Have you ever wondered what was the connection between “husband” as a noun and “husband” as a verb (and the connection with the phrase “animal husbandry”)?
When you’re trying to create secondary-world cultures, one of the many things you have to do is identify some key elements that are different from your own, and think through the consequence. One consequence is the way people speak, the words they choose, the idioms they use. I’m a word freak, fascinated by word origins and relationships. I’ve learned French, Greek, Latin, and Russian over the years, although they’re pretty much gone from 50 years of neglect. So while creating my early Bronze Age secondary-world fantasy, I started to think about what words and phrases would be different.
Ours too-slowly-evolving culture is currently still heavily patriarchal, meaning “ruled by fathers.” I initially wanted a matriarchal culture, but after reading about the theories of Marija Gimbutas, decided a matrilocal or matrifocal but relatively egalitarian culture suited me better. I had heard that in some cultures a man considered his sister’s sons to be his heirs, not his own children, so that uncles were more important than fathers. And that brought me to the word “husband.”
As you’ll see if you follow the link, one etymology derives “husband” from the Old English for “master of a house” which in term came from words meaning “house” and “dweller” – which implies that our forebears considered a man dwelling in a house to be its master. Not something I wanted in my story. I could use “spouse” but I also wanted to maintain a partocular biased perspective of our society, that in some regards the culture wasn’t inspiring to be completely egalitarian. So I decided to use wer, a pre-13th century word that specifically meant “a married man (in relation to his wife).” I’m still wondering whether to replace “wife,” possibly by a Middle English weird spelling like wyf, to emphasize that this isn’t the same relationship our patriarchal culture ascribes to the word.
The relationship with animals apparently comes from an obsolete meaning of “steward.” That’s a much more suitable meaning for a culture that lacks the concept of “master” in the sense of “one who is greater (than others)”; I plan to write about that part of the culture later.
The main take-away from this is that if you want a culture to be different, then its language needs to be different. Watch out for patterns of speech in our culture that contradict what you want from yours.