The etymology of wif, wer and mann

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Pez Dispens3r
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The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sat Aug 24, 2013 4:15 pm UTC

Hey all, I'm just looking for some clarification on how the terms wif, wer and mann were used in Old English. So far I understand that wif and wer referred to adult women and men respectively (regardless of whether they were married) but I've heard it two ways when it comes to mann. One way is that mann referred to people generally (as in man hours or manslaughter) and the other is that mann could refer to people generally or to adult men specifically, depending on context. Rather like how man was used in modern English until the culture wars were fought and won.

Where's a good place to get an overview on all this? The OED ain't working for me because all its examples of Old English are written in Old English (supply your own translation I guess) and my casual searching brings me to a lot of unreferenced blogposts on the topic. Do we agree with Wikipedia, which claims that mann "had the primary meaning of 'adult male human' but could also be used for gender neutral purposes"? (But has no reference for that point.)
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Aiwendil » Sun Aug 25, 2013 2:46 am UTC

I would turn to Bosworth and Toller: http://lexicon.ff.cuni.cz/html/oe_boswo ... b0668.html

Their definition is 'MAN, a human being of either sex'. And the first quote given, from Aelfric's grammar, is pretty clear: ægþer is mann ge wer ge wíf, i.e. 'a mann is either a man or a woman'. This and the obvious fact that constructions such as wifmann (which became modern 'woman') were considered perfectly normal and non-contradictory, suggest pretty clearly to me that it did not have the specific sense of man as opposed to woman.

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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sun Aug 25, 2013 3:50 am UTC

Thanks for the response, Aiwendil. Curiously, though, in the supplemental entry for mann we have the fourth definition:

4. (4) an adult male person :-- Lífes man uir uię (uenerabilis), An. Ox. 3699. Hé sǽde . . . heó man ne wæs, Hml. S. 2, 78. Gif bescoren man stéorleás gange. Ll. Th. i. 38, 12. Habban þá . xii. men heora metscype tógædere, 236, 6: 230, 22.


Should I take it that mann could be used to refer only to men, but that you would use it this way far less frequently? The wifmann point you raised can be explained away, I think, if we look at how wif gradually came to mean just a married woman rather than any woman, so the -mann suffix was added to distinguish the two meanings. For this to fit the facts though we'd need to know that wifmann was a more recent word than wif, I guess.
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Aug 25, 2013 4:22 am UTC

That would be fine if wermann weren't also an attested form, despite wer never coming to mean married male or the like.

I suspect that male-as-default thinking is several millennia old, and so mann could refer both to all people in general and to male persons in particular, with wifmann and wermann used to specify when gender was important.
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sun Aug 25, 2013 4:33 am UTC

Is wermann the only spelling? I can't find an entry for it in Bosworth and Toller.
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Aug 25, 2013 4:57 am UTC

Actually, looks like I may stand corrected, as I don't see an entry for that or other spellings I could think of, plus one of the definitions for wer is, in fact, "a married man".
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sun Aug 25, 2013 5:19 am UTC

Any hints on where I could find more general information? I suspect there's a clear answer out there and someone's already found it, but David Crystal is frustratingly silent on this. (I've thumbed through An Encyclopedia of the English Language, The Stories of English and How Language Works, but come up with nothing relevant. Not that I've read them cover-to-cover.)

Thanks for your input by the way, Gmal, I figured if there was anyone who had the answer close to hand it would be you. (Well, maybe after Thesaurus.)
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Carlington » Sun Aug 25, 2013 7:15 am UTC

I feel as though there's probably some useful evidence in the use of the cognate "man" as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in German (and other Germanic langauges? Not sure). That is, "man" in German is used in a similar fashion to how "one" would be used in the English sentence "One must mind one's manners".
Kewangji: Posdy zwei tosdy osdy oady. Bork bork bork, hoppity syphilis bork.

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doogly: Hands waving furiously.

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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sun Aug 25, 2013 8:28 am UTC

I've just found wǽpen-mann, which might be the wer form of wifmann we were looking for. Or does it just mean soldier? (Weapon-man.)
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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby Valdeut » Wed Feb 26, 2014 8:27 pm UTC

I think the dual meaning of ‘adult male’ and ‘human’ (or traces of them) is found for cognates in most germanic languages so it may very well have been present in proto-germanic. Gothic seems to have both meanings, for example.

Also, the word man can mean ‘husband’ in Swedish and probably most Nordic languages. It can't really be used to mean human in the modern language but I think it could historically and it's found in many compound words with that meaning. An ombudsman, of course, can very well be a woman.

Carlington wrote:I feel as though there's probably some useful evidence in the use of the cognate "man" as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in German (and other Germanic langauges? Not sure)
All the modern North Germanic languages does this as well (including Icelandic). According to Svenska Akademiens Ordlista, this is under influence from High German, I don't think Old Norse could use maðr this way. Swedish uses en as a corresponding object form although it's also used as a subject form (much like english one) in many dialects and increasingly among academics since many don't perceive man as gender-neutral.

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Re: The etymology of wif, wer and mann

Postby goofy » Sat Mar 01, 2014 6:22 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Any hints on where I could find more general information?


Perhaps Dennis Baron's Grammar and Gender.


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