Latin elements in English word formation
About 2/3 of words in English come from Latin, and a number of others from Greek; these are especially common in technical and academic vocabulary. Some of the complexities of Latin and Greek based word formation (morphology) are presented here.
1 Latin abbreviations & expressions in academic writing
|cf.||(conferre)||compare, compare(d) to|
|e.g.||(exempliae gratia)||for example|
|et al.||(et alia)||and others, etc. (for multiple authors in source citations)|
|errata||errors (list of typographical errors that have been found)|
|i.e.||(id est)||that is, that is to say, in other words|
|infra||below, see below|
|loc. cit.||in the place cited (for footnote-style citation systems)|
|op. cit.||in the work cited|
|passim||here and there; the point is made in several places in the text|
|sic||“thus” - used to marking errors in the original source|
|supra||above, see above|
2 Latin prefixes
The following are common Latin prefixes, with alternate forms resulting from phonological blendings in Latin; for example, ad+simil- → assimilate. A number of such blendings of prefixes and word stems led to double consonant spellings [“CC” below].
|ab-||a-, abs-||from, away||abstract|
a+CC: abb-, acc-, aff-, agg-, all-, amm-, ann-, app-, acq-, arr-, ass-, att-
|to, toward||advertise, afferent, agglutinate, annotate, appropriate, acquire, arrest, asset, attention, alleviate|
|com||co-, col-, con-||with, together||complicate, collinear, confuse, contain|
|de-||down, away||describe, deduct|
|dis-||di-, dif-||apart, away||distance, difference|
|ex-||e-, ef-||out, beyond||express, effeminate|
|in- ||ig-; i+CC: ill-, imm-, irr-||not||ignoble, inconsistent, immaculate, illiterate|
|in-||i+CC: ill-, imm-, irr-||in, into||instruct, illumine, innate, irradiate|
|ob-||o+CC: occ-, off-, opp-||against; toward||obtain, obtuse, occidental, offer, oppose|
|pro-||pur-||forward, before; in favor of||prospect, propose, purpose|
|sub-||suc-, suf-, sug-, sum-, sup-, sur-, sus-||under||subscribe, suffer, suggest, summation, surround, support, suspect|
|trans-||tra-, tran-||across, over, beyond||transfer, trajectory|
3 Latin & Greek plurals
Some Latin and Greek nouns exhibit changes in word endings, which were regular in Latin and Greek, but irregular or semi-regular in English. These are for many nouns ending in -a (Latin feminine nouns), -us (Latin masculine nouns), -um (Latin neuter nouns), and -on (Latin neuter nouns) [note: these “genders” are morphological categories of words, not usually actual biological gender].
|1.||-a → -ae||pupa → pupae
nova, aurora, alumna, antenna, formula, alumna
|2.||-us → -i||syllabus → syllabi
locus, alumnus, cactus, focus, octopus, hippopotamus, fungus, alumnus
|3.||-um → -a||medium → media, datum → data
honorarium, symposium, maximum, minimum, memorandum, addendum, forum
|4.||-on → -a||criterion → criteria
phenomenon, polyhedron, automaton
Sometimes the Latin plurals are preferred in scientific or technical contexts, while normal -s plurals are preferred in normal contexts (like cactus → cacti / cactuses).
A few nouns have the same form for singular and plural, like species and series.
3.1 Plurals from other languages
A few French irregulars exist, like beau → beaux. Hebrew words often add -im, as in seraph → seraphim, cherub → cherubim; a few Hebrew words have other endings like matzah → matzot. Some words from other languages don’t add plural endings, like samurai.
4 Noun stem changes
Some words undergo changes in the spelling and pronunciation of the stem (base, root word), due to their forms that changed in Latin and Greek.
4.1 Latin & Greek noun stems, singular → plural
Some Greek and Latin nouns change -is to -es (e.g., analysis → analyses), and some Greek and Latin nouns change -ex or -ix to -ices in the plural (e.g., index → indices, codex → codices). For those ending in -ex/-ix, the regular plural with -es is also usually possible in less formal English (indexes, apexes...).
|-is → -es||-ix/ex → -ices|
Another pattern in more technical words looks like this:
- stigma → stigmata
- schema → schemata
Other stem changes occur in nouns in technical vocabulary, e.g.,
- corpus → corpora
- genus → generaopus → opera
4.2 Noun stem changes in other words
Latin / Greek noun stem changes sometimes show up in different words derived from the same ancient root, especially in technical words. This becomes apparent in comparing noun stems with other nouns or adjectives derived from them.
|base noun||derived noun / adj.||base noun||derived noun / adj.|
There are a few words from related stems in both Latin and Greek (as the two languages were close cousins), such as acute (Greek) and accuracy (Latin); coniferous (Latin, ‘cone-bearing’), metaphor (Greek, “carrying beyond”).
5 Verb stem changes
Stem changes in Latin (and also Greek) verb tenses and participle forms led to different variants of the word roots in English. The main stems are the present and the past perfect participle (similar to teach, taught in English). Occasionally, the simple past form yields some English words. Some stem changes occur when verbs are compounded (e.g., tacit – reticent). Below are some common Latin examples.
|infinitive or present tense||meaning||derivatives from present forms||perfect tense form||derivatives from perfect forms|
|dicere||speak, say||abdicate||dictum||dictate, dictionary|
|facere||do, make||facile, suffice||factum||fact, faction|
|fere||carry, bear||transfer||latum (irregular)||translate|
|for, fari||speak, delcare||forensic; infant||fatum||fate|
|nasci||be born||nascent, renaissance||natum||prenatal|
|petere||seek, ask||compete||petitum||petition, competition|
|tacere||be silent||tacit; reticent||tacitum||taciturn|
|tegere||cover, shield||tegmentum||tectum||tectum, protect|
The verb facere also spawned other English words through another verb form: the present passive fio/fieri ‘be made, become’ became the suffix -fy as in ‘pacify, sanctify’.
- ↑ The Latin negative in- is often used with Latin or Greek roots, while the Old English un- is often used with original Old English / Germanic word roots like unable. A Greek negative prefix is a-/an-, as in atom, aphasia, agrammatical, and other technical words.