Latin in English, Part II
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
There are so many Latin words in English that it is no exaggeration to say that English has a special place in its word-formation rules for words which preserve their original
Latin form. I am not just talking about words which have been borrowed and reshaped along English lines, but words which have been imported from Latin complete with their Latin
Many of these are passively, or
vaguely, familiar to English speakers who know nothing of Latin word-formation, but are forced nonetheless to generate Latin forms on occasion. Take "alumnus", for example. An
"alumnus" in Latin is a foster son, a pupil, but in English its meaning is pretty much restricted to 'a graduate'. The word "alumnus" is etymologically 'someone who has been
nourished by an institution' . If you compare the term "ALMA mater" (nourishing mother), which contains the same root in a slightly different form, without the "u", you will
recognize the Latin root "al-", which means 'nourish'.
Note the end part of the word "alumnus", "-us". This indicates that it's a male pupil (Latin marked gender on nouns, unlike English, which only marks gender on the pronouns "he",
"she", and "it"). What's the plural of "alumnus"? The plural of "alumnus" is "alumni", and it refers not only to male graduates, but to ALL graduates, taken collectively, as in
"the alumni society". So what's an "alumna"? An "alumna" is a specifically female graduate, and when there's more than one of them, they're called "alumnae".
Pronunciations of "alumni" and "alumnae" vary widely. The standard ENGLISH pronunciation of the two are "alumn-eye" for "alumni" and "alumn-ay" for "alumnae", though that's not
how they were pronounced in Latin. These are among the few word pairs from Latin that exist in gender contrast with each other (sort of along the lines of "aviator"/"aviatrix"),
though there are numerous other Latin singular-plural pairs in English which we'll discuss in another installment.
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