Friday, May 10, 2013

The relative novelty of the term "man" by Aysa Peraltsvaig

First consider its history merely within English over the past millennium and a half. Today, it is pronounced /mæn/ and means one of two things: either ‘an adult male person’ or ‘a person of either gender’. The latter meaning, however, is considered sexist by many, and is thus falling out of use. Words such as chairmanfisherman, and policeman are thus being replaced by such gender-neutral forms as chairpersonfisher, and police officer, just as mankind is yielding to humankind. But as the gender-neutral meaning of man is still evident in manslaughter and in the phrase no man’s land. As it turns out, the meaning of ‘an adult male’ is relatively new. In Old English (roughly, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066), this word—pronounced then with a vowel articulated further back in the mouth—did not mean a ‘male person’ but had only the gender-neutral sense of ‘a human being, person (male or female)’. The word acquired the sense of ‘adult male’ in Middle English. Prior to that time, an adult male was a wer, as distinguished from a wif, which then meant ‘woman (of any marital status)’, as it still does in idiomatic expressions like old wives’ tale and in the compound midwife, originally meaning ‘with woman (during labor)’. The word wer began to disappear in the late 13the century and was eventually replaced byman, which retained its old, more general meaning as it acquired the new, gender-specific one. (The term wer did survive, however, in such terms as “werewolf,” which make one wonder whether a female lycanthrope should be referred to as “wifwolf”.) Note also that the Old English man had additional meanings besides ‘person’, including ‘servant, vassal’, as in all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (we retain this meaning to this day). Thus, clearly the meanings of even “ultraconserved words” show considerable change over much shorter periods than 15,000 years.
Pronunciations of such core terms change too, as I indicated above with the shift in vowel articulation in man through the history of English. Within the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family, the reflexes of the reconstructed ancestral Proto-Germanic form *manwaz include Old Norse maðr, Danish mand, Gothic manna. In other Indo-European branches we find Sanskrit (Indic) manuh, Avestan (Iranian) manu-, Old Church Slavonic (Slavic) mozi. The latter is related to the Russian form muzh, found in the Russian version of the odd “Stone Age” passage above. This plethora of phonological forms in related languages is a result of sound changes, different in each family.


Now I am on a search to find Old English Bible translations!

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