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Most romance languages and most Germanic languages words for men belong to a single cognate class for each language family (home, ome, homme, uomo, hombre... for romance languages and man, Mann, mann... for germanic languages). However, words for women belong to several cognate classes within each family (dona/donna, mujer/mulher, femme/femna... for romance languages and woman, Frau/vrouw, kvinna/kvinne... for Germanic languages). Although some of these words are often cognate with words in other languages, those words aren't the general word to mean woman (for example, French dame is cognate with Catalan/Italian dona/donna or English queen is cognate with Nordic languages kvinna).

Additionally, across those two families, words for boys and girls are even more diverse than those for women.

That's just a couple of data points but they suggest to me that words for women are more diverse than words for men, and the [maybe not very serious] pages https://pappubahry.com/maps/ie_cognates/man_big.html and https://pappubahry.com/maps/ie_cognates/woman_big.html point in the same direction.

My questions are:

  • Is there a trend across language families of being words for men more conservative than words for women?
  • If that trend exists, what is its cause? My guess is that the idea and role of men remained quite unchanged while societies evolved, but women were referred according to their roles (daughter, marriageable woman, wife...) and the emphasis on these roles changed as societies changed. That process could be even stronger for boys and girls.
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  • Careful: Latin homo meant "human" rather than "male human": Romance languages have narrowed it. I think the same is true of Germanic languages, but I'm less certain. This shows that historically there is not parity between homme and femme or the other pairs.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 22 at 22:39
  • @ColinFine Yes, the source of man also meant ‘human’ originally, being later narrowed down to male humans only. Jul 22 at 23:10
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    Yes, the words for men changed since Latin and early Germanic languages but they changed in the same way in each whole family, while the words for women changed in different ways. It seems that meanings of words for men tend to be more stable than those of words for women and the question is about that relative difference.
    – Pere
    Jul 23 at 6:43
  • You have something similar in Persian. zan tends to be considered impolite and khanom (and sometimes banu) is used instead.
    – Jan
    Jul 29 at 15:55
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It has something to do with Euphemism or even Taboo, since for a long time the opinion was hold that women were inferior to men. So the plain word for "women" has a much stronger tendency to be replaced by another word, say, a word for "feminine lord", than the plain word for "man".

Similar effects can be seen for the words meaning "right" and "left" (see this question), and many other terms.

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  • ...which is why we have so many words for left (!)... :-/
    – Lucian
    Jul 29 at 13:57
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You seem to compare things "crosswise", so to say :

dona/donna

  • The equivalent of the Romanian doamna (mrs./lady), the feminine of domn (mr./lord), corresponding to the Spanish dueño/dueña (master/mistress) and don (sir); French dom/damme (sir/ms.); Latin dominus/domina, from domus (house).

As can be easily observed, the word comes in both genders in almost all Romance languages; same for the English (wo)man; perhaps you meant to ask :

How come that more polite terms are usually employed when denoting women, rather than males, for whom the more banal term usually suffices ?

which would be explainable in (at least) two ways, namely that, on one hand, women pay more attention than males to such fine nuances, and, on the other, that it is in the males' best interest to show courtesy to women.

mujer/mulher, femme/femina

The former roughly corresponds to the notion of wife, as relating to a male spouse (Romania muiere, Italian moglie), whereas the latter loosely denotes the female as a gender (Romanian femeie, cognate to family, as relating to childbearing).

In short, I honestly don't see any meaningful dichotomy at play here.

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  • The question is about the words used in plain sentences like "I am a man" or "I am a woman". Across languages, the words used in those sentences seem to vary more for women than for men, although the question acknowledges that they have cognates on other languages with more or less different meaning. The fact that the Swedish sentence "Jag är en kvinna" is cognate with English "I am a queen" (and even Catalan "Jo soc un cony") doesn't contradict that Swedish and English (and Catalan) use different words for the plain meaning woman, while they use the same for man.
    – Pere
    Jul 30 at 16:13
  • @Pere: In Romanian, there is one word for male (barbat), with the word for human (om) having been more ambiguous in the past, and two words for woman, with one of them (muiere) being currently regarded as derelict, but having been more favored in the past than its alternate (femeie). Also, you're comparing across families; each of the individual languages has far less variation than your question suggests. Also, it is not uncommon, in either Romanian or English, for the words do(a)mn(a) or gentleman/lady to be used for denoting the gender in quite common situations.
    – Lucian
    Jul 30 at 22:27

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