Simply, what is "major subject" in Latin? By a major subject I mean the subject a university student mainly focuses on. I have used the translation materia principalis, but I wonder if there is a more suitable one. In particular, is (or was) a Latin expression for this already in use somewhere?

2 Answers 2


Whenever I need to translate relatively new words into Latin, I find that the Morgan and Silva Furman University Lexicon is particularly useful. Here is the entry for "major", which is what we call a student's primary concentration in the U.S.

.univ major in, specialize in / speciale studium (alicuius rei) amplecti | major, specialization specializatio* [Latinitas] (HELF.)
.univ major, specialize / speciali studio se excolere (v. operam dare) (LRL)

So, specializatio seems to be somewhat adequate in describing a "major". It obviously is related to the English "specialization", which makes sense for the purpose it serves.

  • Thanks! I think a better fit with those dictionary entries (and my sense of style, admittedly) would be studium speciale. It also has the benefit of relating it more clearly to the context of studying than specializatio would. I was unaware of that dictionary, but it looks useful.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 15:01
  • It's worth noting that this definition comes from the silva, not the adumbratio. See this answer for an explanation of the difference. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 15:03
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    @Nathaniel Oh, I'm well aware of the difference. As it says in the definition, it comes, in part, from Latinitas Recens, which is a somewhat credible source for modern Latin. I feel like the silva is still useful, especially since there was no ancient equivalent, and there is nothing in the adumbratio for this word.
    – Sam K
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:39

In the Medieval studia generalia, there were four "majors" one could study (although one of them was preliminary to the other three), and they were called facultates.

What we think of today as a University actually began as a corporation (or guild) of teachers or of students in a certain city; those were called universitates: u. magistrum for a teachers' guild, and u. scholarium for a students' guild. Sometimes there was a single guild for both, called universitas magistrum et scholarium.

When one entered University, one studied the trivium and then the quadrivium within the facultas artium, or the faculty of the (Liberal) Arts. Once students had obtained their title of Magister Artium, they could leave University or continue into one of the other three facultates: Law, Medicine or Theology.

Obviously, there's the issue that, in North America, the term "faculty" is used to refer to the teaching body of an institution, the corpus docens. However, since they are different languages, there is no problem in using the closest historical term to the modern English concept — even if they really looked nothing like Anglophone majors do today.

In any case, during the High Middle Ages, the same term (facultas) was used both for the course taught and for the subset of the universitas magistrum which taught the same course, so the facultas legis or the facultas medicinae could refer to both the subject which the students enrolled in it studied or to the teachers who taught those subjects.

  • Thanks! This is a good option to keep in mind. In Finland the English word "faculty" is used in a yet different meaning. It does not refer to the personnel or the subject, but the university is divided into faculties and faculties into departments. A faculty is lead by a dean. I believe the typical corresponding term in the US would be "school". Do you know if facultas refers more to the institution teaching law, medicine, or theology, or to the subjects themselves?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 23:06
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    The institution was only one; it was called either studium particulare, if only local students were admissible, or otherwise studium generale. The guilds of the teachers and of the students were called universitas (the former u. magistrum; the latter u. scholarium). Within the universitas magistrum, there was a subset which taught Law, for instance, and those could be referred as the facultas legis, though the course (the "major") they taught was also the facultas legis. There wasn't then a clear distinction between the two.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 1:55
  • Many thanks! Could you add that comment into your answer? That is very interesting, at least to me.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 3:07

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