I found various sources indicating that the Latin word inferus (or infer) comes from a Proto-Indo-European form like *n̥dʰer, the source of English “under” and Sanskrit adhara, adhas. (The Sanskrit cognate(s) are mentioned in Lewis and Short and A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Walter William Skeat, 1885); the reconstructed PIE form and connection to English “under” is mentioned in Wiktionary.)

Skeat further says that it is a comparative form, which kind of sounds plausible to me, although I don’t know if this is considered correct by modern scholars.

The thing that's puzzling to me is why Latin has “infer(us)” rather than “inder(us)”, since the regular word-medial reflexes of PIE voiced aspirates in Latin were voiced stops rather than voiceless fricatives. (For example, Wiktionary says PIE *n̥bʰrís developed to Latin “imber”.)

Was PIE *n̥dʰer (or if the “r” is part of a comparative suffix, *n̥dʰ- or whatever) a compound of the negative morpheme *n̥- and some other morpheme? It doesn’t seem obvious to me what the second morpheme would mean. Or was it not originally a compound, but later reinterpreted as one in Proto-Italic or something like that? I’m wondering if there’s any explanation of the phonological/morphological development that gave us “inf” in this word in Latin.

As far as I know, all other instances of “nf” in Latin can fairly easily be explained as the result of compounding: Aspects of the Phonology and Morphology of Classical Latin, by András Cser says:

The overwhelming majority of the nasal vowel + [f] cases are prefixed forms consisting of in- or con- plus an f-initial stem (conferre ‘collect’, infamis ‘disreputable’), but see also the simplex inferus [ĩːferus] ‘lower’ and its derivatives.


Weiss (Hist. Comp. Gramm. Lat. 75, note 26) says that "the first syllable of īnferus was identified with in- and the medial *dʰ was therefore given a pseudo-initial treatment".

De Vaan (s.v.) agrees, citing Walde-Hoffman, Leumann, and Meiser, though he also mentions the possibility of a divergent dialectal treatment. He compares -fāriam "in n parts" (e.g. bifāriam), Skt. (dvi-)dhā, where according to Weiss the f again results from a pseudo-initial treatment within an analyzable compound.

  • I see--do you know if Weiss means the prepositional prefix in- or the negative prefix? The prepositional one seems closer in meaning to me – sumelic Jun 12 '17 at 3:38
  • @sumelic, he doesn't say; I was assuming prepositional too. It seems a little ad hoc to me, to be honest, but there doesn't appear to be a better explanation. – TKR Jun 12 '17 at 15:52
  • And Weiss also mentions quite interesting examples (with medial f) on pp 474-475. – Alex B. Jun 12 '17 at 16:08
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    de Vaan clearly says that "because *en was metanalysed as the preposition 'in'. As for a possible dialectal and other hypotheses (de Vaan cites Giacomelli 1963 but Leumann mentions Meillet), Leumann dismissed those as " entbehrlich und meist sehr kuenstlich." – Alex B. Jun 12 '17 at 16:29

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