The verbs derived from habere usually have an 'i' in the stem rather than an 'a'. For example, adhibere, exhibere, inhibere, and prohibere, leading to the modern English verbs adhibit, exhibit, inhibit, and prohibit.

Why did the stem vowel change when prefixes were added to habere to form new verbs?

This is mostly a matter of curiosity for me, since this seemingly arbitrary change, which nevertheless occurs in all of the verbs derived from habere by adding prefixes, except for antehabere and posthabere for some reason, makes the etymology of words like exhibition or inhibition more difficult to deduce (since there is no Latin word hibitio).


1 Answer 1


It's usual to attribute it to a point in time when Latin had a strong stress accent on the first syllable, so interior vowels in open syllables weakened to i or (depending on the environment) u. So, we posit something like: *in+'habere -> *'inhabere -> 'inhibere -> inhi'bere.

(IPA: [ɪn+ˈhɑbeːrɛ] -> [ˈɪnhɑbeːrɛ] -> [ˈɪnhɪbeːrɛ] -> [ɪnhɪˈbeːrɛ])

(As a side remark, I think this phenomenon provides additional support for the accepted view that short i was lax vowel [ɪ] rather than a tense vowel [i].)

  • 1
    So is that kind of like how someone might say "int'rest" instead of "in-ter-est", or "re-uh-bilitate" instead of "re-ha-bilitate"? Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 19:18
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    Yes, something quite similar happens in English where unaccented vowels get reduced to shwas.
    – varro
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 19:20
  • 3
    Another possible outcome of vowel reduction was "e", in certain contexts.
    – Asteroides
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:30
  • 4
    Right, in particular when the interior syllable was closed rather than open, e.g, infectus.
    – varro
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:35
  • 2
    You are correct about the environment before [r]. As far as to the quality of short i, while I agree that there is no way to be sure, I would argue that the phenomenon discussed above is prima facie evidence this short vowel was lax in Old Latin, on the grounds that "weakening" an unaccented [ɑ] to a tense [i] seems phonetically implausible.
    – varro
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:52

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