today: all forms except the nom. sg. Mensch are Menschen.

  64. PlasticPaddy says:

    Das Mensch is used in schwäbisch (and i think derogatively in other forms of German) for woman. How far back does that go?

  65. Lars (the original one) says:

    The question is how OS/OHG mennisco got the -skja ending in the Nordic languages — did it change to -a because it was felt to be feminine, or was it assigned to the feminine gender because -a was the closest possible ending to NWG -o(n)?

    @DM, the map is a redrawing of one of the maps at the U of Copenhagen dialect site (though the metadata on WP points to an earlier location, now dead), and as such represents the state of the dialects before they were leveled out into regional varieties — most sound recordings are from people born in the late 19th century.

    I’ve linked to that site several time before, but currently I am unable to post anything with a link in. I’ll make another attempt after this, or send it to Hat. The map in question is number 2 on the site, and has links to sound files.

  66. Lars (the original one) says:

    PGer -ōn stems were feminine, weren’t they, so mennisco was in the noun class that continued the masculine -an stems? But maybe that’s how things got mixed up between NWG and NG, if the Norse thought that OS n-stems in -o corresponded to their feminine n-stems in -a.

  67. Here‘s Lars (t.o.o.)’s U of Copenhagen dialect site.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    How far back does that go?

    Very good question! The oldest occurrence I happen to know only dates from the 17th century (O du lieber Augustin).

    maybe that’s how things got mixed up

    Likely. OHG had -o m. and -a f. in n-stems, Gothic had -a m. and f., and IIRC Old Norse had some third option?

  69. Trond Engen says:

    Me: I guess the questions to ask are how early the two-gender system is attested in Norwegian documents compared to Danish, and how the written standard corresponds to contemporary spoken Norwegian and Danish. The rudiments of a common class of nobility and high officials developed already in the 14th century. The common educated class came with the establishment of the University of Copenhagen before 1500. I’ll check what Norsk Språkhistorie has to say when I get home.

    Norsk Språkhistorie has several chapters on different aspects of written language and standardization but in the end not much to add to my short account above. Vol. III, ch. 4 is about standardization and the standard. Here’s a paragraph from p. 365*:

    The most important change in the written language in Late Medieval times and the period thereafter was the shift from Norwegian (in a shaky and admixed form we now usually call Middle Norwegian) to Danish. This happened gradually from the late 14th century and was complete around the year 1600. The Danish written language was itself in a process of standardization from the 16th century, not least with the newly invented art of printing as a driving force.

    The description of Middle Norwegian as a “shaky and admixed form” might be worth looking into. Unfortunately they don’t. What we do get are observations on the Norwegian language from the point of view of educated standard speakers.

    In chapter 2 of the same volume, about the history of the idea of a Norwegian language, we find a comment by the 16th century cleric Laurents Hermannsson on a recent translation of the old Norwegian laws*:

    converted from the old Norwegian […] and in an easy Danish or Coastal Norwegian [leett dansche eller siöömaalz norsche] which one can understand.

    With the age of information comes … information. In a 1743 chancery questionnaire to local officials, intended as a general survey of geography and economic conditions, professor in Copenhagen and later bishop in Bergen Erik Pontoppidan was able to add two questions about local speech to the Norwegian version. 129 of 167 respondents answered his questions. While respondents from elsewhere in Norway mostly have something to say about local words, it’s conspicuous that those from the southeastern part generally maintain that there’s little difference between the local language and the written standard. Some explain this with the influence of the budding towns.

    Back in chapter 4, here’s the priest and word-collector J.N. Wilse in the preface to his word-collection from the southeastern parish of Spydeberg in 1780*:

    The most meticulous and orthographically correct way of speech is found in Christiania [Oslo], and in Christiania is spoken the most beautiful Danish, even though some few provincial words are mixed in at times, to the beauty I also reckon a euphonic tone (accent), the one that the Norwegians have in common with the Swedish and some other nations, […]

    These quotes say nothing about the written standard per se, and hardly anything of grammar, but they do show that Norwegian and Danish officials during centuries considered the common written language as reasonably close to the southeastern Norwegian dialects.

    *) My translation

  70. Trond Engen says:

    The question is how OS/OHG mennisco got the -skja ending in the Nordic languages

    D’oh. I should have realized it was borrowed from Low German.

  71. David Marjanović says:

    In a 1743 chancery questionnaire to local officials, intended as a general survey of geography and economic conditions, professor in Copenhagen and later bishop in Bergen Erik Pontoppidan was able to add two questions about local speech to the Norwegian version.

    Wow. The German version of this dates from, what, 1911?

  72. Trond Engen says:

    It wasn’t unique. It’s mentioned a similar collection of dialect words from the parish priests in Sweden by Erik Benzelius in 1726. There was an even earlier attempt in Denmark-Norway by geheimeråd Mathias Moth in 1697, but this was not specifically restricted to local words, and the respondents seem to be mixing freely forms from different dialects they happen to know. (One of Moth’s respondents suggested a grant for a royal ordinance with the task of thorough inquiry into the dialects around the country, so the ideas certainly were around.)

    Pontoppidan’s questions weren’t very sophisticated either, though more than Moth’s. The first of the two:

    An inventory of the most peculiar words and manners of speech in the language, there in the district, and their meaning in other current Danish, which one rather wants lengthy than too short.

    The second question is not quoted, and I can’t find it elsewhere, but it seems to be for a description of the divergence from the written standard and an explanation of the situation.

    None of the respondents provided systematic information on grammar, e.g. tables of verbal or nominal paradigms. Even if it wasn’t asked for especially, it would have been a great response to the questions, and it’s notable that the classically educated and linguistically sophisticated recipients of the questionnaire just didn’t seem to think along those lines. I might surmise that the morphological difference was just taken for granted and not seen as special in Norway compared to Denmark.

  73. January First-of-May says:

    How widespread is the replacement of the word for “male adult” by the word for “person”, I wonder? <…> It’s happened in Romance and Germanic, and in Welsh too, as far as the modern colloquial goes.

    I wonder which way did the replacement go in Eastern Slavic – Russian chelovek “person”, Ukrainian cholovik “male adult”.

  74. Reminds me of this old joke in French: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRgF5UC_fhU

  75. SFReader says:

    Almost everything in this joke works for Russian too.

    Kurtizan (male courtier) – kurtizanka (prostitute)
    publichny chelovek (public person) – publichnaya zhenshina (prostitute)
    professional (professional male) – professionalka (prostitute)

  76. David Marjanović says:

    I wonder which way did the replacement go in Eastern Slavic – Russian chelovek “person”, Ukrainian cholovik “male adult”.

    Probably the same way: the cognates mean “person” all over West and South Slavic.

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