17

In English, along with some other Latinate languages, the word for our species as a whole is related specifically to that of the male sex: 'Latin humanus "of man, human," – Etymoline'

This, Etymonline says, could be related to Hebrew and the name Adam which means man (hence Adam in the Bible).

Are there any languages in which the word for human comes from the word for woman instead of man?
If so, is there a specific cultural or etymological reason?

Here, I am discounting languages, such as English's woman in which woman comes from man

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    This question seems to be based on a confused premise. What Etymonline says is that the Latin adjective "humanus" (also the noun "homo") is thought to be derived from an earlier word for "earth". A similar pattern of semantic derivation may account for the Hebrew word adam "man," which is (at least traditionally) supposed to be derived from the Hebrew word for "ground", adamah. – ewawe Nov 15 '16 at 22:39
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    This doesn't mean that the "word for human comes from the word for man" in these languages. In fact, it's the opposite: these words are derived from gender-neutral concepts, but came to be applied specifically to males. In Latin at least, the noun "homo", although of masculine grammatical gender, does not specify that the referent has male sex/sociological gender. The Classical Latin noun for "a male adult" was vir. The modern Romance language use of descendants of homo for "a male adult" reflects a later development of the meaning. – ewawe Nov 15 '16 at 22:40
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    To add to Sumelic's comment: L&S cite Cicero Familiares 4.5.4 as using homo specifically to refer to a woman, and say that using homo specifically for a male person was "very rare" (and practically unheard of in the classical period). – Draconis Nov 15 '16 at 22:42
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    The main confusion arises in English, actually: Old English had entirely separate terms for "female human", "male human", and "any human". But wer "male human" (cognate with vir, cf "werewolf") didn't survive in Middle English, and "man" ended up taking on its role. – Draconis Nov 15 '16 at 22:45
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    Your footnote is wrong. "Woman" isn't derived from "man", but from the Old English wif (female human) + Old English man (human of any gender). – Mark Nov 16 '16 at 5:12
18

In Arabic the word for “human being of either sex” is ʼinsān, from the same root as nisāʼ “women”. The usual word for “male human being” is rajul.

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    What's rajul from? – Azor Ahai Nov 16 '16 at 7:09
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    Is ʼinsān from nisāʼ, or are they both from a common shared root? – curiousdannii Nov 16 '16 at 7:36
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    @curiousdannii. They have cognates across Semitic in the meaning “human being”, in some languages (Akkadian and some dialects of Aramaic) only common in the plural, e.g. Akkadian nišū (pl.), Aramaic nāšā, Hebrew ʼĕnōš. This root seems to form the word for “women” only in Arabic. So it seems that "human being" is the primary sense of this root. – fdb Nov 16 '16 at 10:00
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    I figured that human being would be the root. Are those Arabic words cognate with the Biblical Hebrew ish and ishah? – curiousdannii Nov 16 '16 at 10:12
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    @curiousdannii. No, Hebrew ʼiššā, Aramaic ʼattā are cognate with Arabic ʼunϑā “female”, with Semitic *ϑ. – fdb Nov 16 '16 at 10:41
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As others have pointed out, the evolution, both in Latin/Romance and in Old/Modern English is contrarywise. The old masculine word (wer, vir) went extinct or archaic or suffered a semantic shift (Portuguese varão, male person, only used in literary register, but also barão, baron; English were, male person, now extinct); the old neutral word (homo, man) shifted to mean just male person except, but even this is going obsolete, in an abstract sense, as the name of the species) and was replaced by the Latin (grammatically feminine) word (personna -> English person, Portuguese (still grammatically feminine) pessoa), while the feminine word was kept (wyfman -> woman or replaced by euphemisms, neologisms or, like in French, just by the word for female (It. donna, Pt. mulher, Fr. femme).

I suppose that this evolution is similar in English and Romance rather due to coincidence than out of some universal linguistic pattern, though my ignorance of anything beyond the already mentioned languages makes it impossible for me to demonstrate. But there are, or so I am told, languages completely devoid of gender, such as Japanese, Hungarian or Turkish, so it cannot be completely universal.

In Romance languages, anyway, the whole masculine and neutral genders of Latin collapsed into what is called the masculine gender, but is perhaps closer to Latin's neutral.

Also, there is some confusion between semantics and grammar almost always when speakers of English try to understand gender in other languages: a word can be grammatically of one gender, but semantically refer to something of the opposite sex - or with no sex at all. And such confusion tends to get politicised in English, with misguided attempts to root patriarchy into linguistic features of modern European languages, usually through anachronisms or false etymologies.

  • Like Spanish, mulher means 'wife' as well a 'woman', similar to 'wyfman'. – BladorthinTheGrey Nov 16 '16 at 16:54
  • Note that not all Romance languages lost neuter-masculine distinctions. Romanian and its sister languages, Asturian, and Neapolitan (and maybe some other conservative language in Italy) maintain the neuter-masculine distinction. – user0721090601 Nov 22 '16 at 0:22
  • @guifa - True, though I am not sure whether the neutral gender in these languages is an actual inheritance from Lation, or actually an inovation. Asturian for instance has collectives, and abstract and uncountable nouns as neutral, which is a different system from Latin. – Luís Henrique Nov 22 '16 at 12:15
  • It's not just in English that this situation gets politicised. Here in Brazil hardcore leftists often complain about grammatical gender. – J. Siebeneichler Nov 29 '16 at 16:20
  • @J.Siebeneichler - Well, I am a hardcore leftist, and I don't do that, or often see that in my milieu. But let's not politicise the issue here, perhaps? – Luís Henrique Nov 30 '16 at 9:32
1

Láadan uses female gender by default for many/most words, adding the masculine suffix -id to specify male gender, including for the word for "human/person".

Láadan's with means

person, woman, adult ; to specify a male person, add the masculine suffix '-id'

Láadan is a constructed language but the question didn't specify the answer had to be a natural language.


Also, from Wikipedia (so take with a grain of salt):

In Old English sources, the word man was gender-neutral, with a meaning similar to the modern English usage of one as an indefinite pronoun. The words wer and wyf were used to specify a man or woman where necessary, respectively. Combining them into wer-man or wyf-man expressed the concept of "any man" or "any woman".

This wer- root is still used for words like werewolf ("man-wolf").

  • Your English example is not what the question is asking about. – curiousdannii Nov 16 '16 at 7:37
  • I think the question was about real languages. – fdb Nov 16 '16 at 10:02
  • In the wikipedia entry "gender-neutral" is totally the wrong word. OE "man" is (grammatically) of masculine gender, but it can have a male or female referent, just like German "Mensch", Greek "anthropos" etc. – fdb Nov 16 '16 at 10:46
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    Note that Láadan is a feminist language by construction, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1adan – jknappen - Reinstate Monica Nov 16 '16 at 14:41

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