Chapter 8: Latin Prefixes

§57. An Introduction to Prefixes

In the last three chapters, we have been learning how the Latin language could add SUFFIXES to its stock of nouns and adjectives in order to expand and enrich its vocabulary. Now it is time to examine the repertoire of Latin PREFIXES—those morphemes that are added to the beginning of words in order to alter their meaning. There are about twenty-five common prefixes in Latin, some of which are used almost exclusively with verb bases. Because you have not yet been introduced to the Latin verb, those particular prefixes may be hard to illustrate at this stage of the course. Experience suggests, however, that it is useful to present the general topic at this point, since a knowledge of prefixes will greatly facilitate the learning of Latin verb vocabulary.

Most of the common Latin prefixes had an independent existence as Latin prepositions. For example, you will know the Latin words for “before” and “after”—ante and post—from such phrases as ante meridiem (A.M., “before noon”), post meridiem (P.M., “after noon”), or post mortem (“after death”). Although they work as prepositions in those phrases, ante and post can also be attached directly to certain Latin words as prefixes, leading to such English derivatives as antecedent (“going before”), antediluvian (“before the flood”), postpone (“place after”), and postscript (“written after”). Again, super and sub were Latin prepositions of place that meant “over” (or “above”) and “under” (or “below”); as prefixes, they survive in the English words supersede (“sit above”) and submarine (“under the sea”). It is important to realize that if you know the meaning of a Latin prefix in Latin, you will almost certainly be able to observe that meaning at work in any English derivative that contains the prefix. There is one complication that makes the process just a little harder: in English derivatives, as in the original Latin words, some prefixes are occasionally disguised in form because of a phonetic process known as ASSIMILATION. We shall be examining that phenomenon as we proceed (“go forward”).

Before we attack a whole battery of Latin prefixes, let us become familiar with two of the most important of them, using straightforward English illustrations. We’ll start with in- and con-, and then move on to prefixes of place, which include super and sub.

One very common Latin prefix, which we have already seen in passing, was the negative morpheme in-, which corresponds with and is cognate with the Germanic prefix un-. Like un-, Latin in- cannot stand alone as an independent word, but is extremely useful when attached to other forms—adjectives, in particular—to negate their meaning.[1] Consider two synonymous Latin adjectives meaning “strong”: firmus and validus (firm and valid). The negative prefix creates two Latin adjectives meaning “weak”: infirmus and invalidus (infirm and invalid). Every mature speaker of English is surely aware of the negative force of this morpheme, but only the student of Latin is likely to realize how systematically it is used in derivative vocabulary. (As a rule, English prefers in- with Latin word bases and un- with Germanic, though HYBRID forms like unfamiliar are not at all uncommon.) The principle of ASSIMILATION can be observed when in- is placed before certain consonants. In Latin, as in any language, the sequence of sounds inp- will inevitably change to imp-, because of the position of the human teeth and lips. Thus the negative of pius (E pious) is impius (E impious). By a full assimilation of consonants, *in-legalis became illegalis (E illegal = unlawful); *in-mortalis became immortalis (E immortal = undying); and *in-regularis became irregularis (E irregular = unruly; see §60). One should not learn the prefix as in- or im- or il- or ir-; it is much better to remember it as in-, and be prepared to cope with various forms of assimilation. A different type of phonetic change is apparent in pairs such as amicus (friendly) and inimicus (unfriendly; > E enemy); here the pronunciation and spelling of the word base was affected by the addition of the prefix. Another example of this type is aptus (“fit,” “proper”) and ineptus (“unfit,” “silly”).[2]

Another very common prefix was con– (“with,” “together with”), a combining form of the preposition cum. It appears in the Latin noun con-cord-ia (E concord), “sharing your heart with others,” and the adjective con-tempor-aneus (E contemporaneous), “together in time.” There are hundreds of English words that contain this Latin prefix, which sometimes appears as co-, and which may be changed by assimilation to forms like com-, col-, and cor-. You may already be aware that cooperation and collaboration both mean “working together,” but you probably didn’t realize that company and companion originally denoted the sharing of bread (panis). People who are companionable and gregarious (§42) may feel the urge to congregate (“flock together”).

  1. The standard independent negative in Latin is non, which is usually placed before a verb. Although we have adopted non- as an English prefix, it never had that function in the Latin language.
  2. In English, the adjectives apt and inept are not generally recognized as opposites; in fact, people will ask why the word “ept” does not exist. By a back-formation, English developed the adjective inapt to serve as the antonym of apt.


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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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