9

Studying English in school as a second language, I learned that human being would be the proper noun to describe a member of the Homo sapiens species, but it seems human is perfectly acceptable in English nowadays. It can even sometimes substitute (supposedly gender-specific) man where that was used in a gender-neutral way, e.g. in humankind, but not in *chairhuman, *firehuman etc.

The gender nouns man and (derived) woman, however, have their plurals as men and women, respectively, so why is umlauted *humen not acceptable at least as an alternative to the regular plural morphem +s which is used to form humans? The same question applies to some peoples or tribes, e.g. the Germans and Normans, not *Germen and *Normen.

The question even applies if human and man have different actual etymologies (Romance vs. Germanic), because perceived or folk etymology is often at least as important.

Also, does this effectively render these words gender-neutral, although they seem to contain the gender-specific morpheme man (in singular)?

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.)

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.

  • 3
    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 '15 at 13:54
  • 1
    @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? – Cerberus Oct 16 '15 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] – chasly from UK Oct 16 '15 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 '15 at 14:12
  • 1
    @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. – Cerberus Oct 16 '15 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.

  • 1
    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? – Cerberus Oct 16 '15 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 '15 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 '15 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 '15 at 1:43
  • @alephzero the OED suggests that they are North men. But etymologically that's the same as the Normans. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 17 '15 at 2:03

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