Friday, August 24, 2018

Family Relations, Part 2b: Words for Spouses: Wife

[This entry comes from Chapter 7, "Words for family relations", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


Words for ‘wife’


The companion of wer in Old English to refer to a married woman was wif [ˈwif], the ancestor of Modern English wife [ˈwaɪ̯f]. The meaning of this word in Old English was primarily ‘woman, female person’, not ‘wife’, though it could be used that way also. This word can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *wiban, but not further back all the way to Proto-Indo-European. Although the word wife originally meant ‘woman’, at some point, in order to express that meaning, the word wif was reinforced in the 8th century by the noun man, which then meant just ‘person, human being’, not ‘man’,  giving us wifman (plural wifmen) ‘woman, female servant’. These, of course, are the source of Modern English woman [ˈwʊ.mən] and its irregular plural women [ˈwɪ.mɪn].

The companion of vir in Latin to refer to a married woman was uxor (genitive uxōris, accusative uxōrem, regular stem uxōr‑). This word was not passed on to Spanish, however. The word that passed on to Spanish patrimonially with this meaning was mŭlier (gen. muliĕris, acc. muliĕrem), which meant ‘woman, female’, but which, just like the word wif in Old English, could be used to refer to someone’s wife. Presumably, this word was derived at an early period in the history of Latin from mollior ‘softer, more tender’, the comparative form of the adjective mollis ‘soft, tender’ (cf. Sp. muelle; cf. Eng. mollify). Because of its double meaning, Lat. mŭlier was a synonym of both Lat. uxor ‘wife’ and fēmĭna ‘woman’, the latter being the source of the patrimonial Spanish word hembra ‘female’ (see below).

The accusative word-form muliĕre(m) eventually evolved into modern Spanish word mujer [mu.ˈxeɾ], which can still mean ‘woman’ as well as ‘wife’, depending on the context, just like its Latin source-word did. (When a man and a woman get married, the officiant traditionally says: Os declaro marido y mujer ‘I declare you husband and wife’.) The Latin sound combination ‑li‑ before another vowel changed initially in early Romance to [ʎ] which in Old Spanish changed to [ʒ] (the sound of French j and of English s in the word vision; it was spelled 〈i〉 or 〈j〉 in Old Spanish). (This second change did not happen in Portuguese, which is why the cognate of Sp. mujer in this language is mulher, pronounced [muˈʎɛɾ] or [mu.ˈʎɛʁ].) The sound [ʒ] was devoiced and became [ʃ] around the 16th century, and eventually its place of articulation moved to the back of the mouth, resulting in the sound [x] sound (Spanish jota), which was respelled later with the letter 〈j〉 (for details of these sounds and the sound changes, cf. Part I, Chapters 7 and 10, respectively). The Latin short ŭ typically became o in Old Spanish, but often being next to a palatal consonant such as [ʒ] made it change to u instead.[1]

Latin
M
Ŭ
LI
ER
E(M)
Early Spanish
m
u
[ʎ]
er

Old Spanish
m
u
[ʒ]
er

Early Moden Spanish
m
u
[ʃ]
er

Modern Spanish
m
u
[x]
er


Latin had another word that unambiguously meant ‘woman’, without meaning ‘wife’. That was the word fēmĭna (gen. fēmĭnae, acc. fēmĭnam). This word passed on to Spanish, but with two major sound changes that make it almost unrecognizable, since the Modern Spanish version is hembra ‘female, woman’. First of all, the initial f changed its sound to [h] in early Spanish and then it was lost (it ‘became silent’) but was maintained in the spelling as 〈h〉. The middle ‑i‑ was lost due to this being an unstressed, word-internal vowel, giving us *hemna. Presumably in order to make this word more pronounceable, the ‑mn‑ changed to ‑mbr‑ (cf. Part I, Chapter 7).

Latin
F
Ē
M
Ĭ
N
A(M)
Early Spanish
f
e
m
-
n
a
Old Spanish
f
e
m

r
a
Modern Spanish
h
e
m
b
r
a

The English word female [ˈfi.meɪ̯l] is related to Sp. hembra since it also goes back to the Latin root fēmĭn‑. Eng. female is a 14th century loanword from Old French femelle ‘woman, female’, which comes from Lat. fēmella ‘girl, young woman’ (acc. fēmellam), an irregular diminutive of the word fēmĭna (fēmin+ell+a). The spelling of Eng. female, with al instead of ell, comes by analogy with the word male. However, the English words male and female are not related to each other.

English male ‘male human being’ is a loanword from Old French masle or malle (mâle [ˈmɑl] in Modern French), which descended from Lat. māscŭlus, which as an adjective meant ‘masculine’ and as a noun, ‘a male’, which was the diminutive form of the noun mās ‘a male, man’ (accusative: marem), formed with the diminutive suffix ‑cŭl‑ (mās-cŭl-us). In the Latin word māscŭlus, we can recognize the stem of the related cognates Eng. masculine ~ Sp. masculino/a, which are learned Latin loanwords in both languages. They come from Lat. māscŭlīnus (fem. masculīna), which meant pretty much what its descendants mean today: ‘masculine, male, manly’ and, in grammar, ‘masculine’. It was formed by adding the adjectival suffix ‑īn‑ to the stem of the word māscŭlus (māscŭl‑īn‑us).

It often strikes English speakers as something rather odd to hear a man refer to his wife in Spanish as mi mujer. That is because they equate mujer with woman, since that is indeed the main sense of this word, at least without any additional context. However, in the right context, the word mujer has meant ‘wife’ in addition to ‘woman’ since Roman times. Although one does occasionally hear an English-speaking man refer to their wives as my woman, this is not very common, and it is associated with certain people and/or certain contexts. That is not what is going on when Spanish speakers use mujer to refer to their wives, for mujer does mean ‘wife’, not just woman. (On the other hand, we should note that English dictionaries do give ‘wife’ as one of the senses of the word woman, at least in some dialects.)




[1] Some common words derived from mujer are mujerzuela ‘slut, harlot, loose woman’, mujerona ‘tall and corpulent woman’ (and, according to the DLE, ‘respectable matron’), mujerío ‘large group of women’, and mujeriego n. ‘womanizer, ladies’ man, philanderer’, adj. ‘womanizing, philandering’.

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