9

Question.

(1) Is there anything close to scientifically-meaningful to say about whether the prefix "di-" is more Latin than the prefix "bi-", when indicating two-ness?

(2) Are there published scholarly references on precisely this question, comparing the two prefixes?

(3) Are there notable Latin words which simultaneously contain "bi" and "di"?

Remarks.

  • In a vague sense that I have no time or experience enough to substantiate, this seems to be the case, "di-" seeming significantly more Latin-ish than "bi-" which seems more Greek-ish.

EDIT: like kindly pointed out by the responders, here this attribution of bi to Greek and di to Latin was an accidental mix-up. It is the other way round: bi is Latin, di is Greek.

  • Of course, the difference is not clear-cut, there is organic growth and randomness involved, and e.g. in Greek both "bi-" and "di-" appear in composites.

  • Both "bi-" and "di-" appear in countless scientific terms.

18

di- is Greek and bi- is Latin

The Proto-Indo-European root for "two" is reconstructed as *dw-. The remnants of this w can be seen in English "two", Russian dva, Ancient Greek δύο, and many other languages, as well as Latin duo, "two".

Old Latin had many words starting with dv- (where v was pronounced as English "w"). But at some point before Classical times, dv- changed into b- at the beginning of words. Hence dvellum (whence English "duel") became bellum "war", and dvonos became bonus "good".

The word duo "two" itself had a vowel u rather than a consonant v, so it avoided the change. But the prefix dvi- was affected by the change, and became bi-. A similar thing happened in Ancient Greek, which lost the w sound entirely, giving δι-.

So strictly speaking, di- should be used only on Greek roots, and bi- on Latin. But in practice Greek and Latin are mixed together all over the place and the prefix is generally chosen based on what sounds better.

(Compare also the prefixes semi- from Latin and hemi- from Greek, which are sometimes even combined, as in the musical term "hemidemisemiquaver". They're also cognates; s- before vowels at the beginning of words changed into h- in Greek.)

(ETA: Joonas suggested an even clearer pair of cognates, Latin super- and Greek hyper-. Many thanks.)

  • 3
    Perhaps a better known pair of Latin and Greek prefixes is super- and hyper-. Combining the two is a form of exaggeration. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 27 '17 at 20:46
  • 2
    The reason u was kept in duo isn't frequency, but that this u was a vowel [u] rather than the consonant [w] as in duellum. Similarly for Greek δύο vs. δι-. – TKR Jul 28 '17 at 3:58
  • 1
    It's such a shame that the modern greek word for biscuit/cookie is "μπισκότο" (biscotto), not διμαγειρεμένος or something. – Steve Jessop Jul 28 '17 at 9:07
  • 1
    duo is from the bisyllabic *duwo-. bis is from the monosyllabic *dwi-. These two forms both go back to proto-Indo-European. It is not about the relative frequency of the two words in Latin. – fdb Jul 28 '17 at 10:57
  • 1
    It's hemidemisemiquaver, not hemisemidemiquaver. – OrangeDog Jul 28 '17 at 14:01
12

Your are confused; bi- is Latin and di- is Greek. There is no real difference in meaning between them, but in usage bi- is used with Latin constructions like bisexual and di- with Greek constructions like diglossia. bi- is not a Greek prefix.

(As an aside, I should mention that both Latin bi- and Greek δι‐ have a common origin in a reconstructed ancestor *dwi- .)

  • 8
    To add to this, Old Latin du- regularly changes to Classical Latin b-; e.g. duellum -> bellum 'war'. This is why we have both duo 'two' (disyllabic) and bis 'twice', the latter from duis (monosyllabic). – Anonym Jul 27 '17 at 17:23
  • 3
    @Anonym. To be more precise: IE *dw becomes Latin b in initial position only. IE *du remains du in Latin in all positions. – fdb Jul 28 '17 at 10:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.