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A comment recently mentioned that the most common word in English is "the", which is odd since it has no direct Latin equivalent. That made me realize: I'm not sure what the most common word in Latin would be.

Thus I ask it here. What's the most common word in Latin? I'm deliberately leaving all the details of the question unspecified: which corpus to use, whether to look at lemmata or wordforms, and so on. So, please mention in your answers how exactly you're interpreting those details!

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  • Personally, I would use the PHI corpus and count wordforms instead of lemmata, just because that's the easiest for me to calculate. But I'm curious what results other choices would give.
    – Draconis
    Apr 10 at 5:26
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    The vocabulary list we used in university was supposedly sorted by frequency and the first three words were et, sum (as a lemma, not the specific form), and in. I know the guy who assembled it, though, and I don't have enough confidence in him to post this as an answer.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 10 at 7:02
  • Not really related to the question, but why is it odd that the is the most common English word but has no Latin equivalent? If anything, I’d say it’s almost to be expected: the most common word in a language is likely to be a function word rather than a content word, and these are more likely to differ significantly between languages and therefore not exist in other languages. Apr 12 at 16:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet That's about what I responded to the comment; I just realized I had no idea what the most common Latin word would be! I'd guess in general it's some obligatory marking, but Latin likes to do its obligatory marking with inflections, not extra words.
    – Draconis
    Apr 12 at 17:49

2 Answers 2

16

Et

If we are treating distinct forms as separate words, et (mentioned in a comment by Cairnarvon) seems likely to be the winner, based on brief corpus searches of promising candidates.

  • 198,519 matches in the PHI corpus of Classical Latin texts.

    (beating in, which has 142,193 matches, and est, which has 100,901 matches)

  • 39748 lines in the Pedecerto corpus of Latin hexameter and pentameter lines.

    (beating in, which has 18905 lines, and est, which has 11324 lines)

Et also appears at the top of several of the lists linked from https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists/Latin

It is often noted that the frequency of et relative to -que as a coordinator went up over time; I assume this was accompanied by a trend upwards in the absolute frequency of et from early Latin to Classical and Imperial Latin. There are at least some authors where et is not the most frequent word: if we limit a search in the PHI corpus to the works of Plautus, we find that et (1,793 matches) is less frequent in this context than est (2,449 matches); in Terence also et (539 matches) is slightly less frequent than est (612 matches).

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  • I wonder where is (in any of its forms) stands?
    – MPW
    Apr 10 at 16:30
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    @MPW est stands in at 100,901, and sit at only 21,039.
    – cmw
    Apr 10 at 17:35
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    @cmw (I think that comment may be asking about is, ea, id, not about English "is".)
    – Draconis
    Apr 10 at 17:47
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    @Draconis Oh, I think you're right! In that case, the list I linked has it at number 13.
    – cmw
    Apr 10 at 18:32
  • @Draconis : Yes, is, ea, id, not esse. +1 for you.
    – MPW
    Apr 11 at 13:52
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Christopher Francese compiled a frequency list of the most common Latin words and ranks them. This is done by lemma, not forms.

The top five are:

  1. et
  2. sum, esse, fui, futurum
  3. qui, quae, quod
  4. -que
  5. in

He also compiled a frequency list for Greek, too, and the top five there are:

  1. ὁ, ἡ, τό
  2. αὐτός, αὐτή, αὐτό
  3. καί
  4. δέ
  5. τίς, τί

εἰμί came in at #6.

You can see his sources here.

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  • What did the Greeks find so important about the concept of self that "auto" is the second most common lemma?
    – No Name
    Apr 12 at 19:21
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    @NoName "αὐτός, αὐτή, αὐτό, ..." are often used as "he, she, it, they"
    – qrsngky
    Apr 13 at 0:39
  • @qrsngky That would explain it, okay. Thanks
    – No Name
    Apr 13 at 1:06

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