Is a Woman Always a Wife?

It’s International Women’s Day, and what better day to start a debate around the connotations of the word ‘woman’ itself?

I recently had a moment’s reflection on what it meant to be called a woman whilst on a trip to Shetland, where I learnt that the word ‘wife’ is used to refer to any woman, regardless of marital status. My Shetlandic host’s comment, one day, that ‘The wife in the shop was too busy talking to notice me!’ caused me, initially, a second’s confusion: how did she know the shop assistant was married? But of course she didn’t – she was simply talking about ‘the woman’. I was intrigued by this obvious difference in usage between the languages: in standard English, a sister language to Scots, I would always say that a wife and a woman are separate things, with ‘wife’ only meaning ‘married woman’ (although, conversely, in English slang ‘your woman’ can refer to ‘your wife’). But then I recalled that the word ‘midwife’, from Middle English, literally means ‘with woman’, so was it possible that Scots, developing along a different pathway to English, maintained an earlier meaning in its current vocabulary than modern English does with its? And was it therefore only to non-Scots speakers that it sounded a little odd to call a woman a wife, because for us the word has a stronger connotation of marital status than it does in Scots (although wife can also be used, of course, in Scots for a married female partner)?

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Then I thought of French, where ‘la femme’ can mean both woman and wife, and onto Portuguese, where ‘a mulher’ is used interchangeably. The Catalan word ‘la dona’, whilst literally meaning woman, is widely used to mean a wife, even though there are two additional words specifically for a female spouse (la muller and l’esposa). And then I ransacked the uTalk translation database to uncover other languages where there’s just the one word. Sure enough, there are plenty: аял in Kyrgyz, әйел in Kazakh, зан in Tajiki, and aýal in Turkmen can all mean woman or wife. In Bosnian, žena can be both, as can жена in Bulgarian.

In some languages, it also occurs that ‘man’ and ‘husband’ are the same word – indeed, English traditional marriage vows end with ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. But in both instances, is it the case that historic social gender roles still colour the vocabulary we use in the modern world, where sexual equality is a constantly flaring issue?

We’d love to know your thoughts, and whether your language uses the same words for either woman and wife, or man and husband – or separate words, and whether you think our vocabulary choices have a bearing on our perceptions of modern social roles?


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