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Question

少女 means little girl because 少 means little/small and 女 means lady/female. It makes sense here. However it does not make sense when I read 少年 because 年 means year. Is there any reason why 年 was used instead of 男 which means men/male?

Research

My stackexchange search skills are poor, and my search attempts did not yield anything relevant to my question. Googling something however gave me this Wikipedia page.

It said:

Shōnen (少年?), shonen, or shounen, is a kango word that literally means few years and generally refers to a typical boy from elementary school through high school age. It is used in everyday conversation when referring to the period of youth, including in legal wording referencing youth, without regard to gender.

So if my understanding is correct 少年 means young person regardless of gender (because small years or few years [of living] means the person is still young).

However, this does not answer my question as to why the counterpart of 少女 is 少年 and not 少男.

Some expert opinion on this would be appreciated because the Wikipedia article I quoted has the superscript clarification needed.

  • 2
    Given that you read the wiki page you quoted, I don't really understand your concern. Isn't it natural that in most languages grammatical gender is highly asymmetrical and a masculine form is used to indicate a general meaning? Going from the other way round: would an English reader understand that the California Child Actor's Bill (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Child_Actor%27s_Bill) pertains only to boys? And wonder why isn't it called "California Child Actor's and Actress' Bill" or would he (sic!) take it for granted? – macraf Sep 16 '15 at 5:24
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    @Keale Why is Dutch "Meer" called "See" in German and Dutch "Zee" is called "Meer" in German? Because languages evolve and when a need appears to make a distinction from more general term (something like "body of water" here) a new word is created. Probably the same way 少年 was used for young person regardless of age (like in law today) and then a need to make a distinction between sexes arose. 少女 was most likely devised in the same way as (political correctness aside) like "actress" is linguistically a subset of "actor". – macraf Sep 16 '15 at 6:07
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    @macraf Err... I think your comment right there will be more suited as an answer I guess? I actually kinda got enlightened by your first comment so I'm now creating an answer myself, but please feel free to answer. – Keale Sep 16 '15 at 6:16
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    There are more pairs of words with a similar relationship: 姫(ひ-め, 日-女) and 彦(ひ-こ, 日-子) [=女子・男子の美称]; and the pair 乙女(おと-め) and 男(おと-こ, おと-子) [=年の若い女性・男性]; and the pair 娘(むす-め, 生す-女) and 息子(むす-こ, 生す-子). Interestingly, 子 is sometimes used to refer to (young) girls these days... – blutorange Sep 16 '15 at 16:14
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    @DariusJahandarie Not one source, but the bigger Japanese monolingual dictionaries often give some etymology for the words they list (but take with a grain of salt, sometimes they include speculation). Sometimes I come across a word and wonder where they come from, and I look it up. There's also an online dictionary for this, gogen-allguide. – blutorange Sep 17 '15 at 11:53
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Im no expert in Japanese but macraf's comment somehow enlightened me to an answer.

In English, we have nouns like god, actor, waiter etc. These nouns do not necessarily denote a gender because they are supersets. Their subsets are: god & goddess for god, actor & actress for actor and waiter and waitress for waiter.

Visually it's like:

  god            actor            waiter
  / \             / \              / \
god goddess   actor actress   waiter waitress

As you can see, the superset is also the word for the male, and the one for the female is another word.

So in the case of the question, 少年 is the superset for young people. Following the above example, it will also be the word for the male, and the word for the female is another word, 少女.

  少年
  /  |
少年 少女
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    @Ninj0r Can 兄妹 mean "brothers"? I thought it was 兄弟 that's ambiguous between "brothers" and "siblings", while 兄妹 was specifically a brother and a sister, the former being older. – senshin Sep 17 '15 at 3:22
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    yes. I agree. All of this is called "markedness". In this case, "少女" is the marked term. In English, we do the same thing such as marking "lioness". – david Sep 17 '15 at 15:50
  • @shenshin Sorry, typo; thanks for catching; you are correct. Re-posting: 兄弟 and 姉妹 is another set that follows this pattern; 兄弟 can mean "siblings" or "brothers" but 姉妹 is always "sisters" – Ninj0r Sep 18 '15 at 4:39
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    The other way round example: 美人{びじん} is used only for women, while more specific 美男子{びだんし} is be used for men. – macraf Sep 18 '15 at 4:40
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    By the way, we very very very rarely use 少年 to mean a "little girl". It sounds kind of archaic. – JamesAMD Sep 19 '15 at 3:57

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