Sunday, January 3, 2021

Slaves and slavery, part 13: Eng. servant and Sp. sirviente, and Eng. server and Sp. servidor

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 13 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Eng. servant and Sp. sirviente, and Eng. server and Sp. servidor

In the Middle Ages, a need arose for a word to describe people who served others doing domestic work, without being property or actual slaves or serfs. In the Romance languages, one of the ways in which such people came to be known is by means of words derived from the verbs that descended from Lat. sĕrvīre. The most common were nouns derived from the verbs’ present participles. Another possibility was to use descendants of an agent noun that was already used in Late Latin to refer to people who served, without being necessarily slaves, namely sĕrvītor.

The present participles of Latin verbs were primarily verbal adjectives of the third declension, that is, they were words that describe nouns. However, they were sometimes turned into nouns, without the addition of any affixes, that is, by conversion (cf. Part I, Chapter 5). The same is true of their descendants in the Romance languages. Actually, although the conversion of participles into nouns happened sometimes in Latin, this was much more common in the Romance languages. In Spanish, for example, we find many nouns derived from verbs, with the ending ‑ante and ‑iente, the former from first conjugation verbs and the latter with second and third conjugation verbs, which are rarely used as adjectives anymore and are primarily used as nouns, such as Sp. estudiante ‘student’, cantante ‘singer’, teniente ‘lieutenant’, etc. (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). The DLE usually says that the first sense of these words is as an adjective and that they are only secondarily nouns. However, in reality, most of these words are today primarily nouns in Spanish, not adjectives, since the present participle is not a regular verbal form anymore.

The present active participle of Lat. sĕrvīre ‘be a slave to’ was sĕrvĭēns in the nominative singular wordform and sĕrvĭentem in the accusative. Latin present participles were formed from the present stem, by dropping the ‑re ending of the present infinitive, to which the suffix ‑nt‑ was added before the case inflection (the irregular nominative plus inflection combined ending was 1st conjugation ‑āns, second and third conjugation ‑ēns, and fourth conjugation ‑ĭēns).[i] Latin present participles are usually translated into English as the ‑ing form of the verb, though the two are not always equivalent, since the English ‑ing verbal form cannot always be used as an adjective (an example where it can is the person teaching Latin, which is equivalent to the person who teaches Latin).

In the case of the present participle of sĕrvīre we can view the present participle as consisting of the root sĕrv‑ plus the ending ‑ĭent‑ plus the inflection ending (‑ĭēns in the nominative singular). This participle was used exclusively as an adjective in Latin and its meaning was ‘serving, that serves; being devoted to, etc.’. In other words, this participle was not used as a noun in Latin the way its successors would be in French, Spanish, and especially when English borrowed the word servant as a noun.

The present participle of French servir, the patrimonial descendant of Lat. sĕrvīre, is the regularized servant, which has the only regular and productive present participle ending that has survived in French, namely ‑ant (feminine ‑ante). And the present participle of Spanish servir is sirviente, with the expected stem vowel change of patrimonial third conjugation verbs from Latin short ĕ to i, resulting from the effect of the semivowel [i̯] in the suffix ([siɾ.ˈβi̯en̪.t̪e]).[1] Both of these participles came to be used in these Romance languages as nouns to refer to domestic workers.

Fr. servant is first attested in the early 12th century, at first only as an adjective (like Sp. sirviente), but later it came to be used as a noun with various meanings. Modern French still has the word servant [sɛʀ.ˈvɑ̃] that may still act as an adjective, meaning ‘that serves’, as in frères servants ‘brothers that serve, brother servants’ (‘lay brothers employed in modest work’, LGR). Used as a noun, however, this word is only used in its feminine form in Modern French, as servante, which means ‘female servant’ or ‘maidservant’. To name a male servant, Modern French did away in recent times with the masculine form servant and replaced it with the noun serviteur, a loaned descendant of Lat. sĕrvītor (see below). Actually, both names, fem. servante and masc. serviteur, are rarely used in Modern French, for they are now dated or historical words that have been mostly replaced with the noun domestique derived from the identical adjective meaning ‘domestic’ (as in Eng. domestic worker).

English borrowed the word servant [ˈsɜɹ.vənt] as a noun (not adjective) from Old French in the early 13th century with the meaning ‘personal or domestic attendant’, without any distinction of gender. Up to the present day, the main meaning of Eng. servant is ‘a person who performs duties for others, especially one employed in a house to carry out domestic duties or as a personal attendant’ (COED). However, this word is dated or historical and it is not considered to be the best or ‘politically correct’ way to refer to domestic workers since it sounds demeaning to us.

English created the compound maidservant in the late 14th century to refer to ‘a female domestic servant’ (COED), using the native word maid, a shortening of maiden, from Old English mægden ‘a girl or young woman’. The word maidservant has been shortened to maid in Modern English, resulting in the modern sense of this word, namely ‘a female domestic servant’ (COED). The word maidservant is now considered ‘dated’ too, more so even than the noun maid and, especially, servant.

Eng. servant has had a number of meanings and uses over time, some of which are obsolete or historical today. So, for instance, since sometime in the 16th century, the word servant has been used in English to refer to ‘a person employed in the service of a government’ (COED), as in the expression servant of the crown in Great Britain, and in particular, in the phrase public servant for ‘a government official or employee’, an expression that dates from 1671 (MWC). The phrase civil servant for ‘a person who works in the Civil Service’ (CALD) is from around the year 1800 (MWC). The Spanish equivalent of civil servant is funcionario (público/del Estado). The phrase public servant is found in most English dictionaries with the meaning ‘a person who works for the state or for local government’ (COED), which can also be translated as funcionario/a. For the equivalent of public servant, some dialects of Spanish have calqued the English phrase as servidor público, using the same word servidor we saw above, though this phrase is not common or widespread in Spanish.

The word servidor/a that we just saw in the phrase servidor público is quite a rare (uncommon) Spanish adjective/noun. It can be seen as derived in Spanish from the verb servir by means of the agentive suffix ‑dor/a, which makes it equivalent or analogous to Eng. server (serv-er). Alternatively, Sp. servidor can be seen as a descendant (by loan) of the Latin agent noun nom. sĕrvītor, acc. sĕrvītōrem, the Late Latin noun that we mentioned earlier that could be used to mean ‘servant’. (The DLE tells us that Sp. servidor descends from Lat. sĕrvītor, period.) Lat. sĕrvītor was derived suffix ‑or  (genitive: ōr-is) added to the passive participle stem (which usually ended in ‑t or else ‑s) to create a third-declension masculine agent noun, in this case derived from the stem sĕrv‑īt- of the passive participle sĕrvītus (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). It is a fact, however, that any third conjugation Spanish verb can derive this type of adjective/noun by means of the suffix ‑dor/a, whether the verb’s Latin ancestor ever did, e.g. hablador/a ‘chatty’ from hablar ‘to speak’, vividor/a ‘pleasure seeker’ from vivir ‘to live’ and repartidor/a ‘delivery person’ from repartir ‘to distribute’.

The Spanish word servidor is analogous to (or cognate with) the French noun serviteur that we just saw has replaced the noun servant for the meaning ‘male servant’. Sp. servidor/a has had several uses over time, including the use to refer to servants and even to chamber pots, though it is a rare word today, much like Eng. servant. In some contexts, Sp. servidor translates the English word servant. Sp. servidor/a was used in formulas of courtesy at the end of letters, as in su atento/seguro servidor, equivalent to the now archaic expression your (most) humble servant or your most humble, most obedient servant in English when writing to an important person. To this day, this word is used in some contexts by people to refer to themselves in the third person, as in Un servidor se va a dormir ‘I am going to bed’ (Clave). Likewise, when one’s name is called, as in a roll call, one could answer ¡Servidor/a! instead of ¡Presente!, though that is a rather old-fashioned use of this word too. Again, the word servidor may be considered a descendant of the Latin  sĕrvĭtor or else as a word created in Spanish by means of the regular suffix ‑(i)dor/a. Both things may be true, and the word could have been both created in Spanish and borrowed and adapted from Latin at different times and in different contexts.

Sp. servidor, used as a noun, has also come to be used as the equivalent or translation of Eng. server in some of this word’s senses, such as the information technology sense, namely ‘a computer in a network that is used to provide services (as access to files or shared peripherals or the routing of e-mail) to other computers in the network’ (MWC), since those computers are said to serve those files. The computer sense of Eng. server dates from 1992, but the word is much older, first attested in the late 14th century. It was formed in English out of the verb serve and the native English agent suffix ‑er (cf. giver, hitter, receiver), though there was an analogous French word servier (now obsolete) that may have been used as a model for the English coinage (OED). The main and original meaning for the agent noun server is rather general, namely ‘a person or thing that serves’ (COED). In North America, this sense has been extended in recent times to apply to ‘a waiter or waitress’ (COED), which is probably the first thing that a North American English speaker thinks of when they hear the noun server. There are a few other minor senses for the noun server, such as in the legal one ‘one who serves a writ or summons’ and, in sports, ‘the player who serves, as in court games’ (AHD). 

Going back to the English servant, this word has also come to be used to refer to ‘a devoted and helpful follower or supporter’ (COED), as in the phrase a servant of the truth (MWALD) or in the sentence He was willing to make himself a servant of his art (OALD). This sense is usually translated into Spanish also as servidor/a, as in Eng. a faithful servant of the cause Sp. un leal servidor de la causa (OSD). Thus, we encounter the Spanish word servidor again, this time as a translation of Eng. servant, not of server. Actually, we should mention that English also borrowed at one time the Latin noun sĕrvītor, as servitor, pronounced [ˈsɜɹvɪtəɹ], in the 14th century, though the word is archaic today. Dictionaries differ a bit as to how they define this word. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is an archaic word that means ‘a person who serves or attends on a social superior’, but that it is also a historical word for ‘an Oxford undergraduate performing menial duties in exchange for assistance from college funds’ (COED). The OED of course has a few more senses, which are mostly obsolete today.

As we saw earlier in the chapter, the OED also tells us that the word servant has often been used in English to translate the Latin word sĕrvus ‘slave’, in particular in translations of the Bible. We mentioned that this was perhaps done at first as a euphemism to refer to domestic slaves in order to avoid the modern slavery stigma (see above). In one of the OED’s senses for servant (3a), we learn that ‘[i]n the 14th and 15th [centuries], [the word servant was] often used to render the Latin servus ‘slave’. In all the Bible translations from Wyclif to the Revised Version of 1880-4, the word servant very often represents the Hebrew ʿébed or the Greek δολος [doulos], though this term as applied to Israelitish conditions would perhaps be misleading’ (OED). The OED also tells us (3b) that ‘In the North American colonies in the 17–18th c[enturies], and subsequently in the United States, servant was the usual designation for a slave’ (OED). This helps explain the fact that the word servant seems archaic and irrelevant today.

Let us go back now to the cognate or analog of Eng. servant in Spanish, namely Sp. sirviente and its feminine form sirvienta. These words are first attested in the late 13th century (Berceo has also serviente, with an e), later than their French cognates, a fact that suggests that the French word might have served as the model for the Spanish one, at least in its use as a noun, much like it did for the English one. Note that Spanish present participles, which always end in the vowel ‑e (since the original, patrimonial ones descend from the accusative wordform that ended in ‑em), can be either masculine or feminine, as in the word cantante ‘singer’, derived from the verb cantar ‘to sing’. Only occasionally do nouns derived from present participles develop a feminine form in which the genderless ‑e inflection is replaced by a feminine ‑a inflection and this is one of them, for sirviente is a masculine noun whose feminine form is sirvienta. One other such pair is comediantecomedianta for ‘comedian’ and there are a few more that are common in speech, though they may not be considered acceptable in the formal language.[2]

The DLE defines sirviente primarily as an adjective that means ‘that serves’, that this adjective ‘can also be used as a noun’ (Sp. Úsase también como sustantivo, abbreviated as U. t. c. s. in the DLE dictionary). As an adjective, sirviente can be either masculine or feminine, but note that despite the DLE giving the adjectival sense as primary, the use of sirviente as an adjective is extremely rare in Modern Spanish. For the second sense of Sp. sirviente in the DLE, we are told that it is a noun, one that is equivalent to servidor, i.e. ‘person who acts as a servant’, though servidor is a very unusual name to call a servant in Modern Spanish, as we have seen.[3] In addition, the DLE tells us that sirviente has a very rare military use as the name for a soldier who along with other soldiers works certain complex weapons, such as artillery pieces (this sense of the noun sirviente can also be expressed as servidor).[4] Other dictionaries are much more helpful when defining the word sirviente, such as Larousse, which defines it as a noun, not adjective, that means ‘person who is part of the domestic service of another person or of a household’ (GDLEL).[5] Although Larousse also mentions this rare military sense, other common Spanish dictionaries do not, such as Vox (Diccionario de Uso del Español de América y España Vox).

As we already mentioned, the word servant is used rarely in English today, though we cannot say that it is a rare word, since probably all speakers know it. We should probably say that it is a dated or historical word, since it refers to an occupation that is associated with earlier times, one that sounds demeaning today if used for people who perform analogous services. As for the Spanish adjective/noun sirviente, we find that it is even less common than its English counterpart (cognate?) servant. That is because even in recent historical times in which some people had servants, sirviente was not the most common way to refer to them. Rather, the word criado/a was much more common, though this word is also has become dated in recent times. Sp. criado refers to a male servant, and criada to a female servant, which in English is equivalent to maid. This noun is derived by conversion from the identical past participle of the verb criar ‘to bring up, rear, care for, etc.’. This patrimonial verb is a cognate (doublet) of the learned (borrowed) verb crear ‘to create’, since both of them descend from Lat. creāre ‘to make, create, produce’ (Cass.). Sp. criado is first attested in the 11th century with the meaning ‘son, disciple’ and ‘vassal brought up in his lord’s house’ (DCEH).

Finally, we should mention that in addition to borrowing servant from French in the 13th century, English also borrowed the Latin participle sĕrvĭēns much later, in the 17th century, as servient, which is a loan from classical Latin sĕrvĭentem, the participle’s accusative wordform minus the inflection ‑em, which is how traditionally such Latin participles were adapted when borrowed into English. The word is quite rare and does not appear in most English dictionaries. Some dictionaries give it as a synonym of the adjective subordinate, the opposite of dominant, and we’re told it’s used mostly as a legal term in phrases such as servient estate, servient land, servient premises, or servient tenement, meaning that a property is subject to an easement (Sp. derecho de servidumbre). (The property that enjoys the easement is the dominant tenement, etc..) Eng. servient can be translated into Spanish with the adjective dependiente, but the legal term is translated by means of the adjective sirviente, as in predio sirviente or fundo sirviente.[6]

Go to Part 14

[1] As for the suffix ‑ient‑e of Sp. sirviente, note that it is outwardly identical to the present participle suffix of second conjugation verbs that descends from Lat. ‑ĕnt‑em (without the ‑ĭ‑), since the stressed Latin ‑ĕ‑ in this suffix was diphthongized to ‑ie  in Old Spanish, a fully regular and expected sound change.

[2] Some such feminine forms are common in speech but are recommended against by the Academy. Thus, the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas tells us that estudianta ‘female student’ is not to be used in ‘cultured speech’ (Sp. No es propio del habla culta).

[3] The DLE’s entry for sirviente/sirvienta: ‘De servir y -nte; lat. serviens, -entis, participio presente activo de servīre ‘servir’.  En acepción 1, úsase solo la forma sirviente; para el femenino, úsase también sirviente en acepción 2.  1. adj. Que sirve. Úsase también como sustantivo.  2. m. y f. servidor (‖ persona que sirve como criado).  3. m. servidor (‖ persona adscrita al manejo de un artefacto)’ (DLE)

[4] María Moliner’s dictionary is the one who best defines this rare sense: ‘Con respecto a un arma, particularmente una pieza de *artillería, hombre que la sirve. Servidor’ (MM).

[5] Original: ‘Persona que forma parte del servicio doméstico de otra persona o de una casa’ (GDLEL).

[6] Sp. predio is a rare legal term that means ‘estate, property, land or real estate’, first attested in the early 17th century. It is a loanword from Lat. praedium ‘country farm’. Sp. fundo is a term borrowed in the 17th century fom Latin fŭndus ‘farm; piece of land; estate’, a cognate (doublet) of Sp. hondo and fondo (and a cognate of Eng. fund), which is still used in some South American countries with the meaning ‘estate’.


  1. I was intrigued the first time I heard the word serviette being used by my Peruvian friend for the word napkin. Looking up that word on the internet, the short answer is that is a British word adopted from the French, and carries a bit of class distinction in that the upper class uses the word napkin while the lower class uses serviette. Of course we don't use it here in the US. Is there a class distinction in use of the word in Spanish?

    1. Spanish only has one word for 'napkin', namely 'servilleta', so there is no class distinctions. Your Peruvian friend must have made an erroneous connection between English serviette and Spanish servilleta, thinking these cognates were equivalent when in fact they were not. :-)


Words for mushrooms and other fungi, Part 17

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook  Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Span...