The word banana and variants thereof appear in a number of languages. The origin appears to be the word banaana in Wolof, if Wikipedia is to be trusted. This word is straightforward to adopt into Latin: banana fits perfectly into the first declension.

What is less obvious for me is what to do with vowel lengths. Should it be bānāna, bānăna, bănāna, or bănăna? All four pronunciations are clearly distinct and the stress has two possible places, so it makes a difference.

The third option bănāna seems to best match the stress in many other languages with a similar word, but the connection between Latin vowel length and stress in other languages is not always that straightforward. Stress considerations only effect the second a, not the first one. Somehow a short first a sounds more natural to me, but I cannot articulate why. There are cases where Latin vowel length contradicts my instinct (I would expect plŭs and mīnus as a Finn), so I cannot fully trust it.

What vowel lengths would you pick and why? While I am also interested in the length of a banana specifically, I would like to understand the processes available for deciding these lengths. This question specifically concerns relatively modern borrowings from other languages to Latin, like banana. There can be room for arbitrary choices of course, but I do assume that there often are reasons to prefer some lengths over others.

I should stress that this question is about the process of choosing vowel lengths in borrowed words. Alternative translation suggestions for the fruit therefore miss the point, but they are interesting nevertheless. It is therefore irrelevant, but I would actually prefer the word banana with some lengths, as it most clearly and unambiguously communicates the correct ideas to most modern speakers; the alternatives suggested have sound reasoning behind them, but I find them worse for communication.

  • Nice question, 1) have you counsidered musa instead of banana?, 2) Wiktionary seems to clearly suggest the second a is long while the others are not, so why hesitate? I don't mean there aren't reasons for other possibilities, but I think the original length is the only strong argument favoring one of them
    – Rafael
    Oct 2, 2019 at 11:44
  • 1
    @Rafael Thanks! 1) I did, but I think it's far clearer to call it banana of some length. I don't want the fruit being misidentified as a muse. 2) Indeed, there's support for that. But is that done regularly with modern loans? And there could be other points worth considering, and such new points of view are one thing I'm after. Just arguing that the original lengths suggest a choice would make a nice answer; others can add nuance later.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Oct 2, 2019 at 12:01
  • 1
    There's also ăriēna, term used by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia. Oct 3, 2019 at 12:14
  • 1
    @Joonas llmavirta: Antonius Musa, physician to Emperor Augustus, is credited with promoting the original cultivation of bananas www.thespruceats.com/history-of-the-banana-as-a-food1807565.
    – tony
    Oct 5, 2019 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


Don't just look at stresses, there are languages with long and short vowels. Czech, Slovak and Hungarian uses: banán, Latvian uses: banāns.

So to answer: I would copy that and make the first short and the second syllable long.

  • This makes perfect sense to me: Look at other languages (which have adopted the word already) but focus on languages that distinguish length instead of or in addition to stress, and adopt the length pattern.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Oct 5, 2019 at 7:09

This is following up on Rafael's comment.

The Romans did not have bananas, but the botanical name musa occurs in Latin since at least the 13th century, originally as a transcription of Arabic mawza in the Latin translation of Avicenna’s “Canon”. Later, it was adopted by Linnaeus as the (still current) botanical name for the genus that includes bananas. So why borrow a new word when an old word is available? And if you want to scan it, then as mūsa, with a heavy syllable, as in Arabic.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.