Some language names are also the names of the people who speak that language, for example Russian, Norwegian, Italian, and German. But others are not, for example Dutch, French, English, and Spanish. In these examples, all the former words end with -an, and all of the latter do not, but I don't think that is important. I am wondering if there is a reason for this, or if it is just coincidence based on how adjectives are formed. Sometimes they are the same word; and sometimes they are not.

Also, I am aware that people do say "the English" and "the Spanish" and "the Dutch," but I don't hear it as often in casual conversation. It seems more common to say "an Englishman" or "a Spaniard" or "a Dutchman."

I tried looking this up multiple times, but I cannot even form the question in a way that produces the correct results in Google. And I apologize if my tags are wrong, as I could not find a decent tag either.

  • I think it's better to look at it the other way around. Some countries get their names from the name of the inhabitants, in which case you can usually use the stem to refer to an individual inhabitant. If the country name ends in -land, there's a good chance this is the case, but (1) the stem is not always the name of a people (e.g. Holland = hollow / low land) and (2) even if it is, it may be the name of a historical people rather than the current inhabitants (e.g. England = land of the Angles).
    – rchivers
    Nov 12 '20 at 0:48
  • Other affixes meaning -land can behave the same way, but it depends on historical/cultural/linguistic connections - Denmark / Afghanistan / Pakistan.
    – rchivers
    Nov 12 '20 at 0:49
  • For other country names, the general rule is that you add man to the adjectival form, unless the adjectival form ends in -an, has more than three syllables, or both - so Frenchman, but German, Indian, Portuguese, Pakistani, Malaysian, Canadian. Then there are some more ad hoc exceptions, which I think are mainly historical borrowings (Filipino, Spaniard), though in some cases the expected term is not used for cultural reasons (Chinese [man]).
    – rchivers
    Nov 12 '20 at 0:49
  • I have noticed that many English speakers find the adjectival forms that don't end in an awkward when used to refer to an individual, as in he's married to a Vietnamese.
    – rchivers
    Nov 12 '20 at 0:49
  • 1
    Well, I was saying that whether the name of the language is also the name of the people is mostly rule governed and predictable. That doesn't answer your 'why' question, but it does mean it isn't just coincidence.
    – rchivers
    Nov 12 '20 at 17:41

The words Dutch, French, English, and Spanish are general adjectives which could refer to a person, clothing, language, architecture etc. There are some words that only refer to people, such as "Dutchman, Frenchman, Englishman" with -man, and Spaniard with -iard. There are a handful of other constructions with -man including Scotsman, Irishman, Yorkshireman and the now deprecated Chinaman which only refer to people and not languages. It's not surprising that "Scotsman" refers to a person, not a language – what's somewhat special is that there is a word "Scotsman" but not *Americaman, *Norwayman etc. The -man construction is a bit archaic, and you don't expect it to apply to any "new" constructions. I can think of two relevant -ard constructions, Spaniard (Spanish), and Montagnard. I've heard people people speaking of the language of Montagnards as "Montagnard", mainly because they would get stares of non-recognition if they said they spoke Xơ Đăng, Bru, Gia Rai and so on: that is, the language of the Montagnards is generally a complete mystery, anyhow.

There are a bunch of bare stems that refer to people (almost) only, viz. Finn(ish), Swede(ish), Arab(ic), Turk(ish), Pole(ish), Kurd(ish), Dane(ish), Flem(ish) where it is disapproved of to say "He speaks Finn/Swede/Arab/Turk/Pole/Kurd/Dane" though some people do it.

There is a certain element of arbitrary lexicality to it, but (a) words ending in -man refer to people, not languages and (b) there are a few bare-stem ethnonyms which require a suffix -ish or -ic to generate the adjective (not specific to language). You might consider "French" qua language name to be a reduction of an phrase of the kind adjective+noun "French (language)", so which reduces the question to "What is the noun referring to a person from X?" and "What is the adjective form of X?".

  • Mildly off-topic, but I have never seen deprecated used in any context other than programming. I feel it is a good word, and am glad to see it used elsewhere. And it seems that the answer to my question is that it is random, so I'll go ahead and give you the check.
    – MJB
    Nov 12 '20 at 16:18
  • @MJB Wiktionary's glossary does not use :deptecated: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Obsolete_and_archaic_terms
    – Vladimir F
    Nov 12 '20 at 16:53

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