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Substantivalia, Non Adiectivalia

"Substantivalia, Non Adiectivalia"
"Substantival, Not Adiectival"

Here is another post about the gender and termination of Latin diminutives!

I noticed this in the Derivation of Adjectives section of Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar:

243. Diminutive Adjectives are usually confined to one gender, that of the primitive, and are used as Diminutive Nouns.
They are formed by means of the suffixes—

-ulus (-a, -um), -olus (after a vowel), -culus, -ellus, -illus

Someone arguing for the idea that the nounal -ulus, -ula, -ulum (i.e. used with nouns to form nounal diminutives) should be treated adjectivally like bonus, bona, bonum could point to that section of the book and say that it supports his or her thesis.

However, doing so is wrong because:

  • A&G here is not actually claiming that these diminutive suffixes, when added to nouns, somehow behave like bonus-type adjectives. At most, there is an indication that the suffixes were originally adjectival, but became substantival. (Adjectives can do this, as in the adjective scaevus, which had its feminine form scaeva, from manus scaeva, switch its gender to masculine and turned into a substantive to refer to a left-handed man. And it is this masculine form in -a that became the diminutive Scaevola.)

  • Three-termination adjectives of the first two declensions, diminutive or not, are not "confined to one gender." They have separate forms for all three genders: bonus for masculine nouns, bona for feminine nouns, bonum for neuter nouns; aureolus for masculine nouns, aureola for feminine nouns, aureolum for neuter nouns.

  • The diminutive suffixes may be adjectival in origin, but when they are added to nouns to form nouns, they are used substantively, and therefore are nounal. And since they are nounal, they obey the rules for nouns, not for adjectives.

  • This section of A&G's grammar seems particularly sloppy because it makes no distinction between actual adjectival diminutives and nounal ones. It has the adjective "aure-olus (-a, -um), very small" right next to the noun "lib-ellus, a little book." Despite this section's reference to "Diminutive Nouns," aureolus is not a diminutive noun.

  • If the nounal diminutive suffixes really behaved adjectivally like bonus, then for every nounal diminutive created, a bonus-type adjective, with diminutive force, would be implied. And yet diminutive nouns do not really work this way. For instance, libellus, the nounal diminutive, does not imply the adjectives libellus, libella, libellum.

Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar is my favorite Latin grammar in English, but I think its introduction of diminutive words could have been much better. It seems that the authors were trying to be as concise as possible by keeping the subject of diminutives to one section of the part about word formation, but they did so at the expense of accuracy.

Lane's grammar rightly makes a distinction between nounal and adjectival substantives, as does Gildersleeve's and Bennett's grammars. Hale and Buck's grammar make no distinction, but Panhuis' grammar lumps the diminutive suffixes among the substantive-forming suffixes (but does mention that the adjectival suffixes can be made from adjectives). White's Latin Suffixes and Jenks' Manual both make a distinction. Miller's Suffixal Derivatives does not make much of a distinction (other than what is implied by the meanings of the words). Stearn's Botanical Latin, Brown's Composition, Cooper's Sermo Plebeius, and Nybakken's Scientific Terminology do also (although the last says that the suffixes are used with adjective bases "occasionally").

That should be all of the major sources for Latin word formation. And all of them, whether they specifically make a distinction or not, do at least indicate that a diminutive noun comes from a noun. In no place are we shown that nouns regularly form adjectives with the diminutive suffixes (e.g. libellus, libella, libellum from liber).

This insistence that the nounal diminutive suffixes should behave like bonus (in the sense that each of the three terminations has its fixed gender) puzzles me. I suppose it derives from a conflation of the fixed gender-termination assignment of the bonus-type adjectives with the "default" gender-termination assignment that is seen among nouns. But nouns of the first two declensions have the freedom to deviate from that "default" assignment, but bonus-type adjectives do not have the freedom to deviant from the fixed assignment. And yet, even the experts seem to make this conflation when they use the form ficula in their dictionaries when referring to the passage that actually uses ficulis.

At any rate, with the benefit of the morphological logic and attestation, I think we have good, Classical precedent that diminutive nouns do not behave like bonus-type adjectives, especially when their terminations are assigned different-than-expected genders:

  • masculine Scaevola from masculine scaeva,

  • feminine vallus from feminine vannus.

Proposed exceptions are either ambiguous (e.g. ficulus or ficula? and what gender?) or post-Classical or wrong (prunula probably from Latin Latin pruna, not prunus).


Sailor Saturn/Hotaru Tomoe

November 2013



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