After posting my other article So many negative prefixes, I received very positive feedback and many readers apparently found the article interesting and useful. Indeed, these little affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can be puzzling when they are similar in meaning but nevertheless non-interchangeable. That makes people ask why they are what they are: is there a subtle rule beneath all the messy superficial distribution, or things just happen by chance?

Not long ago, a friend asked me whether there are rules governing the usage of those suffixes of nationality, such as -ese, -ian and -ish. I thought about it for a while, then I remembered that years ago I read a post on the Internet, saying that -ese is a derogatory ending used only on those countries that the western world thought to be inferior, so we have adjectives like Chinese, Vietnamese and Burmese. After all, many of the Asian countries do form their adjectives in -ese. But I had doubts, don’t the westerners just love Japanese stuff? And why Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian then? So I decided to look for the answer myself.

I fetched a list of nationality adjectives from NationMaster.com, then I started to color the world map according to the suffixes used to form their respective nationality adjectives. Finally I got this map:

Suffixes of Nationality

From the list, I find 8 major suffixes, they are:

  1. -ian (Italian, Norwegian)
  2. -ean (Chilean, Korean)
  3. -an (American, Mexican)
  4. -ese (Chinese, Japanese)
  5. -er (Icelander, New Zealander)
  6. -ic (Icelandic, Greenlandic)
  7. -ish (English, Irish)
  8. -i (Iraqi, Pakistani)

Looking at the map, we can probably notice some distributive patterns right away. For instance, -ish is mainly used for European nations, -i is for nations in the Middle East, -ic and -er seem to occur only after the word -land, but the others seem to be more random.

Not satisfied with the mere geographical picture, I decided to trace the histories of these suffixes.

Suffix Origin
-ian Latin
-ean Latin
-an Latin
-ese Latin → Italian
-er Latin → Germanic
-ic Latin → Germanic
-ish Germanic
-i Arabic

-ian / -ean / -an

It should not be surprising to find out that -ian, -an and -ean actually have a common origin. In fact, the suffix -ia is frequently used in Latin to name places, thus giving birth to names like Romania, Bulgaria and Australia, and -ea and -a are two other grammatical suffixes used on Latin nouns. The final -n is an adjectival suffix that turns a noun into an adjective. Hence, adjectives that end in -ian, -ean, or -an were either borrowed directly from Latin, or modelled after Latin in English. They are the standard suffixes now in English. The distribution of them follows a rule that is rather neat and tidy. Basically it goes as follows:

  1. If the place name ends in -ea or a silent -e, then use -ean;
  2. If the place name ends in a vowel, then use -an;
  3. Otherwise, use -ian.

As you have probably noticed, there are some exceptions or complications, but let us not be concerned about that here. After all, the general picture is clear and unambiguous.

-ese

Let us now turn to the controversial suffix -ese. You could well say that there does not seem to be a pattern geographically. Countries using -ese are scattered everywhere in Asia, Africa, South America, and we also have Portugal in Europe! But my attention turns to Italian when I give this suffix some more thought.

In Italian, -ese is a much more common suffix of nationality than in English. Words that use -ese in Italian but not in English include danese (Danish), finlandese (Finnish), francese (French), inglese (English) and islandese (Icelandic). In fact, -ese (from Latin -ēnsis) is the next most common suffix after the Latin triplet -ian/-ean/-an.

The Third Voyage of Christopher Columbus

It turns out that words ending in -ese in English actually come from Italian. Recalling that Marco Polo and other Italian traders were the first Europeans to reach the Far East, it is therefore no surprise that many Asian countries use -ese. In addition, the countries using -ese in South America are all very close to where Christopher Columbus, himself an Italian, first landed on the continent. But of course, why some countries in Africa and the Americas use the Italian suffix, while others use French or Spanish suffixes is a result of their long and complicated colonial histories.

-er / -ic

Both -er and -ic are originally Latin suffixes which later entered the Germanic languages and subsequently English. Among the two hundred countries in the world, -er and -ic are used only after the words land and island, both of which are Germanic in origin. The suffix -er is used on nouns to denote persons of a certain place of origin, while -ic is used to form adjectives with the meaning of “having some characteristics of”. Therefore, Icelander is normally used to denote a person from Iceland (i.e. a noun), whereas Icelandic is used when it is used as an adjective.

-ish

This is a native Germanic suffix with the sense of “belonging to”. Since English has been much influenced by French and Latin, the suffix is not as productive as it used to be. However, in other Germanic languages, such as German, its usage is far more common. Nationalities which use -ish in German (-isch) but not in English include Italienisch (Italian), Chinesisch (Chinese), Isländisch (Icelandic) and Irakisch (Iraqi). Its Germanic origin explains why nationalities that use -ish are all in Europe, and belong to Germanic nations around Germany and Scandinavia. This is even clearer if you consider two more facts:

  1. The word German does not end in -ish, because the united nation of Germany did not exist until relatively recently. The word German comes from a Latin word referring to the people in that region.
  2. Both French (from Frencisc) and Dutch (from Diutisc) in fact contain the suffix -ish, although in both cases, the suffix has been fused with the base to form a new, irregular adjective.

-i

The suffix -i, with the meaning of “belonging to”, comes from Arabic. This explains why almost all countries that use -i are Islamic and/or use Arabic as one of the major languages. Geographically, the center of this group of nations is in the Middle East, and extends to Central Asia to the north, and to East Africa to the south. A notable exception in this area is Iran, which had a long history of contact with the West before they gradually converted to Islam.

Summary

After seeing the distribution of the suffixes of nationality on a world map, and studying the origins of these suffixes, I think we should be reasonably convinced that the choice of suffix is not entirely a matter of chance or taste. Instead, there are historical and linguistic factors which determine why one suffix is used for a certain nationality but another suffix for a second one.

English is a Germanic language, its native suffix for nationality is -ish, which accounts for the names of nearby nationalities. But before English had gone global and applied its suffix to other nationalities, it was influenced by Latin and French. The default suffix of nationality used in the language was replaced by the Latinate -ian/-ean/-an, so more recently coined nationalities made use of them instead. Later, the contact between Italy and the Far East, together with the European colonization of Africa and South America, brought in some nationalities ending in -ese. Then, Islamic countries near the Middle East retained their Arabic -i when their names entered English. Lastly, a few places that end in -land or Island make use of the suffixes -er/-ic.

On second thought, the whole picture is just that simple.


 

Nationality Adjectives by Suffix

-ese

Benin Beninese
Bhutan Bhutanese
Burma Burmese
China Chinese
Congo Congolese
East Timor Timorese
Faroe Islands Faroese
Gabon Gabonese
Guyana Guyanese
Japan Japanese
Lebanon Lebanese
Malta Maltese
Marshall Islands Marshallese
Nepal Nepalese
Portugal Portuguese
San Marino Sammarinese
Senegal Senegalese
Sudan Sudanese
Suriname Surinamese
Taiwan Taiwanese
Togo Togolese
Vietnam Vietnamese

-ian

Albania Albanian
Algeria Algerian
Armenia Armenian
Australia Australian
Austria Austrian
Bahamas, The Bahamian
Barbados Barbadian
Belarus Belarusian
Belgium Belgian
Bermuda Bermudian
Bolivia Bolivian
Bosnia and Herzegovina Bosnian and Herzegovinian
Brazil Brazilian
Brunei Bruneian
Bulgaria Bulgarian
Burundi Burundian
Cambodia Cambodian
Cameroon Cameroonian
Canada Canadian
Cayman Islands Caymanian
Chad Chadian
Colombia Colombian
Croatia Croatian
Côte d’Ivoire Ivoirian
Djibouti Djiboutian
Ecuador Ecuadorian
Egypt Egyptian
Estonia Estonian
Ethiopia Ethiopian
Fiji Fijian
French Polynesia French Polynesian
Gambia, The Gambian
Georgia Georgian
Ghana Ghanaian
Grenada Grenadian
Guam Guamanian
Haiti Haitian
Hungary Hungarian
India Indian
Indonesia Indonesian
Iran Iranian
Italy Italian
Jordan Jordanian
Laos Laotian
Latvia Latvian
Liberia Liberian
Lithuania Lithuanian
Macedonia, Republic of Macedonian
Malawi Malawian
Malaysia Malaysian
Maldives Maldivian
Mali Malian
Mauritania Mauritanian
Mauritius Mauritian
Micronesia, Federated States of Micronesian
Mongolia Mongolian
Montserrat Montserratian
Namibia Namibian
New Caledonia New Caledonian
Nigeria Nigerian
Norway Norwegian
Panama Panamanian
Peru Peruvian
Romania Romanian
Russia Russian
Saint Helena Saint Helenian
Saint Kitts and Nevis Kittitian and Nevisian
Saint Lucia Saint Lucian
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Saint Vincentian
Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabian
Serbia and Montenegro Serbian
Slovenia Slovenian
Syria Syrian
Tanzania Tanzanian
Trinidad and Tobago Trinidadian and Tobagonian
Tunisia Tunisian
Ukraine Ukrainian
Wallis and Futuna Wallisian
Zambia Zambian

-ean

Antilles Antillean
Belize Belizean
Cape Verde Cape Verdean
Chile Chilean
Equatorial Guinea Equatorial Guinean
Eritrea Eritrean
Guinea Guinean
Guinea-Bissau Guinean
Korea Korean
Niue Niuean
Papua New Guinea Papua New Guinean
São Tomé and Príncipe Sao Tomean
Sierra Leone Sierra Leonean
Singapore Singaporean
Zimbabwe Zimbabwean

-an

American Samoa American Samoan
Andorra Andorran
Angola Angolan
Anguilla Anguillan
Antigua and Barbuda Antiguan
Aruba Aruban
Central African Republic Central African
Comoros Comoran
Costa Rica Costa Rican
Cuba Cuban
Dominica Dominican
El Salvador Salvadoran
Germany German
Guatemala Guatemalan
Honduras Honduran
Jamaica Jamaican
Kenya Kenyan
Libya Libyan
Mayotte Mahoran
Mexico Mexican
Moldova Moldovan
Morocco Moroccan
Mozambique Mozambican
Nauru Nauruan
Nicaragua Nicaraguan
Palau Palauan
Paraguay Paraguayan
Puerto Rico Puerto Rican
Rwanda Rwandan
Samoa Samoan
South Africa South African
Sri Lanka Sri Lankan
Tokelau Tokelauan
Tonga Tongan
Tuvalu Tuvaluan
Uganda Ugandan
United States of America American
Uruguay Uruguayan
Venezuela Venezuelan
Wallis and Futuna Futunan

-ish

Denmark Danish
Finland Finnish
Ireland Irish
Poland Polish
Scotland Scotish
Spain Spanish
Sweden Swedish
Turkey Turkish
United Kingdom British

-i

Afghanistan Afghanistani
Azerbaijan Azerbaijani
Bahrain Bahraini
Bangladesh Bangladeshi
Iraq Iraqi
Israel Israeli
Kazakhstan Kazakhstani
Kuwait Kuwaiti
Kyrgyzstan Kyrgyzstani
Oman Omani
Pakistan Pakistani
Qatar Qatari
Saudi Arabia Saudi
Somalia Somali
Tajikistan Tajikistani
Turkmenistan Turkmenistani
United Arab Emirates Emirati
Uzbekistan Uzbekistani
Yemen Yemeni

-ic

Greenland Greenlandic
Iceland Icelandic

-er

British Virgin Islands British Virgin Islander
Christmas Island Christmas Islander
Cocos (Keeling) Islands Cocos Islander
Cook Islands Cook Islander
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) Falkland Islander
Guernsey Channel Islander
Jersey Channel Islander
New Zealand New Zealander
Norfolk Island Norfolk Islander
Pitcairn Islands Pitcairn Islander
Solomon Islands Solomon Islander
Virgin Islands Virgin Islander

others

Afghanistan Afghan
Argentina Argentine
Botswana Motswana
Burkina Faso Burkinabe
Cyprus Cypriot
Czech Republic Czech
France French
Gibraltar Gibraltar
Greece Greek
Kiribati I-Kiribati
Laos Lao
Lesotho Basotho
Liechtenstein Liechtenstein
Luxembourg Luxembourg
Madagascar Malagasy
Man, Isle of Manx
Monaco Monegasque
Netherlands Dutch
Niger Nigerien
Philippines Philippine
Seychelles Seychellois
Slovakia Slovak
Swaziland Swazi
Switzerland Swiss
Thailand Thai
Vanuatu Ni-Vanuatu
Western Sahara Sahrawi