Making Sense of Demonyms - Nationality Nouns

VOA Learning English • voa
June 10, 2021 3 minSource

Last week in Everyday Grammar, we looked at how English forms adjectives for country names. We found that, as is often true, history can explain some of the irregularities in the English language. The endings we add to the country name, called suffixes, were borrowed many years ago from Greek, Latin, French and even Arabic.

This week, we will look at how English forms nouns that refer to the people of a country. The name for this kind of noun is “demonym.” You can probably guess it is from the same Greek word form dem-, meaning "the people," as in the English word “democracy.”

Often the adjective and the demonym are the same, as in “American” for something from the United States and “Americans” for people from the U.S. But in some cases, the adjective and the demonym are different: the adjective for Iceland is “Icelandic,” but the demonym, what we call a person from Iceland, is “Icelander.”

Suffixes from many other languages

Let us begin with the suffix -ish, which is from Old English -isc, a Germanic form. Early English speakers added -ish to make Swedish, Spanish, Scottish and Irish. This was shortened to -ch for some close neighbors: Dutch, Scotch and French. The English speakers called themselves British or Britons.

Demonyms are usually found in their plural form, referring to a group of people. To make some demonyms singular, you can add the suffix -man or -woman, as in Frenchman, Scotswoman, Irishwoman and Dutchman.

Contact with the German language also added the suffix -er, as in Netherlanders and Luxembourgers. And people from Kosovo are called Kosovars with a little help from the language of Albania.

We hear the influence of Arabic with the -i suffix in the demonyms for many countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. They include Pakistanis, Uzbekistanis, Tajikistanis, Yemenis, and Somalis.

The most common way to form a noun from a country name is to add -ans, as in Germans, Americans and Moroccans. This is a form English got from Latin and French.

We got the -ese suffix from French, by way of the Portuguese, who introduced the British to the Chinese and Japanese. They share the suffix with the Marshallese, Beninese and Bhutanese.

To find the official name of a country or its people, you can go to The World Fact Book. The website also has useful maps and information on each country.

And that’s Everyday Grammar!

I’m Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this lesson for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

irregular – adj. not following the usual rules about what should be done

What do you call people from your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


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