Tag Archives: etymology

Voles and Orkney

What do voles and Orkney have to do with one another? One thing somebody knowledgeable about British wildlife might be able to tell you is that Orkney is home to a unique variety of the common European vole (Microtus arvalis) called the Orkney vole.

The most remarkable thing about the Orkney vole is that the common European vole isn’t found anywhere else in the British Isles, nor in Scandinavia—it’s a continental European animal. That raises the question of how a population of them ended up in Orkney. During the last ice age, Orkney was covered by a glacier and would have been uninhabitable by voles; and after the ice retreated, Orkney was separated from Great Britain straight away; there were never any land bridges that would have allowed voles from Great Britain to colonize Orkney. Besides, there is no evidence that M. arvalis was ever present on Great Britain, nor is there any evidence that voles other than M. arvalis were ever present on Orkney; none of the three species that inhabit Great Britain today (the field vole, Microtus agrestis, the bank vole, Myodes glareolus, and the water vole, Arvicola amphibius) were able to colonize Orkney, even though they were able to colonize some islands that were originally connected to Great Britain by land bridges (Haynes, Jaarola & Searle, 2003). The only plausible hypothesis is that the Orkney voles were introduced into Orkney by humans.

But if the Orkney voles were introduced, they were introduced at a very early date—the earliest discovered Orkney vole remains have been carbon-dated to ca. 3100 BC (Martínkova et al., 2013)—around the same time Skara Brae was first occupied, to put that in context. The only other mammals on the British Isles known to have been introduced at a similarly ancient date or earlier are the domestic dog and the domestic bovines (cattle, sheep, goats)—even the house mouse is not known to have been present before c. 500 BC (Montgomery, 2014)! The motivation for the introduction remains mysterious—voles might have been transported accidentally in livestock fodder imported from the Continent, or they might have been deliberately introduced as pets, food sources, etc.; we can only speculate. It’s interesting to note that the people of Orkney at this time seem to have been rather influential, as they introduced the Grooved Ware pottery style to other parts of the British Isles.

Anyway, there is in fact another interesting connection between voles and Orkney, which has to do with the word ‘vole’ itself. Something you might be aware of if you’ve looked at old books on British wildlife is that ‘vole’ is kind of a neologism. Traditionally, voles were not thought of as a different sort of animal from mice and rats. The relatively large animal we usually call the water vole today, Arvicola amphibius, was called the ‘water rat’ (as it still is sometimes today), or less commonly the ‘water mouse’. The smaller field vole, Microtus agrestis, was often just the ‘field mouse’, not distinguished from Apodemus sylvaticus, although it was sometimes distinguished as the ‘water mouse’ or the ‘short-tailed field mouse’ (as opposed to the ‘long-tailed field mouse’ A. sylvaticus—if you’ve ever wondered why people still call A. sylvaticus the ‘long-tailed field mouse’, even though its tail isn’t much longer than that of other British mice, that’s probably why!) The bank vole, Myodes glareolus, seems not to have been distinguished from the field vole before 1832 (the two species are similar in appearance, one distinction being that whereas the bank vole’s tail is about half its body length, the field vole’s tail is about 30% to 40% of its body length).

As an example, a reference to a species of vole as a ‘mouse’ can be found in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The snow-mouse (Arvicola nivalis) is confined to the alpine and snow regions. (vol. 1, p. 754, under “Alps”)

Today that would be ‘the snow vole (Chionomys nivalis)’.

A number of other small British mammals were traditionally subsumed under the ‘mouse’ category, namely:

  • Shrews, which were often referred to as shrewmice from the 16th to the 19th centuries, although ‘shrew’ on its own is the older word (it is attested in Old English, but its ultimate origin is unknown).
  • Bats, which in older language could also be referred to by a number of whimsical compound words, the oldest and most common being rearmouse, from a now-obsolete verb meaning ‘stir’, but also rattlemouse, flindermouse, flickermouse, flittermouse and fluttermouse. The word rearmouse is still used today in the strange language of heraldry.
  • And, of course, dormice, which are still referred to by a compound ending in ‘-mouse’, although we generally don’t think of them as true mice today. The origin of the ‘dor-‘ prefix is uncertain; the word is attested first in c. 1425. There was an Old English word sisemūs for ‘dormouse’ whose origins are similarly mysterious, but the -mūs element is clearly ‘mouse’.

There is still some indeterminacy about the boundaries of the ‘mouse’ category when non-British rodent species are included: for example, are birch mice mice?

So, where did the word ‘vole’ come from? Well, according to the OED, it was first used in a book called History of the Orkney Islands (available from archive.org), published in 1805 and written by one George Barry, who was not a native of Orkney but a minister who preached there. In a list of the animals that inhabit Orkney, we find the following entry (alongside entries for the Shrew Mouse ſorex araneus, the [unqualified] Mouse mus muſculus, and the [unqualified] Field Mouse mus sylvaticus):

The Short-tailed Field Mouse, (mus agreſtis, Lin. Syſt.) which with us has the name of the vole mouſe, is very often found in marſhy grounds that are covered with moſs and ſhort heath, in which it makes roads or tracks of about three inches in breadth, and ſometimes miles in length, much worn by continual treading, and warped into a thouſand different directions. (p. 320)

So George Barry knew vole mouse as the local, Orkney dialectal word for the Orkney vole, which he was used to calling a ‘short-tailed field mouse’ (evidently he wasn’t aware that the Orkney voles were actually of a different species from the Scottish M. agrestis—I don’t know when the Orkney voles’ distinctiveness was first identified). Now, given that vole mouse was an Orkney dialect word, its further etymology is straightforward: the vole element is from Old Norse vǫllr ‘field’ (cf. English wold, German Wald ‘forest’), via the Norse dialect once spoken in Orkney and Shetland (sometimes known as ‘Norn’). So the Norse, like the English, thought of voles as ‘field mice’. The word vole is therefore the only English word I know, that isn’t about something particularly to do with Orkney or Shetland, that has been borrowed from Norn.

Of course, Barry only introduced vole mouse as a Orcadianism; he wasn’t proposing that the word be used to replace ‘short-tailed field mouse’. The person responsible for that seems to have been the author of the next quotation in the OED, from an 1828 book titled A History of British Animals by University of Edinburgh graduate John Fleming (available from archive.org). On p. 23, under an entry for the genus Arvicola, Fleming notes that

The species of this genus differ from the true mice, with which the older authors confounded them, by the superior size of the head, the shortness of the tail, and the coarseness of the fur.

He doesn’t explain where he got the name vole from, nor does he seem to reference Barry’s work at all, but he does list alternative common names of each of the two vole species he identifies. The species Arvicola aquatica, which he names the ‘Water Vole’ for the first time, is noted to also be called the ‘Water Rat’, ‘Llygoden y dwfr’ (in Welsh) or ‘Radan uisque’ (in Scottish Gaelic). The species Arvicola agrestis, which he names the ‘Field Vole’ for the first time, is noted to be also called the ‘Short-tailed mouse’, ‘Llygoden gwlla’r maes’ (in Welsh), or “Vole-mouse in Orkney”.

Fleming also separated the shrews, bats and dormice from the true mice, thus establishing division of the British mammals into basic one-word-labelled categories that we are familiar with today. With respect to the other British mammals, the naturalists seem to have found the traditional names to be sufficiently precise: for example, each of the three quite similar species of the genus Mustela has its own name—M. erminea being the stoat, M. nivalis being the weasel, and M. putorius being the polecat.

Fleming still didn’t distinguish the field vole and the bank vole; that innovation was made by one Mr. Yarrell in 1832, who exhibited specimens of each to the Zoological Society, demonstrated their distinctiveness and gave the ‘bank vole’ (his coinage) the Latin name Arvicola riparia. It was later found that the British bank vole was the same species as a German one described by von Schreber in 1780 as Clethrionomys glareolus, and so that name took priority (and just recently, during the 2010s, the name Myodes has come to be favoured for the genus over Clethrionomys—I don’t know why exactly).

In the report of Yarrell’s presentation in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society the animals are referred to as the ‘field Campagnol‘ and ‘bank Campagnol‘, so the French borrowing campagnol (‘thing of the field’, still the current French word for ‘vole’) seems to have been favoured by some during the 19th century, although Fleming’s recognition of voles as distinct from mice was universally accepted. The word ‘vole’ was used by other authors such as Thomas Bell in A History of British Quadrupeds including the Cetacea (1837), and eventually the Orcadian word seems to have prevailed and entered ordinary as well as naturalists’ usage.


Haynes, S., Jaarola, M., & Searle, J. B. (2003). Phylogeography of the common vole (Microtus arvalis) with particular emphasis on the colonization of the Orkney archipelago. Molecular Ecology, 12, 951–956.

Martínkova, N., Barnett, R., Cucchi, T., Struchen, R., Pascal, M., Pascal, M., Fischer, M. C., Higham, T., Brace, S., Ho, S. Y. W., Quéré, J., O’Higgins, P., Excoffier, L., Heckel, G., Rus Hoelzel, A., Dobney, K. M., & Searle, J. B. (2013). Divergent evolutionary processes associated with colonization of offshore islands. Molecular Ecology, 22, 5205–5220.

Montgomery, W. I., Provan, J., Marshal McCabe, A., & Yalden, D. W. (2014). Origin of British and Irish mammals: disparate post-glacial colonisation and species introductions. Quaternary Science Reviews, 98, 144–165.

Words for men and women in Indo-European languages

There were quite a few words meaning ‘man’ in Old English (OE). However, mann, the ancestor of the modern English word man, wasn’t one of them. In the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary the definition of mann is given as ‘human being of either sex’. It only started to be used to refer to male human beings in particular in late OE, from c. 1000 AD. The old sense survives in modern English, but it is no longer the primary one and it has become less common over time. The use of gender-neutral man is still fairly common in compounds like mankind, manmade and manslaughter. In fact, the word woman itself is descended from a compound in which man was used in the gender-neutral sense. One of the two main words for ‘woman’ in OE (along with cwēn, the ancestor of modern English queen) was wīf, the ancestor of modern English wife. The word was used in the sense of ‘wife’ already in OE, but its primary sense was ‘woman’ in OE, and this sense has survived in the compounds midwife and fishwife. Perhaps due to the increasing dominance of the sense of ‘wife’, the compound wīfmann (‘woman-person’) started to be used more often for ‘woman’ until the ‘woman’ sense of wife became extinct.

OE mann is a descendant of the reconstructed Proto-Germanic (PGmc) word *mann- (of uncertain ending). This appears man in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Dutch and Old High German, maðr in Old Norse and manna in Gothic. As with the OE word, these words originally meant ‘human being’ but later shifted to meaning ‘man’ specifically; the ‘human being’ sense survives as a secondary one in Icelandic and Faroese, but on the continent it has been completely replaced by derived words such as German Mensch. (Mensch is a descendant of Old High German mennisko. From mann an adjective was formed by adding the umlaut-inducing suffix -isk (cognate to English -ish), then this adjectivisation was undone again by adding a nominal ending -o, which would have made the word completely redundant if the meaning of the original noun man had not been changed.) PGmc *mann-, in turn, is probably the descendant of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *mánus, which is also the ancestor of Proto-Slavic *mǫ̑žь ‘man, husband’ (> Russian muž ‘husband’) and Sanskrit mánuḥ ‘human being’. Different explanations have been proposed for the double *-nn- in the PGmc word; Ringe (2006)’s is that the PIE word had an oblique stem *mánw-, PIE *-nw- regularly became *-nn- in PGmc, and the form of the oblique stem was generalised. In the Hindu religion, Manu is the name of the progenitors of humanity, and in Tacitus’s Germania he mentions that ‘[the Germanic peoples] celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race’, which seems to me to strongly suggest that *mann- and mánuḥ share a common ancestor.

As for OE wīf, it is a descendant of PGmc *wībą, which appears as wīf in Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old Dutch, wīb in Old High German and víf in Old Norse. In the continental Germanic languages the word has been replaced as the word for ‘woman, wife’ by descendants of PGmc *frawjǭ ‘lady’, such as Dutch vrouwe and German Frau. In Dutch and German wijf and Weib remain as words but have acquired a pejorative connotation because of the contrast with vrouwe and Frau; using the original word would imply that the woman is of low birth. The same kind of dynamic is responsible for the phenomenon in English where in public addresses (e.g. on bathroom doors) the words ladies and gentlemen and are used in place of women and men. In Icelandic (and Faroese? I don’t have a good source for Faroese) the word survives, but is old-fashioned and restricted to poetic use; the usual word for ‘woman’ is kona. This word is a cognate of English queen; it is a descendant of PGmc *kwēniz via Old Norse kván. In Gothic, *kwēniz appears as qēns ‘wife’, but there seems to be no trace of this word in the continental West Germanic languages, and kván has died out in the continental North Germanic languages as well. In English, of course, the meaning of the word was specialised to mean a royal wife in particular, although the word can also be used to refer to a gay man and this might be a survival of the old sense of ‘woman’. PGmc *kwēniz is, in turn, a descendant of PIE *gʷḗn ‘woman’. This word is very widely attested in the Indo-European languages: it appears as Proto-Slavic *žena (> Russian žená), Old Irish , Ancient Greek gynḗ, Armenian kin, Sanskrit jániḥ ‘wife’ and Tocharian B śana (although no cognate survives in Latin). Ancient Greek gynḗ in particular appears in a few Greek-derived English words such as gynaecology, polygyny and misogyny. What about *wībą? It’s uncertain whether this word is a descendant of a PIE word (it might have been borrowed from some long-lost language in PGmc specifically; it might even be specific to Northwest Germanic since it does not appear in Gothic). A link has been proposed between it and Proto-Tocharian *kwäipe ‘feel shame’ (> Tocharian A kip, kwīp) via a change of meaning along the lines of ‘woman’ > ‘female genitalia’ > ‘shame’, but I think this change is too far-fetched. Although the fact that *wībą was neuter, rather than feminine, is suggestive.

So what was the Old English word for ‘man’? The main one was wer. It started to die out in English in the late 13th century, but it survives in the compound werewolf (‘man-wolf’). The Proto-Germanic form of the word was *weraz, and it appears in Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old High German as wer, Old Norse as verr and Gothic as waír, with the meaning ‘man’ in each case. However, the word has died out in all of the modern Germanic languages, except in Icelandic (and Faroese?) were it survives, not as the usual word for ‘man’, but as the poetic word ver. The word is also widely attested in Indo-European as a whole; its Proto-Indo-European form was *wiHrós, which appears as výras in Lithuanian, fear in Irish, gŵr ‘husband’ in Welsh, vir in Latin and vīrá in Sanskrit. A few English words, such as virile and virtue, are derived from the Latin form of the word.

The word vir didn’t survive in the Romance languages, either; it has been replaced by descendants of Latin homō ‘human being’. It’s interesting how this change parallels exactly the change in the Germanic languages, where *mann-, another word meaning ‘human being’, replaced *weraz as the word for ‘man’. The word homō can be seen in derived English words like human and hominid which are of Latin origin. However, Old English also had a direct cognate of homō: guma. In Old English, this word referred to male humans, specifically, so it was a synonym of wer; however, it was more of a poetic word, whereas wer was the everyday word for ‘man’. Both words are descendants of a derivative *dʰǵʰm̥mō of the PIE *dʰéǵʰōm ‘earth’ (in Germanic and Latin, the initial *dʰ was regularly lost, and *ǵʰ regularly became h in Latin) which meant ‘something from the earth’. The word guma has survived into modern English only via the Old English compound brȳdguma (‘bride-man’). This compound of course became modern English bridegroom (often shortened to groom), and its meaning has not changed. However, the insertion of the -r- in groom is an irregular development. What seems to have happened is that the word groom came into Middle English (from an unknown source) c. 1200 with the meaning ‘youth’. This was then confused with the -goom element in bridegoom and so the modern form of the word arose. As with wer, similar developments have occured in all Germanic languages. The r-insertion is unique to English, but all of the other Germanic languages have lost their cognates of guma but retain it in a compound cognate to English bridegroom (e.g. German Bräutigam).

As well as *wiHrós, there is another widespread Indo-European word for ‘man’, which had the PIE form *h₂nḗr. This appears as njeri ‘human being’ in Albanian, Nerō (a personal name) in Latin, anḗr in Ancient Greek, and nára (this one also has a secondary sense of ‘human being’) in Sanskrit, and it also appears in the derivatives neart in Irish and Welsh nerth, both meaning ‘strength’. The Greek word anḗr had the oblique stem andr-, and this appears in many English words such as androgyny, polyandry, android and androgen, as well as in the personal name Andrew. It is tempting to link the Greek word for ‘human being’, ánthrōpos, to *h₂nḗr as well, but the presence of -th- rather than -d- in the word is unexplainable if this is the case. The real etymology of ánthrōpos is unknown. Given that the sense of ‘human being’ is attested in Sanskrit and Albanian for *h₂nḗr, it is possible that this was the original sense in PIE, too. Either way, it would have had a synonym in either *wiHrós or *mánus. This shift has the advantage of not requiring a shift from the more specific sense of ‘man’ to the more general sense of ‘human being’; shifts in meaning more often increase specificity rather than generality.

Clearly the senses of ‘man’ and ‘human being’ are quite prone to confusion. I don’t know of any cases where a word has shifted directly in meaning from ‘human being’ to ‘woman’, or the other way around. I’d be interested to hear of examples if anybody has any. The similar shift ‘young human being’ to ‘woman’ seems like it could definitely be possible,, though. The English word girl (which is of unknown origin, first appearing c. 1300) originally meant ‘child’; it was gender-neutral. Over time, it has come to refer specifically to female children. Since the 1500s it has been used to refer to young women as well, and since the 1800s it has sometimes been used to refer to all women, even elderly ones, although this usage has never become standard. So this word which originally meant ‘child’ may in the future have shifted its meaning to ‘woman’. A shift from ‘human being’ to ‘woman’ might be possible via this route, but it would require an initial shift of ‘human being’ to ‘child’. I don’t know whether such a shift is possible; I was going to say it was unlikely, but semantic shifts can happen in all sorts of weird ways, so I don’t really have any idea.

(note: a lot of this post is based on information gathered from Wiktionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary which are not entirely reliable sources. I tried to look up every word cited here in a dictionary specific to the language the word belonged to, to make sure I didn’t end up citing words with the wrong meaning, or citing words that didn’t actually exist. However, it’s hard to find freely available online English-language dictionaries for some of the more obscure languages like Faroese, so I wasn’t able to do this for every word; and given that this post ended up involving a lot of words from a lot of languages it’s quite possible that some errors in detail are present. The PGmc and PIE words cited have been checked via Ringe (2006), From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic.)

Etymologies of some English kinship terms

Abbreviations: PIE (Proto-Indo-European), PGmc (Proto-Germanic), OE (Old English), ME (Middle English), NE (New English, i.e. modern English).

From OE fæder. The sequence /-dər/ regularly became /-ðər/ after stressed vowels in early ME, which is why we have father rather than fader. The development of the stressed vowel, however, is irregular. The expected development would be into /aː/ by ME open syllable lengthening and then into /ej/ (as in face) by the Great Vowel Shift. However, in this word only the first change seems to have occured, so that the stressed vowel in father is the same as the one in palm and spa, rather than the one in face. In British English, the words rather (< OE hraþor) and lather (< OE lēaþor) have similarly resisted the Great Vowel Shift, although in American English the vowel in these words has been shortened, as it has in all dialects in gather (< OE gadorian) (slather has /a/, but is of unknown origin); that is, these words seem to have resisted the ME open syllable lengthening in the first place. Of course, we can’t rule out the alternatively possibility that they were lengthened and then subsequently shortened, perhaps as part of the same round of shortenings that resulted in short vowels in words like bread and blood. I don’t actually know of any words in -ather where both of the expected changes have taken place, so that the word is pronounced with /-ejðər/.

As for OE fæder, this is a regular development from PGmc *fadēr. And fadēr, in turn, is a regular development from PIE *ph2tḗr.

From OE mōdor. See above on the change of -d- to -th-. The development of the stressed vowel is again irregular. The expected development would be for it to remain as /oː/ in ME and then to develop into /uː/ by the Great Vowel Shift. In this word, however, we have /ʌ/, the usual outcome of ME short /u/. The same outcome exists in brother (< OE brōþor), other (< OE ōþer) and smother (< OE smorian, with -th- inserted perhaps due to influence from the agentive form of the verb, *smorþor ‘suffocator’). There are a couple of words (blood and flood) where ME /oː/ become /uː/ by the Great Vowel Shift, but was subsequently shortened and changed into /ʌ/. However, this change was irregular; for example, it didn’t occur in food. Perhaps the same shortening occured in mother, brother, other and smother after the Great Vowel Shift. I can’t think of any words in -other which aren’t pronounced with /-ʌðər/, so perhaps the shortening was regular in this environment.

As for OE mōdor, this is from PGmc *mōdēr. The changes of unstressed vowels from PGmc to OE are very complicated and I don’t understand them very well. But I don’t know why *mōdēr became mōdor rather than mōder. Perhaps the preceding heavy syllable had something to do with it? PGmc *brōþēr and *duhtēr, with a heavy initial syllable, became brōþor and dōhtor respectively, while PGmc *swēster, also with a heavy initial syllable, had variants in both -er and -or, but PGmc *fadēr, with a light initial syllable, became fæder. The vowel -o- was regularly inserted in OE before postconsonantal r at the end of a word (c.f. OE wundor ‘wonder’ < PGmc *wundrą), so if the -e- in *mōder was dropped due to the preceding syllable being heavy, that would explain it.

PGmc *mōdēr, in turn, is from PIE *máh2tēr. The expected development of this word would be *mōþēr, but the accent appears to have been shifted to the suffix at some point, perhaps due to analogy with *ph2tḗr ‘father’ and *dʰugh2tḗr ‘daughter’, so that -d- occurs by Verner’s Law. Sanskrit mātā́ ‘mother’ shows accentuation on the suffix as well; it is on the basis of Ancient Greek mḗtēr ‘mother’ that accent on the initial syllable is reconstructed.

From OE brōþor. See above on the pronunciation of OE ō as /ʌ/ in NE. OE brōþor is from PGmc *brōþēr. See above on the change of unstressed ē into o. And PGmc *brōþēr is a regular development from PIE *bʰráh2tēr.
From OE sweostor. Variants of the OE word in -er and in swi-, swy- or swu- are also attested. The quality of the final unstressed vowel would not make any difference to the NE reflex, because all OE unstressed vowels merged into /ə/ in ME. However, variants in sweo- would have ended up as NE swester (rhymes with fester), and variants in swu- would have ended up as NE suster (rhymes with muster). So the modern form of the word must originate from a variant in swi- or swy-.

The PGmc form of the word was *swestēr, and the regular development of this in OE would have been *swester, or sweostor if the -e- was dropped due to the preceding syllable, as conjectured above. The other variants probably resulted from a combination of influence of the -w- on the following vowel (c.f. OE wudu ‘wood’ from PGmc *widuz) and influence of the Old Norse form of the word, systir.

PGmc *swestēr is from PIE *swésōr. The expected development of PIE *swésōr would be *swesōr (which would become OE *sweosor and NE *sweaser /swiːzər/), but presumably the word was influenced in PGmc by *bʰráh2tēr ‘brother’, *ph2tḗr ‘father’, *máh2tēr ‘mother’ and *dʰugh2tḗr ‘daughter’, which all ended in *-tḗr or *-tēr in PIE.

A regular development from OE sunu. ME open syllable lengthening did sometimes affect short /i/ and /u/ (c.f. week < OE wicu) but not usually. OE sunu, in turn, is a regular development from PGmc *sunuz. PGmc *sunuz is from PIE *suHnús. The expected development of PIE *suHnús would be *sūnus (which would become OE *sūns and NE *sunse /sʌns/). Apparently the accent was retracted to the initial syllable, so that the *-s became *-z by Verner’s Law, and the long vowel was shortened. The shortening of the long vowel also occurs in Italic and Celtic (those branches give no evidence with regards to the accent). Ringe (2006) attributes the change to “morphological resegmentations or reanalyses which yielded roots without a final laryngeal (or its reflex)”, which isn’t very enlightening. The reconstruction with the long vowel and final-syllable accent is based on Sanskrit sūnú.
A regular development from OE dōhtor, via ME doughter /dowxtər/; although ME /ow/ normally became NE /ow/ (as in boat), it regularly became /ɔː/ (as in thought) before /x/. OE dōhtor is from PGmc duhtēr. For some reason, the vowel was lowered to o and lengthened. The lowering apparently also occured in every other Germanic language, and the lengthening happened Old Norse as well (c.f. Gothic dauhtar /dɔxtar/, Old Norse dóttir, Old High German tohtar). But I have no idea why either change occured. As for the development of the unstressed vowel from ē to o, see above. PGmc duhtēr is from PIE *dʰugh2tḗr. The expected development of PIE *dʰugh2tḗr in PIE would be either *dukþēr or *dukuþēr, depending on whether you believe that interconsonantal laryngeals in non-initial syllables developed into zero or *u in PGmc (opinions differ). The form we actually see is the result of interference from the oblique stem of the word, *dʰuktr̥-ˊ, which became PGmc *duhtur-.
From Old French oncle ‘uncle’. Old English had two words for ‘uncle’: fædera ‘father’s brother’ and ēam ‘mother’s brother’. The regular developments of these words into NE would have been fathere (rhymes with gather, due to trisyllabic laxing) and eam (rhymes with beam), respectively.
From Old French ante ‘aunt’. In southern England, Australia (presumably South Africa and New Zealand as well?), New England and Virginia the word is pronounced with /aː/, while in other areas of the world it is pronounced with /a/. I don’t know why this is the case. I also don’t know why it is spelled with au-.

Old English had two words for ‘aunt’: faþu ‘father’s sister’ and modrige ‘mother’s sister’. The regular developments of these words into NE would have been fathe (rhymes with lathe) and mothery (pronounced in the same way as the derived word meaning ‘like a mother’), respectively.

From Old French neveu ‘nephew, grandson’. The word was originally spelt nevew, and pronounced accordingly. The origin of the spelling with -ph- is kind of a mystery, but perhaps it was due to influence from Latin nepōs ‘nephew, grandson’. A spelling pronunciation with /f/ subsequently emerged and became predominant in American English. The pronunciation with /f/ is now usual in British English as well, although some old-fashioned speakers still pronounce it with /v/.

The native word, neve ‘nephew, grandson’ (rhymes with Eve), survived into ME but is now obsolete. This word is a regular development of OE nefa. OE nefa is a regular development of PGmc *nefô. PGmc *nefô is from PIE *népōts. The expected development of PIE *népōts would be *nefōþs (probably, although I’m not aware of any final *-ts clusters which survived into PGmc), but the noun came to be declined in the same way as *gumô ‘man’, and the ending in the nom. sg. was changed accordingly.

From Old French nece ‘niece, granddaughter’. The native word, nift ‘nephew, granddaughter’ (rhymes with lift), survived into ME but is now obsolete. This word is a regular development of OE nift. OE nift is a regular development of PGmc *niftiz. There does not appear to be a securely reconstructable feminine counterpart of PIE *népōts, although the PGmc form would go back to a PIE form *néptis, and the same form would give Latin neptis.

English words for mammal species, ordered by age

This is a list of English words referring to kinds of mammals, ordered by age. By ‘age’, I mean the earliest time at which the word was used in its current sense; for example, the word ‘deer’ is of Proto-Germanic vintage but it was originally used to refer to animals in general (like the modern German cognate Tier); the word was already used to mean ‘deer’ specifically in Old English, but the wider sense only became the more usual one by the 15th century, so I have listed the word as being only 500 years old.

I have not included words referring to animals of specific sexes or ages, except for the words ‘cow’, ‘bull’, ‘steer’ and ‘ox’. I have also not included words referring to animals that I wouldn’t expect most people living in England to have heard of, unless they are of especially old vintage (like ‘onager’).

Proto-Indo-European period (4000 BC – 2500 BC): beaver, mouse, swine, hound, wolf

Proto-Germanic period (2500 BC – 100 AD): ape*, horse, cow, bull†, steer†, ox, elk, whale, cat, fox, bear, weasel, seal

(note: ‘cat’ was borrowed from Latin at the end of this period, ‘ape’ is probably late as well although its origin is unknown)

Proto-West Germanic period (100 AD – 450 AD): hare, boar, sheep

Early Old English period (450 AD – 900 AD): shrew, ass, camel, tiger

Late Old English period (900 AD – 1100): rat, pig, dog

12th century (1100 – 1200): lion

13th century (1200 – 1300): dromedary, ounce, panther, leopard

14th century (1300 – 1400): squirrel, mole, bat, onager, rhinoceros, goat, dolphin, porpoise, lynx, hyena, polecat, elephant

15th century (1400 – 1500): monkey, baboon, porcupine, dormouse, hedgehog, hog, deer, reindeer, antelope, genet, marten

16th century (1500 – 1600): chinchilla, marmot, giraffe, buffalo, chamois, hippopotamus, civet, badger, armadillo, manatee

17th century (1600 – 1700): orangutan, guinea pig, woodchuck, lemming, muskrat, hamster, zebra, Bactrian, llama, peccary, moose, bison, gazelle, ibex, narwhal, jaguar, mongoose, jackal, skunk, wolverine, mink, raccoon, walrus, sealion, sloth, opossum, possum

18th century (1700 – 1800): chimpanzee, gibbon, lemur, rabbit, chipmunk, groundhog, donkey, tapir, alpaca, yak, gnu, beluga (whale), pangolin, ocelot, cougar, puma, cheetah, dingo, coyote, anteater, mammoth, wombat, kangaroo, platypus

19th century (1800 – 1900): gorilla, vole‡, gerbil, wildebeest, orca, meerkat, (red) panda, aardvark, dugong, bandicoot, koala, wallaby

20th century (1900 – 2000): (giant) panda

* The word ‘ape’ originally referred to both monkeys and apes (well, it first referred to monkeys, and then to apes; the Proto-Germanic speakers would not have been familiar with any ape species), and it is still used in this sense colloquially, so I have dated its origin accordingly; I couldn’t find any information on how early the word was used in the more specific sense.

† The words ‘bull’ and ‘steer’ were synonymous in Proto-Germanic, like the modern German cognates Bulle and Stier; I have dated their origin to Proto-Germanic, as if they were still synonyms, even though, strictly speaking, bulls are uncastrated and steers are castrated. I couldn’t find any information on how recently the specialisation of the meanings of these two words was (it was post-Old English, at least), so it was easier to do it this way.

‡ The word ‘vole’ is a shortening of an older compound ‘volemouse’, in which the ‘vole-‘ element had no independent meaning; I couldn’t find any information on it, but since the Dutch word for ‘vole’ is woelmuis and the German word for ‘vole’ is Wühlmaus, it seems likely that the compound goes back to the Proto-West Germanic period.