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Although there are numerous conventions that appear to be followed when borrowing words from Greek to English, an especially noticeable one is the change made to the endings of 2nd declension nouns, whereby -ον, -ος becomes -um, -us. Two examples that come immediately to mind:

  • angelus < ἄγγελος
  • evangelium < εὐαγγέλιον

This convention also works the other way:

  • Τιβέριος < Tiberius
  • (Byzantine) βεστιάριον < vestiarium

Given that in all other cases, the standard transcription of Latin "u" is the closer Greek "ου":

  1. Why is "ο" (omicron) used in these cases instead?
  2. Why does "ν" (nu) replace "m"?
  3. Bonus: Why are some Greek works borrowed unchanged (especially botanic and zoological names), like callitrichos or aedon?
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    Would it be a sufficient explanation that the endings in Latin and Greek are cognate (as must have been observed in antiquity), and therefore changing between them is a natural adaptation when changing languages? – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 2 '16 at 14:33
  • See my comment on the below answer: given that many writers were comfortable navigating Greek inflections, I think some more explanation (if there is one) could be warranted. As far as I am aware, for instance, the Greek 3rd declension is not similarly adapted in all cases: I've seen an "-a" accusative many times in Latin. – brianpck Sep 2 '16 at 15:06
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    aedon is not a good example, since it looks like it is a third-declension feminine from Greek ἀηδών, which doesn't end in -ον. – Asteroides Aug 12 at 20:03
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You should consider that when Latin borrowed words, it didn't just "transliterate" them: it adapted them to its own morphological system; so the Greek suffixes were naturally swapped with Latin ones. It was very easy thanks to the high degree of similarity. This happened also from Latin to Greek.

Some words (personal, zoological, botanical, geographical names, but also words like poesis) were borrowed in Latin without swapping the suffix (or swapping it only in part of the declension; usually the plural is swapped with regular Latin suffixes, for example). It happened mainly in poetry, maybe to create a sense of exoticism and/or metric reasons. Also, it was something only the learned (who by the way were perfectly bilingual) would do. Often you'll find both versions available (both athletes and athleta). But most scientific words with Greek suffixes are modern words, created artificially by scientists; they were out of the natural system of Latin borrowing, so they just happened to be transliterated.

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    Concerning your first and third points--this whole question is about Latin transliteration. All the words I mentioned are in L&S and were used by classical speakers (okay, maybe evangelium is a little later). As for the second, that's definitely the most plausible explanation, but it doesn't explain the many cases (such as Greek names) where no attempt at morphological adaptation is made, especially in Latin poetry. – brianpck Sep 2 '16 at 15:02
  • Personal names are a different thing too; in grammar books we actually find a section on names that are inflected using greek suffixes... I think it's a matter of taste (exoticism) and/or metric problems. – user786 Sep 2 '16 at 15:06
  • About the point on the question being about Latin transliteration: it's followed inside the word, while it doesn't apply to the suffix because the suffix isn't being transliterated, it's just being swapped – user786 Sep 2 '16 at 15:07
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I agree with the emphasis on morphology in the comments and in user786's answer. The Greek second-declension terminations -ον, -ος are etymologically and morphologically equivalent to the Latin second-declension terminations -um, -us, which surely contributed greatly to their interchange in loaned words.

However, I wanted to post about some phonetic and phonological factors that may have also been relevant. Some of the changes in the Latin > Greek direction especially seem to be fairly natural from a phonetic viewpoint.

Also, when researching this topic, I came across some information about variation in transcription practices that I thought was interesting.

The use of Greek <ν> for Latin <m> in word-final position was probably related to Greek phonotactics, and possibly to phonetic details about the pronunciation of Latin word-final -m

The phoneme /m/ (<μ>) does not occur in word-final position in any Greek words. As mentioned in the comments, Latin final m is cognate to Greek final /n/.

Furthermore, it is thought that Latin words ending in <m> were not pronounced with [m] in most contexts, but instead with either a word-final nasalized vowel, or with a vowel followed by some kind of nasalized offglide like [w̃]. Latin final -⁠m is thought to have been phonetically realized as a nasal consonant only before a following plosive or nasal: [m] before [p, b, m]; [n] before [t, d, n]; and [ŋ] before [k, g]. Ancient Greek final /n/ most likely showed the same kind of place assimilation to a following consonant across word boundaries.

Given all that, it makes sense that Greek speakers would have adapted Latin words ending in m with Greek /n/ (<ν>).

However, there are some inscriptions with word-final <μ>

There do in fact seem to be inscriptions of Latin in the Greek alphabet that use word-final <μ>. My guess is that spellings like these were based on the Latin spelling, rather than being based on how Greek speakers perceived the pronunciation of Latin words ending in <m>.

"Greek/Latin Bilingualism", by Luca Lorenzetti, mentions three examples of <ουµ>, from Latin -um, being used as a spelling of the genitive plural termination: αννωρουµ, µησουµ, διου[µ] (IGVR 1040), which are described as evidence for "the existence of a Greek-Latin diasystem, a sort of gradient of bilingual varieties based on an extensive network of phonological, morphological and lexical conversions from one language to another" (p. 148, Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics, Vol. 2, G-O).

Latin short ŭ had a somewhat similar sound to Greek <ο>, and there are transcriptions that equate them in other positions as well

It might not be quite true to say that Latin <u> was phonetically closer to and corresponded to Greek <ου> in all other cases. Attic Greek <ου> originally represented a long back vowel, which came to have a high value something like [uː] (thought to have developed from earlier [oː]). Latin <u> had two values, short and long. The long value [uː] was certainly best represented in Attic Greek by <ου>.

But the short value of Latin <u>, aside from differing from <ου> in length, most likely also differed in having a lower quality: [ʊ]. The quality of [ʊ] is either as close to [o] as it is to [u], or possibly even closer to [o]. Since Attic <ο> is thought to have been pronounced as [o], the sound of Greek <ο> would probably have been a reasonably good match for the sound of Latin ŭ.

Greek <ο> for Latin short ŭ

In fact, Latin ŭ was not only transcribed with Greek <ο> in non-final syllables: this transcription of ŭ can also be seen in other positions in some Greek transcriptions, although the frequency of its use relative to <ου> seems to have varied between different times and places.

"Notes on the inscriptions of Delos: the Greek transliteration of Latin names", by Francesco Rovai (2015) explores this topic. Here is a quote from a relevant section:

If, from the beginning of 1st c. AD, when the sons of the Roman aristocrats were regularly sent to Athens, both Latin ŭ and ū are transcribed as ‹ου›37, this comes as no surprise. At this date and in this setting, the Athenian draftsmen encountered a definitely standardised variety of urban Latin, in which ŭ = [u ~ ʊ] (Allen, 1978: 49-50)38. On the contrary, if in the 2nd and 1st c. BC, the Latin ŭ produced in Delos by non-aristocrat negotiatores of both urban and non-urban provenance, is instead transliterated with ‹ο›, this can be assumed as a genuine clue of its [o]-like pronunciation. At least, it was a (mid-)high vowel open enough to be perceived by the Greek drafters as more similar to their native /o/ (= ‹ο›) than to their native /u/ (= ‹ου›).

37Cf. Ιούλιος, Λουκίλιος, and Ῥοῦφος, with ū, and Σουμπτουάριος, Πουδέντα, and ἀννώρουμ, with ŭ; these and other examples can be drawn from Threatte (1980: 220-223).

38This corresponds to a higher level of standardisation also in the script, because, in this way, the Latin graphemic identity between short and long vowels is restored also in Greek. Only when followed by a consonant cluster, some examples of Latin ‹u› transliterated into Greek as ‹ο› are maintained alongside the normal spelling ‹ου›, but they all cease about 100-110 AD (Threatte, 1980: 220-221)

(Studi e Saggi Linguistici, Special Issue: Ancient Languages Between Variation and Norm, edited by Giovanna Marotta - Francesco Rovai, pp. 177-178)

This passage is followed by a table ("Table 2. Greek spellings of Latin back high vowels") that shows Latin ŭ to be transcribed with Greek <ο> in all 22 of its occurrences in the Delian inscriptions:

Καλπόρνιος (1), Κλούιος (1), Δεκόμιος (2),Φολούιος (7),Ποστόμιος (6), Σπόριος (1), Οὐετόριος (1), Οὐολόσιος (3)

(p. 178)

Latin <u> for Greek <ο>

I'm not sure how many examples there are of Latin <u> being used to transcribe Greek <ο> outside of grammatical endings like -us and -um, but Allen (1978) says that there are some. His examples are purpura, gummi, and empurium for Greek πορφύρα, κόμμι and ἐμπόριον. These three examples don't give as much of an impression of systematicity to me as the Delos inscriptions that Rovai talks about: for example, gummi has the additional oddity of using <g> for <κ> (which some, including Allen, suggest could be explained by Latin /k/ being somewhat more aspirated than Greek /k/, but which regardless is not a usual correspondence), and the spelling emporium also exists (which Allen attributes to the influence of Greek spelling) (Vox Latina, 2nd Ed., p. 49). Allen's coverage of this topic is relatively brief, and there might well be a paper that goes into more detail and that could provide more examples.

  • But are the phonetics here really the reason why? I would assume that this is purely morphological. If this were a matter of phonetics alone, wouldn't e.g. genitive of names with -us in nominative would have to be -i instead of -ou? (Or are you trying to explain why Greek naturalizes Latin -us into -os instead of other Greek suffixes such as -eus?) – b a Aug 12 at 22:38
  • @ba: morphology is definitely important. I just wanted to mention some of the phonetic similarities between <ο> and ŭ – Asteroides Aug 12 at 22:57

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