Chapter 2: The Latin Noun (Declensions 1 & 2)

§12. Latin Nouns of the Second Declension

Now that we’re familiar with one type of Latin noun, the next category should create no problem. The 2nd declension is subdivided into two different forms of noun, one ending in -us (predominantly masculine in gender) and a second ending in -um (invariably neuter). In each type, the BASE can be found by removing that final -us or -um. Let us consider them in turn.

Some 2nd declension nouns in -us still display their original form in modern English:

campus circus cactus fungus stimulus
bacillus radius focus alumnus asparagus

The Latin plural of stimulus was stimuli, originally pronounced “stimul-ee,” but in English normally pronounced “stimul-eye.” How we pluralize words like this will be a good test of their acceptance into everyday English speech. Campus and circus, for instance, are not considered exotic or technical; no one would dream of saying “campi or “circi.” In contrast, most of the remaining words do retain that original Latin plural, like bacilli, radii, alumni. Sometimes there’s a choice: cacti and cactuses are both correct, as are fungi and funguses. In the case of asparagus, we just avoid the problem altogether—though the Romans quite logically called the vegetable asparagi. This type of Latin plural can trick us into drawing false analogies. Though you may hear the form octopi, it is historically incorrect, since octopus is a Greek derivative meaning “eight-foot.” We can even invent pseudo-Latin singular forms: in Wayne and Shuster’s famous Shakespearean television skit, when Julius Caesar asked for a double martini, he was told that he could have only one martinus.

 animus  mind, feeling  numerus  number
 campus  level field, plain  oculus  eye
 circus  circle, Circus  populus  people
 deus  god  radius  staff, rod, spoke
 equus  horse  stimulus  goad, spur
 locus  place  terminus  boundary
 modus  measure, manner  vulgus  mass(es), crowd

A few of these nouns (campus, circus, etc.) we’ve seen already. Locus and terminus have also entered English without change, and you may know animus as a word that suggests “hostile feeling” or “hatred.” Don’t be bothered by the double U in equus; Latin qu was pronounced /kw/, virtually as in English, and the word-base here is equ-. From modus we get the doublets mode and mood (as in the “subjunctive mood”). If you look up mood in the dictionary, you will find that there are two quite different English words, identical in spelling—one Germanic and one Latin. Forms like this can be described as HOMOGRAPHS.

The other type of 2nd declension noun ended in -um. English has borrowed a number of these directly from Roman public and private life: forum, atrium, rostrum, stadium (originally Greek). Others are more complex words whose form we’ll come to understand later in the course: aquarium, auditorium, memorandum, referendum. As you are surely aware, the Latin plural of words in -um is -a. In English, we can choose as we like between forums and fora, auditoriums and auditoria, referendums and referenda. But don’t forget that data and media are plural forms; purists use them only with plural verbs.

fatum fate, destiny pretium value, price
granum grain, seed signum mark, token, sign
monstrum evil omen, monster taedium weariness, disgust
odium hatred verbum word
officium service, duty vitium fault, vice

Spelled as it was in Latin, the English noun odium suggests the hatred that clings to a person who has become dishonored or disgraced; a close synonym is another Latin 2nd declension derivative, opprobrium. Our word office usually implies either a place of business (“I’m going to the office”) or a position in a hierarchy (“She was elected to high office”). The original Latin meaning can often be found in Elizabethan English, and is still alive in expressions such as “through your kind offices.”

In classical Latin, officium was pronounced “of-fee-kee-oom” and pretium, “preh-tee-oom”; there was no risk of confusing the sounds of ci- and ti-. In late Latin, however, both these syllables were pronounced [tsi], and pretium (now “preh-tsee-oom”) was often misspelled as precium. This fact helps explain the spelling of price and precious. In medieval Latin, the diphthong ae and the long vowel e also became almost identical in sound (“ay”); thus taedium was spelled tedium, and praemium (“reward”), premium.

The Latin word signum was amazingly flexible in meaning. Any kind of mark or indicator, it could be a military standard, a signal, a token, a symptom, a statue, a seal, or a heavenly constellation (a sign of the zodiac). The English derivative is almost as versatile.


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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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