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A friend recently pondered why Latino/Latina inflects according to gender. I suggested that it's because Latino is a loanword from a language with grammatical gender, but he found it odd that other demonyms don't inflect this way, and he wondered whether there was something etymologically or historically unique about the word. Wikipedia offers a long list of demonyms, and only Pinoy/Pinay and Canadien(ne) inflect like this.

I also noted that Englishman has a feminine ‑woman form, although the etymology here is different. Etymology Online attests that Englishman dates to Old English, whereas gendered Englishwoman is a newer form (c.1400). This inflection appears to have a different productive mechanism, one that mainly applies to places with significant Anglophone or Norse history: Englishman, Frenchman, Irishman, Dutchman, Scotsman, Chinaman, Welshman, Norseman (roughly in order of usage).

Is there any etymological rhyme or reason to this? Why do we inflect Latino and Canadien but not other words derived from non-Germanic languages like Spaniard? Why do we have Irishwomen but not Italianwomen (and only very rarely Spanishwomen)?


Update: MετάEd answered this satisfactorily for the native demonyms ending in -man: In those cases, the gendered variants are largely the result of a semantic shift where Old English man “person” became Middle English man “male” and woman “female.” However, I'm still looking for an explanation of why English adopted the gender inflection of Latino, Filipino, and Pinoy, unlike most other demonyms. Is this perhaps because they are endonyms used by a significant number of bilingual English speakers?

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    Conversely, why do we have an Italian and a Scot, but an English or an Irish sounds awkward? – Bradd Szonye May 12 '13 at 3:19
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    @MετάEd Sorry, I'm not seeing the relationship between womyn and this issue, other than that they both touch on gender. It is puzzling though that a recent English coinage (Etymonline dates Latino to 1946) would borrow gender when the linguistic and social trend has been to move away from grammatical gender. – Bradd Szonye May 12 '13 at 4:23
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    Do we inflect Canadien? I'd be more inclined to call them all Canadians. Quebecois may feel differently of course. – Andrew Leach May 12 '13 at 7:40
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    @AndrewLeach I grew up near English-speaking Ontario, where Canadian is common and Canadien would probably seem affected unless you're talking about the hockey team. It wouldn't surprise me to see it in reference to French Canadians like William Shatner and Celine Dion, especially if somebody wanted to make a point of calling her Canadienne. – Bradd Szonye May 12 '13 at 7:45
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Spanish has a fairly simple system of indicating gender agreement that is familiar to a great many English speakers (maybe most), which means English speakers are more likely to be aware of how to inflect Spanish adjectives for gender than adjectives from most other languages.

Even though French gender agreement is also relatively simple—mostly a matter of adding "e"—the resulting forms would often be homophonous if read using English conventions, which I think leads to more confusion. The French-derived words that are inflected in writing in English, such as né(e) and fiancé(e), are fairly often misspelled.

Additionally, the word "Latino/Latina" entered English relatively recently, so it's had less time to lose foreign affixes and become naturalized. The earliest citations for Spaniard in the Oxford English Dictionary are from around the fifteenth century, while the earliest for Latino is 1946.

The continued use of these terms by bilingual speakers, as you have mentioned, is also likely to play a role in the maintenance of the gender distinctions. Pinoy and Pinay in particular seem to me to be used most often by Filipinos or people of Filipino ancestry, rather than by other English speakers.

  • I for one have never heard the word Pinay before. I’ve heard Pinoy many times, but never Pinay. Didn’t even know it existed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 11 '16 at 4:21
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    I think you're right about the bilingual users of these terms. I'd add that Latino/a, Pinoy/ay, and similar terms (Chicano/a, F(P)ilipino/a, etc.) are meant to be reflective of how members of the groups in question self-identify. As such, it makes sense that they would retain gender distinctions if group members regularly employ the gendered terms (whether or not they or others are actually bilingual). Compare the older, less-favored term Hispanic, which does not inflect for gender. – 1006a Dec 11 '16 at 8:02
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-man and -woman are not like the -o and -a of Romance languages. They are not inflections. They are compounds, not suffixes, and they are not even strictly parallel. Man was originally a word for person (genderless) and is still found filling that role in many words, though it has also gained a common secondary meaning of male person.

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    Good point about -woman: I'm familiar with the etymology, Old English wif “woman” + man “person.” That explains why Engliscman is Old English and Englishwoman Middle English. That makes the latter half of my question less about gender and more about why the –man “person” suffix is mandatory for some demonyms (Englishman), optional for some (Scot/sman), and unused for others (Italian). The Wikipedia article suggests that the -man suffix corresponds to tribes, but that doesn't quite jibe. – Bradd Szonye May 12 '13 at 6:01

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