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Are there any rules governing what we call people from different countries?

In the English language, you have several endings used when you construct an adjective out of the name of a nationality. For example, the nationality of Japan is Japanese while the nationality of Korea is Korean.

Is there a grammar rule that decides what ending should be used? Or what did decide on what ending to use?

And is the -nese ending connected to Polynesia somehow? As the -nese endings seem concentrated in that area?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, Matt E. Эллен, user19148, Marthaª, RegDwigнt Sep 14 '12 at 23:35

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  • ... though of course the answers are not exactly stellar. Feel free to pile on with better ones. – RegDwigнt Sep 14 '12 at 20:42
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    The various ‑ese, ‑an, ‑ian, ‑sh, ‑er &c suffixes for creating adjectives for inhabitants or languages out of places mostly derive from Latin directly or indirectly, or sometimes from old Germanic, and have direct cognates/parallels in the neighboring Romance and Germanic tongues. Which one ends up being chosen is partly a matter of euphony and partly of serendipity. – tchrist Sep 14 '12 at 20:51

No, alas, there is no grammar rule for this.

It is Morphology, but this is a matter of Derivational Morphology, which is about word histories and their offshoots, instead of Inflectional Morphology, which is about Grammar.

That means that each individual geographic group name has potentially a different relation to the geographic area and its people, depending on what group first coined the term. And they can come from everywhere. And they're often not intended to be polite.

As for the -ese suffix, partly it comes from use of the Greek word νῆσος (/'nɛ:sos/ in Homeric Greek) 'island', as in Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia, Micronesia, Austronesian, etc. All of these names refer to islands; respectively, many islands, black islands, Indian islands, small islands, South islands, etc.

This is not just a fact about English, by the way; it's true of most languages, and very few languages consistently use a regular construction to indicate localization of people.

  • Counterexamples: Sudanese, Lebanese -- I note the roots end -n so presumably these are more euphonious than rigorous. – Andrew Leach Sep 14 '12 at 21:16
  • I said it came partly from Greek. Clearly Chinese has more to do with Qin and China than with the Greek for island. – John Lawler Sep 14 '12 at 21:26

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