Chapter 5: Turning Latin Nouns into Adjectives

§34. Adjective-forming Suffixes in English

By way of preamble, let us see what happens in English when we want to turn simple nouns into corresponding adjectives. What English word expresses the concept “like a man,” or “like a child,” or “like a horse”? How do we say that something resembles blood, or has the qualities of milk or water? How does our English language convey in one word an idea such as “full of sin” or “full of woe”? The following English examples will be drawn from Germanic word roots and Germanic suffixes, so as to provide useful parallels. If you understand the semantic and morphological process for native English words, you will cope more easily with the parallel situation in Latin.

There are at least five common methods for turning a native English noun into an adjective, all involving standard Germanic suffixes:

  1. Noun + suffix -Y (< OE < OTeut.), “having the qualities of”
    • heart-y, blood-y, milk-y, dirt-y, health-y, hand-y, horse-y
    • ic-y, sunn-y, angr-y, clay-ey
  2. Noun + suffix -LY (< OE < OTeut.), “having the appearance of”
    • man-ly, woman-ly, king-ly, mother-ly, friend-ly, beggar-ly[1]
    • hour-ly, dai-ly, year-ly[2]
  3. Noun + suffix -ISH (< OE < OTeut.), “having the nature or character of”
    • boy-ish, mann-ish, woman-ish, book-ish, child-ish, freak-ish
    • Engl-ish (< Angl-ish), Brit-ish, French (< Frank-ish), Welsh, Dan-ish
  4. Noun (or Adj.) + -SOME (< OE < OFris.; cf. OS & OHG -sam), “full of”
    • hand-some, burden-some, loath-some, wholesome, glad-some, ful-some
  5. Noun + -FUL = full), “full of,” “characterized by”
    • woe-ful, wonder-ful, help-ful, sin-ful, meaning-ful

Suffixes like -y, -ly, -ish, -some, and -ful do have subtle differences in meaning, but these historical distinctions would seem quite academic to the average speaker of English. The situation that we’ll encounter in Latin is closely parallel: slight variations in meaning or usage can be identified among the common adjective-forming suffixes, but these weren’t likely apparent even to educated Romans. The common functional purpose that the suffixes share—creating adjectives from nouns—is far more important than any semantic connotations they may have. Latin normally applied only one adjectival suffix to any given noun; there are few Latin parallels for English pairs like manly and mannish, handy and handsome, awful and aw(e)some. One feature that you will find reassuring about Latin adjective-forming suffixes is that their English derivatives are mainly consistent and logical. To put it another way, you will be able to predict with confidence the Latin source-words for hundreds of English adjectives that have been derived from Latin.


  1. Problems may be caused by the fact that these forms are adjectives, whereas most other English words in -ly are adverbs. We can say “She gave me a friendly kiss,” but we’re not likely to say “She kissed me friendly” or—as if trying to create a typical adverb in -ly—“She kissed me friendlily.”
  2. These forms can be either adjectives or adverbs; compare “Give us our daily bread,” with “We are now travelling daily to Vancouver.”


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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