Being a native German speaker, I just came across the word "Rhenish" (as a translation of German "rheinisch", belonging to the Rhine).

I am a bit confused about this, and am at a loss for the proper "language words" to describe it... I have long since ceased to think about either German or English in grammatical terms, going by "feel", and it's just not clicking here.

The German transformation from Rhein to rheinisch follows the "usual" pattern for such transformations (e.g. Logik -> logisch).

But the English transformation from Rhine to Rhenish "feels" awkward, and the result looks like a rather mangled attempt to spell the German rheinisch. The dropped / missing "i" looks especially weird. Going with my "gut feeling" I would have expected something like rhineish...?

Sorry for not being able to put my finger on it, but... can somebody explain what is "going on" here with Rhine -> Rhenish?

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    Please include the research you’ve done. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. There are doubtless different etymologies for the English usages 'Rhine' and 'Rhenish', probably differing at the time the words entered the language. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 '18 at 14:36
  • Instinct? Suggestion? The Online Etymology Dictionary is considered a standard reference on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 '18 at 14:42
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    @EdwinAshworth: I understand the etymology of both Rhine and Rhein stemming from Latin Rhenus (which doesn't have the "i"). I was looking askance at why three out of four cases have the "i", but rhenish rather surprisingly -- to me -- does not, and if there is any explanation for it other than "well, it doesn't". ;-) – DevSolar Mar 19 '18 at 14:43
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    @EdwinAshworth While it isn't any different from Mancunian for Manchester or Gaditano for Cadiz, or perhaps Sinitic for China, the relative similarity of Rhine and Rhenish may make it seem that the one is derived from the other, rather than being imported independently. I think the question should stand. – choster Mar 19 '18 at 14:46
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    Dev, it's a good question. It doesn't seem to follow usual rules, and so one would naturally wonder if there is some subtler underlying pattern. It turns out that some words really are made up. – Mitch Mar 19 '18 at 15:12

Sometimes, there are phonological rules that tell you what the sound change should be under a modifications.

But here it just seems to be a historical/cultural choice, not uncommon in English, to choose a alternate, classical derivative for that slot (the adjective version/demonym of a place name):

Rhenish: "of or belonging to the Rhine" (especially of wine), late 14c., from Anglo-French reneis (13c.), from Medieval Latin Rhenensis, from Rhenus (see Rhine).

This is similar to Naples->Neapolitan, Venice->Venetian, Norway->Norwegian.

So there's no native English sound change to explain the short 'e' in 'rhenish'. It was just an academic choice of a different word altogether.

  • Glasgow -> Glaswegian – mskfisher Mar 20 '18 at 14:35
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    @mskfisher Tasmania->Taswegian. Liverpool->Liverpudlian, Manchester->Mancunian, Israel->Sabra, Berlin->Jelly Donut, – Mitch Mar 20 '18 at 14:48

Wiktionary gives Rhinish as an alternative form for Rhenish. There are also Rhenian, Rhenic and Rhenane. According to Wiktionary the etymology is:

From Rhine +‎ -ish (with the first element taking a Latinate form; see Rhenus).

So just in general I guess many words aren't intuitively inflected. The adjective for Wales is Welsh. The adjective describing the geographical area of Flanders is Flemish, and people from there are Flemings. A person from Liverpool is a Liverpudlian. The adjective for Cambridge is not"Cambridgian", but Cantabrigian. God only knows from and through what languages these words have been passed down to us.

If you look at a list of demonyms/ethnonyms you'll see many examples like this.

  • Great examples! – Dan Mar 19 '18 at 14:50
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    Not just God. Also, dictionaries: e.g. Cantabrigian – choster Mar 19 '18 at 14:52

Actually, the word Rhenish, which ultimately comes from the Latin name of the river Rhenus, shows an older vowel sound than the early New High German Rhein. Both Old High and Middle High German called the river Rîn; it was only in early New High German that the diphthong appeared. And there's also the German surname Rhenisch, which I assume goes back to a monophthong Rhine river. The h that crept into the Latin and NHG words is basically a decoration from the Greek.

Rhenish is primarily used in the UK for any German white wine, which Americans call "Rhine wine." American tastes are now sophisticated enough that those who know a little about wine will distinguish it from one that comes from the Mosel/Moselle.

  • Just a quick note... Rhenisch isn't a common German surname; there are a mere 14 entries of that name in the 2008 phone register. ;-) Thanks for the answer, though. – DevSolar Mar 19 '18 at 15:08
  • Well, I must have gotten all of them when I googled. The site where one can check such things keeps giving me a 504 error. verwandt.de/karten/redirecter.php?url=/… Deleted the word common. – KarlG Mar 19 '18 at 15:16
  • It does sometimes give me a 504 as well. It shows regional distribution of names; funnily enough, Rhenisch appears mostly in Hannover, Lüneburg and Berlin (none of which is even close to the Rhine). ;-) – DevSolar Mar 19 '18 at 15:20
  • I don’t think the first sentence is correct here. Rhenisch is presumably a reasonably modern formation based on Latin rhēn(ān)us, whereas Rhein is the inherited form of the name as it was borrowed from some Celtic source (*Rēnos or similar), perhaps more than two millennia ago. The change from OHG Rîn to NHG R(h)ein is a quite regular consequence of the German version of the Great Vowel Shift (which actually predates the GVS). Note that Dutch underwent similar changes, and Rijn represents /rεin/, closer to Rhine/Rhein /raɪn ~ rain/ than to OHG/MHG Rîn /riːn/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 19 '18 at 22:15
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    @DevSolar It makes sense that the name Rhenisch should occur more often far from the Rhine. In those areas, a person could be identified by being from the Rhine area. Near the Rhine, "Rhenisch" would be useless for describing anyone because it describes (nearly) everyone. – Andreas Blass Mar 20 '18 at 1:36

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