The suffix "-in" in German modifies an actor noun into a specifically feminine form:

Der Lehrer, die Lehrerin

Most of the original nouns have the suffix "-er", which is widely used in the Germanic languages (at least in English and Scandinavian). However, the suffix "-in" seems to be specific to German. While the "-er" suffix is derived from Latin, I do not know about the "-in" suffix.

Questions: What is the etymology of the "-in" suffix? When did it establish in German? Did it ever persist for some time in other Germanic languages? Is it a German innovation or a Germanic innovation which the other Germanic languages lost over time? If yes, when did this occur?

  • BTW, the -er suffix you mention in your question is probably not inherited from PIE, but assumed to be borrowed from Latin -arius. – jk - Reinstate Monica Sep 9 '15 at 14:36
  • Thank you for the correction! Surprising that a proto-Germanic suffix is borrowed from Latin. – shuhalo Sep 9 '15 at 16:27
  • Ok, so far it seems the suffix is restricted to continental West Germanic languages, and back as far as (at least) Old High German. – shuhalo Sep 10 '15 at 15:44
  • Perhaps a derivation from the proto-Germanic *kwēniz ? – shuhalo Sep 10 '15 at 15:49
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    @Anixx Alina, Karina, Zarina, Marina are not of Slavic origin. – Alex B. Sep 14 '15 at 18:29

German -in is from common Germanic and has been reconstructed as *-injō. In older forms of German it was -in, -inna, -īn, -inne and could still be found with the spelling -inn in recent centuries.

It was known in Old English but its function is fulfilled in more modern English by -ess. It is not clear if it was a productive feature in Old English. Very few English words have preserved this (vixen, as a commenter mentioned, but not maiden) so no modern English suffix is listed by Webster's as a descendant.

In modern Swedish there is -inna, hence värdinna (from värd) and gudinna. There are also feminine suffixes like -ska in kokerska that have separate etymology. In Danish and Norwegian it is similarly -inde and -inne (eg gudinde and gudinne) but in Icelandic it is more complicated (eg leikkona for m leikar, but gyðja). I could not find an example in their common root, Old Norse, but it seems logical that it existed.

In Dutch it can also be -in (godin, boerin). In Low German dialects there are separate suffixes -sche or similar that may have etymology in common with Scandinavian -ska, but definitely not with German -in. In Yiddish there is also ־ין (kinigin, kinstlerin), and a few more unrelated feminine suffixes from Slavic.

So there are plenty of relatives and this is not a German innovation. I cannot tell you if it is still a productive feature in all the other languages, my sense is less so, a bit like -ess in English. And I cannot tell you if how it is related to any similar suffixes from other Indo-European branches, that would be speculative given the poor written record.

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  • The -ska you mentioned in Swedish also occurs (but very rarely) in Norwegian. For example we have papirsortererske; a woman who counts sheets of paper for a living. This word is probably obsolete by now, for obvious reasons – OmarL Oct 11 '16 at 10:42
  • I consider Scandinavian as one language. ;-) – Adam Bittlingmayer Oct 11 '16 at 20:52

It is not correct to say that the suffix –in is mainly associated with nouns ending in –er. It is actually attached to all sorts of nouns designating persons (Prinzessin, Professorin ….) or animals (Hündin …). As far as I can see, it occurs only in West Germanic, e.g. in the word for “queen”: Old High German kuningin, Middle High German küniginne, New High German Königin, Dutch koningin. It also occurs in a few words in Swedish, but these are believed to be borrowings from Low German. It does not seem to have any convincing cognates outside of West Germanic.

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  • English vixen < OE fycsen as well – Ned Ramm Sep 10 '15 at 13:16

Some observations around this suffix:

  • The German suffix -in basically has three functions:
    1. It can form a female word from a male word. E.g. die Päpstin. A Pope is unquestionably male, yet it's clear that this would mean a woman who has the office, or a 'Popess'.
    2. It can form a female word from a word that includes both genders. E.g. die Wölfin. The word Wolf carries very little if any connotation of male sex (as opposed to dangerousness). The female derivative is only used with individual wolves or when it's biologically relevant. Only in such contexts is it that Wolf implies maleness. (There is no established standard for a corresponding male derivation, though some ad-hoc solutions often involve the -er suffix: Kater from Katze, Ganter from Gans, Enterich from Ente.)
    3. It can describe the wife or female partner of a male individuum. Die Bürgermeisterin was originally not a woman in the office of mayor but the mayor's wife. (In some German speaking regions it is still possible to 'obtain an office or academic degree through marriage', so that older people address their physician's wife as "Frau Doktor".)
  • These three functions overlap in usage. Whether a Päpstin is a female Pope or a Pope's wife depends on the fictional context. A Königin (queen) may rule the state herself like Mary Queen of Scots, or represent it herself like Elizabeth II. But she may also be one in a row of temporary wives of a König like Henry VIII. A Stierin (from Stier) is the 'wife' of a bull who must have been mentioned before. This even works for male derivations from female words. A Katerin ('tomcat-ess') is the female companion of a Kater.
  • The third function is related to the similar German suffix -en, Latin -inus/-ina that also exists in English to some extent (wooden, golden, ...). Originally (Proto-Indo-European) used to derive a material adjective from a noun, in some languages it was generalised for a general pertaining to relation that fits the traditional role of a wife.
  • Slavic languages have similar suffixes.
  • Latin words ending in -inus or -ina turned into French words ending in -in or -ine. The result is that the masculine form doesn't sound like German -in at all because the n is nasalised. But the final e in the feminine form -ine is silent, so it sounds like German -in except it has a longer vowel. The effect is lots of French words whose female version seems to end in -in.
  • Some Latin words ending in -inus or -ina that derive from the 'pertaining to' sense of the ending have morphed into the 'female version of' meaning. E.g., Paulina/Pauline is not parsed as Paul's wife or daughter any more.

I think based on this, the real question may well be: When and how did the North Germanic languages and English get rid of this suffix for good?

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  • Etymologically (and the question was explicitly about etymology) the West Germanic feminine suffix is NOT identical with the suffix in English "wooden", nor with the Latin -inus. – fdb Sep 12 '15 at 11:40
  • I would be interesting to learn more about the Slavic suffix. – shuhalo Sep 14 '15 at 9:47
  • @shuhalo It looks like the Slavic suffix -ynja (inja) was used for making nouns from adjectives, at first involving abstract nouns (e.g. dobrynja), then it spread to feminine nouns. Currently, it is a non-productive suffix in Russian. cf. Latin -ina – Alex B. Sep 14 '15 at 18:25
  • Some influence from the French alternation between -in and -ine (Martin/Martine, dauphin/dauphine, etc.) seems plausible to me. – reinierpost Sep 19 '15 at 20:30
  • @AlexB. Descendant of that is productive in Czech. -yně -kyně -ka nase-rec.ujc.cas.cz/archiv.php?art=2656 (in Czech) – Vladimir F Oct 10 '16 at 15:57

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