Chapter 14: Compound Words in Latin

§91. What is a Compound Word?

In correct linguistic use, the term “compound” describes a word that consists of two or more words or word bases. For the most part, prefixes and suffixes are morphemes that cannot stand alone as independent words; in contrast, the elements of a compound have that capacity.[1] The Germanic family of languages is strongly predisposed to compounding; modern German, in particular, can boast many words that stretch across half a line of print. Though not nearly so flexible, English is rich in compounds, most of them two elements in length: milkmaid, sunbeam, firebreak, waterspout, goalkeeper, folktale, rattlesnake, dogcatcher, flashlight, brainwash, handmade, homesick—one could go on indefinitely. When we come to the Greek section of our course, we’ll find that compounding plays an important role in word formation within that language. Compound words are not so conspicuous in the Latin tradition; but they do exist, and they do affect English vocabulary. For example, there are many English words that contain Latin numerical elements; these will be examined in a Part II chapter (e.g. §125) on Latin and Greek number words. The present chapter will look at some of the other types, with an emphasis on verbs.


  1. In traditional Latin grammar, forms like convocare, intermittere, and circumvenire have been described for centuries as COMPOUND VERBS. Though one may argue that most Latin verb prefixes can stand alone as prepositions, modern linguists would not necessarily identify these words as compounds.

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§91. What is a Compound Word? by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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