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姪 "niece" is often pronounced [[me.i]] rather than [[meː]] (see e.g. this comment in chat). I think the reason for this is that there is a morpheme boundary in 姪, presumably

姪 = 女【め】 + イ = female イ

Unfortunately, 姪 is not listed in any of the answers in the question "Kanji for native Japanese concepts: Kun'yomi spanning multiple morphemes" (or it might be hidden in another word and I haven't noticed).

What is the meaning of イ and what is the etymology of 姪 and 甥?

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Shogakukan's 大国語辞典 shows that 姪【めい】 has a historical hiragana spelling of めひ, not めい, showing that the modern mei reading is not on'yomi but rather kun'yomi. This different derivation is probably also why the pronunciation is different: [mei] with a more distinct [i], and not [meː]. The term for "nephew", 甥【おい】, has a historical hiragana spelling of をひ. As you note, め is an old morpheme indicating "female", and を is an old morpheme indicating "male". We now have a clear follow-on morpheme ひ.

This ひ is of uncertain derivation. The closest vaguely relevant match that I can currently find is prefix 曾【ひ】, often glossed as "great" in terms like 曾【ひ】お祖母【ばあ】さん "great-grandmother", 曾【ひ】孫【まご】 "great-grandchild", etc. Shogakukan's given definition for 曾【ひ】 is:

血縁関係を表す語について、それよりさらに一代離れた関係にあることを示す。
For terms expressing a blood relation, this indicates a relation separated by one more generation.

I wonder if there might have been an older meaning, still referring to relative distance from oneself, but not necessarily of a different generation; and an older usage, not as a prefix but as a noun. I'll keep looking.

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    @broccoliforest also mentioned 彦{ひこ} and 姫{ひめ} in chat. (Also, welcome back, yeay!) – Darius Jahandarie Oct 1 '15 at 17:42
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    It's worth noting that Shogakukan's Kokugo Dai Jiten entries for 彦【ひこ】 and 姫【ひめ】 describe the prefix ひ as cognate with 日 and functioning as an honorific prefix. – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 7 '15 at 0:52
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    @DariusJahandarie -- The relevant entries (the SE comment feature seems to delete linebreaks, so imagine that the \\ are linebreaks): ひこ【彦】 \\ (「日子」の意) \\ ---- \\ ひ【日】 \\ ... \\ 7 皇室や皇族に関する事柄につけて、ほめたたえる気持を表す語。日の神、すなわち、天照大神の子孫の意とも、光り輝く太陽にたとえたことばともいう。「日の御子」「日の御門」など。 – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 7 '15 at 0:55

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