Chapter 7: Latin Diminutives

§54. The Variant Latin Diminutive Suffixes -OLUS and -ELLUS

For reasons of historical phonetics, a Latin diminutive word sometimes assumed a form that used a suffix other than the standard -ulus or -culus. These variants are too complicated to be explained here in full, but they can be summarized in general terms. You are advised to read this section quickly, and not worry about its technical content.

If the original noun had a base ending in the vowel -e-, -i-, or -u-, the suffix was not -ulus, but -olus. Therefore the diminutive of are-a was are-ola, and areola or areole is today an anatomical term that denotes the “little area” of colour around the nipple. If a Latin sword is a gladi-us, a little sword is a gladi-olus. (Many plants and flowers have been named on the basis of such vivid descriptive imagery.) Though classical Latin lacked a diminutive form of vacu-um, the biological word vacuole (from French) was correctly formed to mean “a little empty space.”

The -ellus variant is trickier, since it can have two very different explanations:

  • Some nouns with r- stems, like liber (“book”), underwent a series of phonetic changes that led to diminutive forms like libellus (“little book”);[1] and because little books can often be abusive or scurrilous, that form became the origin of our word libel. The same phonetic process lies behind the English words castle (L castrum, “fort” > castellum), scalpel (L scalprum, “knife” > scalpellum), and cerebellum (L cerebrum, “brain” > cerebellum).
  • Especially in the language of the common people (“Vulgar Latin”), there was a tendency to take familiar diminutive words and diminish their form and meaning even further. This produced a group of double diminutives, which we can perhaps remember as the “itty-bitty” category. Here is an easy example. The basic Latin word for “pig” was the 2nd declension noun porcus; there was a corresponding 1st declension noun porca (“sow”). By the principle we met in §52, a “piglet” became porc-ulus, and a “she-piglet” (Miss Piggy?) was porc-ula. In popular speech, however, Roman farmers preferred the double diminutive porc-ellus—an “itty-bitty” word that corresponds roughly to English “piggy-wig.”[2] What is interesting about all this is the fact that porcellus became the standard late Latin word for “pig,” appearing in such Romance derivatives as Italian porcello and French pourceau. Similarly we find vitellus (< vitulus, “calf”), source of It. vitello, Fr. veau, and E veal; and agnellus (< agnus, “lamb”), source of It. agnello and Fr. agneau. Any student of Romance linguistics must come to terms with this Latin double diminutive, since it plays a rather important role in the vocabulary of French, Italian, and Spanish.

  1. Here is the explanation, for those who are linguistically inclined. The diminutive suffix -ulus was originally a morpheme that can be shown as -(ə)lo-s; by the principles of syncope, samprasáraṇa, and assimilation, there occurred the development *libr-əlo-s > *libṛlos > *liberlos > libellus. There were parallel developments that led to a few diminutive forms in -illus (-a, -um) or -ollus (-a, -um).
  2. The phonetic development was *pork-os > *pork-əlo-s > *pork-əl-əlo-s > porcellus.


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

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