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Does anyone know why the word "baby" is referred to by the pronoun "it" rather than a human pronoun. Is there an historical/etymological reason?

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I don't think I've come across people calling babies "it". "They" definitely, but never "it". Is this a regional thing? –  Loquacity Jun 5 '11 at 14:56
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This is common in cases of uncertainty: "She just had a baby." "Is it a boy or a girl?" –  Monica Cellio Jun 5 '11 at 17:24
    
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3 Answers

It is already the case in Old English. The gender is neuter and the pronoun is "hit". The word cild (child) is neuter and so is bearn another synonym for child (Scottish bairn). Baby itself is a later addition of Middle English.

In Modern German, which shares a common ancestry with English, all diminutives (-chen, -lein) are neuter regardless of the original gender.

  • Die Maid (maiden) => Das Mädchen (girl),
  • Der Mann (man) => Das Männlein (manling).

There might be other similar cases in other Indo European languages but the Latin puer is masculine and the Greek παῖς is either masculine (boy) or feminine (girl).

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Except manling is kind of strange in English; you'd only really use it to describe a hobbit or a humunculus — if then. We would say boy, and Germans would more commonly refer to a boy as der Junge (short for der Junge Mann, or "the young man"). –  Robusto Jun 5 '11 at 12:08
    
I mistyped "homunculus" above. D'oh! –  Robusto Jun 5 '11 at 12:35
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@Robusto, I realise my presentation is misleading. Männlein in German means indeed kleiner Man rather than Junge (except maybe in "Männlein und Weiblein"). I chose that example because it illustrated the -lein diminutive and was also symetric in gender to Mädchen. Another possible reproach is that Die Maid is dated. Yet I was looking for clues in the past wasn't I? –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 5 '11 at 19:19
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I have always assumed that this is because small children are unidentifiable except to the doting parents. If you take a wild guess and call the child "he", there is a 50% chance that they will be offended that you can't tell their beautiful daughter from a boy; "It" will draw a correction, but not offend them. (I have noticed a similar effect with dogs and dogowners.)
This assumes you are not referring to unborn children, who are properly called 'it' because not even the parents can tell without medical assistance.

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From Dictionary.com:

it 1 (ɪt)

— pron
1. refers to a nonhuman, animal, plant, or inanimate thing, or sometimes to a small baby: it looks dangerous ; give it a bone ...."

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