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De Figuris Plantulus et Planetula

"De Figuris Plantulus et Planetula"
"About the Forms Plantulus and Planetula"

A few years ago, several contributors over at Vicipaedia, the Latin Wikipedia, were trying to decide on a diminutive Latin form of planeta, "planet," in order to render the English term dwarf planet into Latin.

Planeta is a a masculine, first-declension word with a termination in -a. Latin has a number of such words, such as agricola ("farmer") and poeta ("poet"). There is, incidentally, a certain site dedicated to listing words of this type. The main problem that the contributors had was this: which of the three terminations (-us, -a, -um) would the diminutive of planeta actually have?

Someone originally suggested planetulus, masculine gender, based on the reasoning that the diminutive takes the gender of its primitive (planeta) and -ulus is the "masculine ending" for diminutive words.

We can cite plenty of Latin grammars that make the point that diminutives actually do take the genders of their respective primitive, but fewer explain specifically what termination the diminutive takes.

The first- and second-declension adjectival diminutives (e.g. bellulus, bellula, bellulum) are not a problem, since they behave exactly how we would expect. As with all first- and second-declension adjectives, adjectival diminutives (being first- and second-declension adjectives themselves) take the regular -us, -a, -um terminations and assign each one exclusively to one of the three genders, such that -us is the masculine termination, -a is the feminine, and -um is the neuter. Adjectives of this type do not deviate from this fixed gender-termination assignment, and consequently the primitives and their diminutives match one another both in gender and termination. Additionally, the gender-termination assignment is used for diminutives formed from primitives of the third declension as well, and so while there cannot be common terminations, there are common genders.

Nounal diminutives, however, are a problem because while there is a "default" gender-termination assignment that corresponds to that seen among the adjectives, nouns can and do happily ignore this "default" assignment, and so in nouns, that -us cannot be called exclusively the masculine termination, -a the exclusively feminine termination, and -um exclusively the neuter termination, in the same way that they can be in adjectives. Thus, the -a in, for instance, planeta is a masculine ending, the -us in prunus is a feminine ending, the -us in virus is a neuter ending. A noun's first- or second-declension termination cannot simply be pigeonholed into a particular gender category.

To insist that a nounal diminutive's termination must be fixed to a specific gender is to impose an arbitrary rule that does not actually apply to nouns at all, nor has such a restriction for nounal diminutives has not been shown to exist. Let us not make up rules simply because a noun is a diminutive.

These nounal diminutives, being nouns, cannot have each of their three terminations assigned exclusively to one gender in the way that diminutive adjectives do. At best, they have a "default" gender-termination assignment. So, for example, in the neuter diminutive corpusculum, the -um is based on the "default" gender-termination assignment, but that is only because the primitive corpus does not have a first- or second-declension termination common to its diminutive. But since nounal diminutives are nouns, they ought to behave like nouns, and so can ignore the "default" gender-termination assignment, just as we see in agricola, prunus, virus.

The problem with the planetulus form is that it is was based on the insistence that a nounal diminutive's termination is in fact fixed on a specific gender, and therefore -us is the definitive masculine termination for diminutives. One might as well claim that any noun's termination must have a fixed gender. The counterexample of such a notion was staring us in the face the whole time: the planeta, with its masculine gender and masculine termination!

It is simple enough to determine what termination a first- and second-declension adjectival diminutive would have: the appropriate termination based on the fixed gender-termination assignment seen in first- and second-declension adjectives elsewhere. A nounal diminutive, however, needs to use its respective primitive as its source of morphological information. When normal words like servus m., puella f., pratum n., act as primitives to the diminutives servus, puellula, and pratulum, the diminutives retain their primitives' gender as well as their "default" gender-termination assignment, such that the diminutives and the primitives have common genders and common terminations:

    servus m. → servulus m.,
    puella f. → puellula f.,
    pratum n. → pratulum n.

First- and second-declension adjectives end up behaving the same way:

    bellus m. → bellulus m.,
    bella f. → bellula f.,
    bellum n. → bellulum n.

In any case, the point is clear: the first- and second-declension diminutives, whether they be nounal or adjectival, regularly have diminutives that have matching genders and terminations when those genders and terminations are common.

There are the diminutives scurrula and vernula, both masculine, from the masculine nouns scurra and verna. When scurra and verna act as primitives to diminutives, the diminutives obviously retain their primitives' gender. However, the primitives specifically ignore the "default" gender-termination assignment. Consequently, the diminutives can neither a) use the fixed gender-termination assignment seen in adjectives, since they are nouns, nor b) apply the "default" gender-termination assignment because their primitives made such an assignment inapplicable. In other words, these diminutives cannot fall back on the "default" or the "fixed" gender-termination assignments because both were specifically denied by their primitives.

And so, when scurra and verna act as primitives to the diminutives scurrula and vernula, the diminutives retain their primitives' gender as well as their unique gender-termination assignment, such that the diminutives and the primitives have common genders and common terminations:

    scurra m. → scurrula m.,
    verna m. → vernula m.

They retain the morphological information of their primitives, just like the regular diminutives servus, puellula, and pratulum do!

It then seems reasonable enough that the masculine planeta should have the diminutive form planetula, also masculine. The diminutive retains its primitive's gender as well as its unique gender-termination assignment, such that the diminutive and the primitive have common genders and common terminations. The existence of scurrula and verna, as well as my explanations, seem to have convinced everybody, and so planetula was the form used.

But recently (actually, back in July), someone managed to find an instance of planetulus in an old book found over at Google Books. After that, all instances of planetula on the Vicipaedia site were changed to planetulus. Additionally, someone mentioned the diminutive form ficulus, feminine, from the primitive ficus, of the same gender. Another person mentioned prunella, from prunus, both feminine. The word vernaculus, masculine, from verna, had also been cited at one point previously. All of this information made a person go so far as to conclude that masculines in -a have diminutives that retain that -a, but feminines in -us have diminutives that use -a instead.

Then I went and made my own comments. My conclusion at the time I wrote my comments was this:

It seems, to me anyway, that in the formation of diminutives from primitives of the first two declensions, two methods were employed in the treatment of the terminations: Definitive Gender Terminations (DGT), whereby each of the three terminations has a unchanging gender assignment (based on the "default" gender-termination assignment), and the common termination of the primitive is ignored, hence vernaculus, planetulus, ficula; Gender and Termination Retention (GTR), whereby both the common gender and termination are retained, hence scurrula, vernula, Mosella. Obviously, I favor GTR not only because they do what servulus, puellula, pratulum actually do (retain the common gender and the termination, even if by necessity), but also I find it silly that diminutives retain common genders, but not common terminations, specially when such primitives (e.g. planeta, prunus) go out of their way not to adhere to that "default" gender-termination assignment. I find it even sillier that first-declension diminutives would follow GTR, but second-declension ones would follow DGT.

But now I will be even more assertive:

We can cite instances like plantulus and ficula all we like, but the DGT method on which they were created is based on the false analogy for nounal diminutives: -us is the proper masculine termination, -a is the proper feminine termination, -um is the proper neuter termination. The very existence of words like scurra, agricola, planeta, prunus, humus, as well as diminutives like scurrula, show that the analogy is false. There is nothing among the rules of the inflection of nouns (primitive or diminutive) that makes -us the proper masculine termination, -a the proper feminine termination, -um is proper neuter termination. After all, saying that planetulus and ficula properly should have -us and -a, because they are masculine and feminine respectively, really is not any better than saying that planeta and ficus properly should be planetus and fica, because they are masculine and feminine. The false analogy puts nounal diminutives into a morphological straitjacket that is both arbitrarily assigned and demonstrably unprecedented.

The GTR method, however, is not based on any false analogies, but instead allows each word to work on its own terms by having the primitive be the decider of the morphology of the primitive. While DGT and GTR both consider the morphological nature of a diminutive's primitive, DGT, not the GTR, throws in that random criterion of the fixed gender-termination assignments. And so, GTR avoids any hasty generalizations about the variable gender-termination assignments, especially in instances where neither the "fixed" nor the "default" assignments actually apply. Moreover, this method makes it so that diminutives from words like scurra do what the regular diminitives like servulus, puellula, pratulum (and the adjectival diminutives bellulus, bellula, bellulum!) actually do: retain the common gender and the termination, even if by necessity. Why should there be a special pleading in what sort of morphological information gets to be passed down from the primitive to the diminutive? Why should only the gender be considered and not the termination, especially when a termination has a specific gender attached to it, showing that gender and termination, in that way, are in fact interwined?

It can be argued that the problem with GTR is that the terminations of the primitives do not line up according to the "default" assignment. However, that is not a problem with the method. The primitive itself did not line up with that default, ether, and so we ought to "blame" the primitive in question, not the method, for that apparent strangeness in the first place.

Earlier, I mentioned that a person at Vicipaedia went so far as to conclude that masculines in -a have diminutives that retain that -a, but feminines in -us have diminutives that use -a instead, but what sense does it make to have first-declension diminutives follow GTR, while second-declension ones follow DGT? What sense does it make to have some words follow a false analogy, while others do not? I think the reasoning comes about purely from the attestation of forms like prunella and ficula. Sorry, but attestation is not everything.

Even if we are to ignore the problems with specifically ficula (the cited source actually has ficulis, and neither ficulus nor ficula, and ficus itself is problematic in terms of gender and declension), for every prunella that we can find, it would not be surprising that we could find a vernaculus. Would not vernaculus just as easily show that it is possible to use GTR for primitives of both of the first two declensions, based on attestation alone, and not by deduction? On the other hand, would not the DGT method, which produced servulus and scurrula, just as easily show that it is possible to use that method for even feminines of the second declension, based on deduction, and not by attestation? I would say yes to both questions.

That is why I said that there have been two methods employed in the treatment of the terminations in the formation of diminutives from primitives of the first two declensions. It is just that one of them is based on a better understanding of how nouns work in the language, as well as adhering closer to how regular diminutives derive from their primitives.

So, it amounts to whether

  • you want to think that, for diminutives, -us is the masculine termination, -a is the feminine termination, and -um is the neuter termination (an artificial rule), or

  • you want to think that, for diminutives, just like their primitives, there are "default" gender-termination assignments, but there is no rule linking a particular termination with just one gender (after all, nounal diminutives are nouns, are they not?).

Vicipaedia can keep their planetulus form, and I, on the other hand, can keep on calling the form a false analogy.


Sailor Saturn/Hotaru Tomoe

November 2013



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