The inspiration for this article came from a colleague and friend of mine who works at the Irish Language Unit of the European Parliament, whose obsession for etymology has soon infected me too.
Starting with the Irish I set out to collect the etymologies of the word ‘woman’ and its equivalents in other European languages, a concept that nowadays defines almost four billions human beings.
What I immediately noticed is that ‘woman’, being such a fundamental word, does not show interlinguistic similarity across the Indo-European language family unlike, for instance, ‘mother’ (μητέρα in Greek, Mutter in Greek, matha in Sanskrit, madre in Italian and Spanish, mère in French, мать in Russian or máthair in Irish).
Before diving into the etymology of ‘woman’ in different languages, let us look at some Irish vocabulary to understand how words travel through time and from one language community to another.
In his Irish-English Dictionary published in 1832, John O’Brien includes some etymological information in the entry for ben or bean:
“Ben, or Bean, a woman. […] Note this celtic word Ben is the celtic origin of the latin Venus, which means a woman[…]”
John O’Brien also attributes the origin of the word beine (evening) to the same Latin root:
“So called from the bright appearance of the planet Venus at the setting of the sun” .
Interestingly, the goddess Freyja in Norse mythology – treated as a counterpart to the Roman goddess Venus –, is believed to have given rise to ‘Friday’ (the day of Venus) and its equivalents in the Germanic languages.
It may be worth pointing out now that the name of the greatest God of the greek Pantheon, Zeus, (from Vedic Sanskrit Dyaus, which immediately leads to the latin Deus) stands as the root of the word “day”, as you can read in this excerpt from Michiel de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages:
The Latin forms Diespiter, Dispiter, U. di, dei together with the word diēs ‘day’ point to the generalization of a stem *dijē-, whereas Iūpiter, Iovis reflect PIt. *djow-. These can be derived from a single PIE paradigm for ‘(god of the) sky, day-light’, which phonetically split in two in PIt. and yielded two new stems with semantic specialization. Syllabic *dij- in the nom.acc.sg. can stem from the oblique cases (gen.sg. *diwos, etc.), in which syllabic *di- occurred. The acc.sg. *dijēm led to the creation of a new nom.sg. *dijēs and a separate paradigm meaning ‘day’ […]
All these considerations lead to the conclusion that for some reason the duality day-night seems to arise, to a certain extent, from the duality God-Goddess. Maybe pitifully maybe not it is not possible to explore further along these traces in the present context.
In the conclusion, taking into account the Hebrew language, we will try again to follow this semantic approach, which assigns to a given concept not a conventional but very meaningful sequence of letters winking explicitly to its ontological derivation.
THE ETYMOLOGY OF ‘WOMAN’ IN SOME EUROPEAN LANGUAGES
“adult female human,” late Old English wimman, wiman (plural wimmen), literally “woman-man,” alteration of wifman (plural wifmen) “woman, female servant” (8c.), a compound of wif “woman” (see wife) + man “human being” (in Old English used in reference to both sexes; see man (n.)). Compare Dutch vrouwmens “wife,” literally “woman-man.”
It is no surprise that the Century Dictionary comments on the word formation of ‘woman-man’.
It is notable that it was thought necessary to join wif, a neuter noun, representing a female person, to man, a masc. noun representing either a male or female person, to form a word denoting a female person exclusively.
Polysemy may compel speakers to create new words to disambiguate concepts. Meaning both ‘wife’ and ‘woman’, the Old English wīf was combined to simply designate a female human. It should not shock the reader that the German Weib is a cognate with ‘wife’. However, for Frau we need to look somewhere else.
In Italian its origin seems to be pretty straightforward: donna derived from the Latin domina, which means ‘lady’ or ‘mistress of the house’.
The French language shows the women as a femme (from Latin femina), an “être humain du sexe féminin”, which is mainly used as wife (compagne de l’homme unie par les liens du mariage).
In its Dictionary of the Spanish language, the Royal Spanish Academy points at the Latin mulier as a very transparent ancestor of the Spanish mujer. Both still meaning ‘woman’ and ‘wife’ (as in Italian, where moglie means exclusively ‘wife’), the Spanish mujer seems to have undergone a very light phonetic change, while staying semantically frozen in time. The origin of the Latin mullier remains uncertain, although it has been proposed that it might derive from the Latin adjective mollis for ‘soft’, while others suggest it might derive from the verb mulgere, which means ‘to breastfeed’.
This explanation is based on the historical consideration of the women as the “weaker sex”, which for some not completely rational reasons has ruled for many centuries, surviving also to all (sometimes conflictive) ideologies following one another.
The origin of a word, which as observed is linked to a peculiar point of view on the reality, does not set in stone the real meaning of a concept.
The concept never changes. It is the representation of a concept, whose real nature is meant to be conventional and intersubjective, which can change even heavily during the centuries. Pitifully, the word can only change slightly, and anyway not at the same speed of the representation related to her.
A word prefers to die, or to start defining something else, instead of changing and at the same time continuing to be linked to the same concept.
The attempt of historical semantics we mentioned in the foreword and we are now performing seems to be even bolder in its purposes than the etymological one.
As foretold, let’s give a try to this methodology with the Hebrew language, with the hope to unveil some surprising treats.
The Bible tells us that in principle the Lord created the man ( איש) and the woman (אשה).
As you can see these two words have some letters in common and some different ones.
What does come out if a man and a woman put together their differences (e.g. the letters they do not share, ‘ and ה)?
יה , which means God.
What happens if we remove all differences between them (therefore removing the aforementioned letters)?
אש , which means “fire”.
This kind of considerations, even if not genuinely scientific, gives an idea on how a culture influences its language, not only by modifying but also by creating it.
This kind of ontological complementarity and equality between the sexes, moreover backed from the further verse “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them”, totally demystify the “religious argument” given for centuries as main reason for gender disparity.
On the other hand, given the conventional and contextual basic nature of the language, it should not represent an issue to eventually continue using words whose origin may seem wretched to sensitive philologists, but indeed plays no role in shaping the awareness of common people, may be even on a mere subconscious level.
John O’Brien, Focalóir Gaoidhilge-sax-bhéarla Or an Irish-English Dictionary, Books Google, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Woman, Online Etimology Dictionary, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Donna, Dizionario Etimologico Online, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Mulier, Wiktionary, Accessed date: 30/07/2019
Femme, Centre Nationale de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Etimología de Mujer, Etimologías Latin Chistes Refranes Ciudades de Chile, de California, de Rusía, Last Update: Aril 2019, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Frau, Wahrig Herkunftswörterbuch, Accessed date: 26/06/2019
Michiel de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages, Brill, 2008, Accessed date: 26/07/2019
Written by Cosimo Palma
I studied philosophy, historical philosophy, philosophical history and history in the redundant Naples, computational linguistics and informatics in the city of Marx.
Language enthusiast and chess player in the free time, until the end of August I will spend my busy time in the Tower A of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, trying to do my best in the communication as well as in the operational department of the Terminology unit.