Classical compound

A large portion of the technical and scientific lexicon of English and other Western European languages consists of classical compounds. These are compound words composed from Latin or Ancient Greek root words.

A source of international technical vocabulary

These classical compounds represent a significant source of Neo-Latin vocabulary. Moreover, since these words are composed from classical languages whose prestige is or was respected throughout the West European culture, these words typically appear in many different languages. Their widespread use makes technical writing generally accessible to readers who may only have a smattering of the language in which it appears.

Not all Western European languages have been equally receptive to classical technical compounds. German, for instance, has historically attempted to create its own technical vocabulary from native elements. Usually, these creations are German calques on the international vocabulary, such as Wasserstoff for hydrogen. Like any exercise in language prescription, this endeavour has been only partially successful, so while official German may still speak of a Fernsprecher, public telephones will be labelled with the internationally recognized Telefon.

Formation, spelling, and pronunciation

These words are compounds formed from Latin and Ancient Greek root words. Ancient Greek words are almost invariably romanized (see transliteration of Ancient Greek into English). In English:

  • Ancient Greek αι becomes e, or sometimes æ or ae in British English.
  • Ancient Greek groups with γ plus a stop consonant such as γγ or γκ become ng and nc (or nk in more recent borrowings) respectively.
  • Ancient Greek ει often becomes i (occasionally it is retained as ei).
  • Ancient Greek κ becomes c, and in English pronunciation is subject to palatalization, or k.
  • Ancient Greek (rho with spiritus asper) becomes rh.
  • Ancient Greek θ becomes th.
  • Ancient Greek φ becomes ph or very rarely f.
  • Ancient Greek ψ becomes ps.
  • Ancient Greek χ becomes ch.
  • Ancient Greek υ becomes y.
  • Ancient Greek ου becomes u.
  • Ancient Greek ω becomes o.
  • Ancient Greek rough breathing becomes h-.

Thus, for example, Ancient Greek σφιγξ becomes English (and Latin) sphinx. Exceptions to these romanizing rules occur, such as leukemia (leukaemia); compare leukocyte, also leucocyte. In Latin, and in the target languages, the Greek vowels are given their classical values rather than their contemporary values in demotic Greek.

Ancient Greek words often contain consonant clusters which are foreign to the phonology of contemporary English and other languages that incorporate these words into their lexicon: diphthong; pneumatology, phthisis. The traditional response in English is to treat the unfamiliar cluster as containing one or more silent letters and suppress their pronunciation, more modern speakers tend to try and pronounce the unusual cluster. This adds to the irregularities of English spelling; moreover, since many of these words are encountered in writing more often than they are heard spoken, it introduces uncertainty as to how to pronounce them when encountered.

Classical compounds frequently vary their stressed syllable when suffixes are added: ágriculture, agricúltural. This also gives rise to uncertainty when these words are encountered in print. Once a classical compound has been created and borrowed, it typically becomes the foundation of a whole series of related words: e.g. astrology, astrological, astrologer/astrologist, astrologism.

History and reception

English began incorporating many of these words in the sixteenth century; geography first appeared in an English text in 1535, other early adopted words that still survive include mystagogue, from the 1540s, and androgyne, from the 1550s. The use of these technical terms predates the scientific method; the several varieties of divination all take their names from classical compounds, such as alectryomancy, divination by the pecking of chickens.

Not all English writers have been friendly to the reception of classical vocabulary. The Tudor period writer Sir John Cheke wrote:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borrowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

and therefore rejected what he called "inkhorn terms".

Similar sentiments moved the nineteenth century author William Barnes to create "pure English," in which he sought to strip out all Ancient Greek and Latinisms and find Anglo-Saxon equivalents therefor: for Barnes, the newly invented art of the photograph became a sun-print. Unlike this one, some of Barnes's coinages caught on, such as foreword, Barnes's replacement for the preface of a book. Later, Poul Anderson wrote a jocular piece called Uncleftish Beholding in a constructed language based on English which others have called Ander-Saxon; this attempted to create a pure English vocabulary for nuclear physics.

More recent developments

Many such words, such as thermometer, dinosaur, rhinoceros, and rhododendron, are thoroughly incorporated into the English lexicon and are the ordinary words for their referents. Some are prone to colloquial shortening; rhinoceros often becomes rhino, a situation which may give rise to ambiguity when someone moves from speaking of rhinoceroses to rhinoviruses, being unclear whether the speaker is talking about a Rhino virus, or a Rhinovirus. The binomial nomenclature of taxonomy and biology is a major source for these items of vocabulary; for many unfamiliar species that lack a common English name, the name of the genus becomes the English word for that life form.

In the metric system, prefixes that indicate multipliers are typically Greek in origin, such as kilogram, while those that indicate divisors are Latin, as in millimeter: the base roots resemble Greek words, but in truth are neologisms. These metric and other suffixes are added to native English roots as well, resulting in creations such as gigabyte. Words of mixed Latin and Greek lineage, or words that combine elements of the classical languages with English, were formerly castigated as "barbarisms" by prescriptionist usage commentators; this disapproval has mostly abated. Indeed, in scientific nomenclature, even more exotic hybrids have appeared, such as for example the dinosaur Yangchuanosaurus. Personal names appear in some scientific names such as Fuchsia.

Classical compounds are sometimes used to lend grandeur or the impression of scientific rigour to humble pursuits: the study of cosmetology will not help anyone become an astronaut. Compounds along these models are also sometimes coined for humorous effect, such as odontopodology, the science of putting your foot into your mouth. These humorous coinages sometimes take on a life of their own, such as garbology, the study of garbage.

Some classical compounds form classical plurals, and are therefore irregular in English. Others do not, while some vacillate between classical and regular plurals.

See also

External links


  • McArthur, Tom (ed.): The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (Oxford University Press, 1992}. ISBN 0-19-214183-X

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