35

What makes these two words so different that 'man' is changed to 'men', but 'German' is changed to 'Germans'?

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  • 50
    We humen like to bend rules and be creative.
    – mike3996
    Apr 19, 2013 at 9:54
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    The answer to "should English be consistent in spelling?" is quite different to the answer to "is English consistent in spelling?"...
    – Wooble
    Apr 19, 2013 at 11:40
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    Yeah, and since the plural of tooth is teeth, I suppose the plural of booth should have been beeth. And since we say that the teacher taught, we must also say that the preacher praught. That was a light-hearted way of saying the same thing as @progo's comment : We sure like to bend rules and be creative. Words have all sorts of reasons to be in their present form. Nowadays, I hear that people are facebook-ing (keeping in contact through facebook), kik-ing (messaging on kik) and SMS-ing (sending a text message in your mobile phone) each other :-)
    – rktcool
    Apr 19, 2013 at 12:25
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    The British invasion by the Romen was followed up by waves of alien hordes, culminating in the conquest of the Normen.
    – tchrist
    Apr 19, 2013 at 13:10
  • 18
    If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren't people from Holland called Holes? :)
    – grep
    Apr 19, 2013 at 14:45

5 Answers 5

108

German is from the Latin word germani; unlike the similar-looking demonyms Englishman and Frenchman, it is etymologically unrelated to the word man and does not form a plural the same way.

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    This is correct. It is nothing more than a coincidence that these two words happen to use the same set of three letters. (I would merely mention that the Latin name of Germany was Germania, not germani). Apr 19, 2013 at 7:04
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    @JohnM.Landsberg That's correct: Germania is the land, germani is the people. Apr 19, 2013 at 7:05
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    Remarkable. Out of all the words ending in –man at litscape.com/word_tools/ends_with.php it seems that only German and I suggest, caiman, shaman, and talisman don’t form a plural –men. Apr 19, 2013 at 13:16
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    @AvrohomYitzchok: See also :)
    – Ry-
    Apr 19, 2013 at 13:45
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    @AvrohomYitzchok afikoman, Bildungsroman, ceriman, daman, desman, dhaman, dolman, firman, Haman, hetman, human, Künstlerroman, leman, liman, Mussulman, Naman, Norman, Oklahoman, ottoman, Ottoman, Panaman, Pullman, pygman, Quartodeciman, Roman, saman, talisman, Tallman, terjiman, Tolman, truchman, Turcoman, Turkman.
    – tchrist
    Apr 19, 2013 at 14:04
26

Words like human and German are not from man and do not contain the (Germanic) morpheme man, as you say. Only the morpheme man is properly pluralised as men. See the list of words in Tchrist's answer for an overview of which words are from man and which aren't. In human and German, we're dealing with the Latin suffix -anus, which means something vague like "having to do with x", shortened to -an in English.

Cf. Republican (same Latin suffix), Qur'an (an Arabic morpheme): we don't say two Republicen were reading their Qur'en.

The true etymology is very important, because folk etymology is not very common in general and hardly ever accepted by the "writing classes". So it does not often become popular enough to displace the original.

Further, there would be little difference in pronunciation between human and humen, because the last syllable is unstressed; folk etymology normally originates in speech, not writing, which means that this plural would be much less useful to speakers. (In women, a trick was performed by having a differently pronounced first syllable to distinguish between woman (/wʊ-/) and women (/wɪ-/), which words would otherwise be pronounced (almost) the same.)

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18

It’s because they are not, or are not thought of as being, composed of a base noun which the word man has been pasted on to the end of. Without the word man to start with, you won’t get men out of the plural.

Here’s a longer list of such things:

  • ataman
  • caiman
  • cayman
  • ceriman
  • desman
  • dolman
  • farman
  • harman
  • hetman
  • human
  • leman
  • ottoman
  • shaman
  • talisman
  • Alabaman
  • Bahaman
  • Burman
  • German
  • Hiroshiman
  • Liman
  • Nakayaman
  • Norman
  • Oklahoman
  • Panaman
  • Roman
  • Selman
  • Sonaman
  • Tacoman
  • Yakiman
  • Yokohaman
  • Yuman

In other words, there is no man morpheme present to undergo that word’s (now irregular) i-mutation the way there is in these:

  • airman
  • bailsman
  • barman
  • churchman
  • draftman
  • frontierman
  • gamesman
  • handiman
  • highwayman
  • Irishman
  • juryman
  • kinsman
  • lawman
  • madman
  • nobleman
  • Orkneyman
  • pikeman
  • quarryman
  • ragman
  • rifleman
  • Scotsman
  • seaman
  • tradesman
  • underclassman
  • vestryman
  • watchman
  • workman
  • yachtsman

See the difference?

Be aware that one on rare occasion still sees this pattern:

  • foramen > foramina
  • gravamen > gravamina
  • legumen > legumina
  • molimen > molimina
  • nomen > nomina
  • stamen > stamina
  • specimen > specimina
  • tegmen > tegmina
  • tentamen > tentamina
  • velamen > velamina

Most of those Latin inflections have now been assimilated into regular English plurals, except sometimes in scientific literature.

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    Of course the irony is that while this answer correctly identifies an etymological fallacy, it, in turn, is an etymological fallacy in its own right. The only real answer to the question "why is humen not acceptable" is "because nobody ever uses it, at all". If everyone did use it, it would be perfectly acceptable, or even the norm. The real answer to any why question about language is "because". There is no other answer. There is no reason. There can't be. It's all just chance. It just so happens.
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 16, 2015 at 13:54
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    @RegDwigнt: Then answer me this question. Is it never useful to explain what factors caused a certain form to become used or not used, if such factors can be identified? Oct 16, 2015 at 14:07
  • @RegDwigнt - I partly agree but Cerberus' answer gives an actual reason. It relates to the position of the stress. In modern English, 'human' and 'humen' would tend to be indistinguishable because the stress is on 'hu' and the final vowel would therefore be a schwa. [Cross-posted with Cerberus' comment] Oct 16, 2015 at 14:08
  • @Cerberus: oh if you know the factors, knock yourself out. But you seem to miss my point that more often than not we just do not know them. It's all idle speculation in hindsight. It's justification after the fact. As are, indeed, most grammar "rules", which are really but mere observations.
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 16, 2015 at 14:12
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    @RegDwigнt: Sure, I agree that it is useless to talk about something that really isn't known at all. But how is the asker to know that in advance? Besides, in reality, we often do have an idea of some factors, and we put them in our answers. They are rarely 100% proven, but a substantiated argument can be quite useful, if we're not entirely sure. Oct 16, 2015 at 14:16
6

As tchrist pointed out in his answer, it hinges on whether the word is considered to be base descriptive word + man. Some of your examples, like German, were never formed that way. However, the OED gives an example of Normen as a plural in Old English:

OE Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Tiber. B.i) anno 1066 Þær wæs Harold cyning of Norwegan & Tostig eorl ofslagen, & gerim folces mid heom, ægðer ge Normana ge Englisca, & þa Normen [flugon þa Englis[c]a].

OE Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Tiber. B.iv) anno 1049 Harold for to Norwegum, Magnus fædera, syððan Magnus dead wæs, & Normen hine underfengon.

Compare to Englisman, Englishmen, which are still both acceptable. I'd guess that as Norman became seen more as the name of the people, its plural became more regular. It stopped being a compound word and became a simple word.

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    The reason is probably that it came to English through French. The Germanic suffix -man is not known in French and less easily recognised by the French, so they probably said and wrote Normans. So there already was a plural on -s when the Normans invaded England. P.S. It's also interesting how they write Normand and Normandie. Cf. Dutch niemand for "noöne, no-man", which is also from man and also has the -d, which is odd in Dutch. I believe German also has inflected forms like niemandem? Oct 16, 2015 at 14:20
  • Consider also the obsolete word Mussulman, which was a borrowing from Arabic musulman, meaning a Muslim. This does not contain the morpheme "man", but plural Mussulmen was certainly found as well as Mussulmans. (The Arabic plural is maslamin IIRC).
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 16, 2015 at 15:23
  • @Cerberus Yes, niemand ‘noone, nobody’ and jemand ‘someone, somebody’ are usually inflected in contemporary German: +en Acc, +em Dat, +es Gen. They are of course related to the neutral 3rd person singular pronoun man ‘one’ (or ‘you’) and the noun Mann ‘man, male’.
    – Crissov
    Oct 16, 2015 at 15:31
  • My Anglo-Saxon isn't good enough to be sure who the "Normen" were: were they Normans, - i.e. French, or Northmen - i.e. the "Northumbrians" or "Norsemen" [actually Danes] of Tostig's army?
    – alephzero
    Oct 17, 2015 at 1:43
  • @alephzero the OED suggests that they are North men. But etymologically that's the same as the Normans. Oct 17, 2015 at 2:03
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Another way of saying it- a man from France is called a Frenchman, and many of them are referred to collectively as FrenchMEN. A man from Germany (we see here with the "y" that "man" is included as a coincidence- you can't take it as "many from Ger" either...) would be called a Germanman and many would be Germanmen. I think they might have said it back in WWII, but I could be wrong.

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  • If that were the case, I would have expected those terms to have turned up in print at some point. Google Ngram
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 20, 2013 at 10:06
  • It could also be Germanyman by analogy with Chinaman, but I doubt that either term saw actual usage. Apr 20, 2013 at 12:34
  • No one says "Germanman."
    – herisson
    Nov 22, 2016 at 8:50

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