Greek and Latin Roots

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If you recognize the Greek and Latin prefixes and affixes, you'll understand the words as a whole.

"As someone trained in foreign languages and theoretical linguistics, I completely agree with the experts quoted in Why your kids should learn Latin. I would add that the study of Ancient Greek stems and affixes is equally valuable. As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest that you compile a short course on the meanings of Greek and Latin stems and affixes, focusing upon their value as reading aids in English and the Romance languages."

The content of this article is based on Scientific Terminology by expert John Hough. Rather than an introduction to linguistics, it is meant to be an introduction to Classical stems and affixes.

Why Study Terminology 

How knowing the etymology of rhinoceros will help you understand your doctor's diagnoses:

"Sometime during the 14th century someone decided to give this mammal its present day name. The characteristic of the animal that struck them the most was the large horn that grew from its nose. The Greek word for nose is rhis, and the combining form (the form that is used when it is combined with other word elements) is rhin-. The Greek word for horn is keras. So this animal was named a "nose-horn animal" or a 'rhinoceros [...] You take a peek in your file and discover that [... the doctor] wrote 'acute rhinitis' as your diagnosis. Now having taken this course, you know that 'acute' just means sudden onset [...] and you know that "-itis" simply means an inflammation."

Root + Suffix = Word

The suffix on please is an e. If you look at the word pleas-ure, it makes sense, since removing its suffix leaves the same root as in pleas-e. As John Hough, in Scientific Terminology, points out, roots rarely exist alone. They usually precede suffixes. The same is true of Greek and Latin, even if, when borrowing, we sometimes drop the suffix.

Thus, the word cell in English is really the Latin cella, from which we've dropped the a  suffix.

Not only do almost all English words contain roots plus suffixes, but, according to Hough, suffixes can't stand alone. A suffix does not have meaning on its own but needs to be connected to the root.

Suffixes

A suffix is an inseparable form that cannot be used alone but that carries an indication of quality, action, or relation. When added to a combining form, it makes a complete word and will determine whether the word is a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb.

Compound Words

A suffix combined with a root is different from a compound word which, in loose English usage, is usually thought of as just another case of root + suffix. Sometimes two Greek or Latin words are put together to form a compound word. Often we think of these words as suffixes when they aren't, technically, although they may be thought of as end forms.

End Forms

The following is a chart of some common Greek "end forms." An example is the word neurology (study of the nervous system) which comes from the Greek neuro- the combining form of the noun neuron (nerve) plus -logy, listed below. We think of these end forms as merely suffixes, but they are fully productive words.

A quick example in English: Backpack and ratpack contain what looks like a suffix (pack), but, as we know, pack is a noun and verb on its own.

Greek Word

Ending

Meaning

αλγος-algia-pain
βιος-belife
κηλη-celetumor
τομος-ectomycut
αιμα-(a)emiablood
λογος-logystudy
ειδος-oidform
πολεω-poesismake
σκοπεω-scopesee into
στομα-stomymouth

 

(Note: breathing marks are missing. These forms and the other tables are excerpted from Hough's book but have been modified based on corrections submitted by readers.)

And from the Latin, we have:

Latin Word

Ending

Meaning

fugere-fugeflee

Root + Suffix/Prefix = Word

Prefixes are usually adverbs or prepositions derived from Greek or Latin that can't be used alone in English and appear at the beginnings of words. Suffixes, which appear at the ends of words, aren't usually adverbs or prepositions, but they can't be used alone in English, either.

While suffixes are often joined to the end of roots by separate connecting vowels, the transformation of these prepositional and adverbial prefixes is more direct, even though the final letter of the prefix may be changed or eliminated. In 2-letter prefixes, this can be confusing. Among other changes, n can become m or s and a final b or d may be changed to match the first letter of the root. Think of this confusion as designed to ease pronunciation.

This list won't help you figure out antipasto, but it will prevent you from describing the antonym of precedent as antident or polydent.

Note: Greek forms are capitalized, Latin in normal case.

Latin Prefix/ GREEK PREFIX

Meaning

A-, AN-"alpha privative", a negative
ab-away from
ad-to, towards, near
ambi-both
ANA-up, back again, throughout, against
ante-before, in front of
ANTI-against
APO-away from
bi-/bis-twice, double
CATA-down, across, under
circum-around
con-with
contra-against
de-down, from, away from
DI-two, twice, double
DIA-through
dis-apart, removed
DYS-hard, difficult, bad
e-, ex- (Lat.)
EC- EX- (GK.)
out of
ECTO-outside
EXO-outside, outward
EN-in
endo-within
epi-on, upon
extra-outside, beyond, in addition to
EU-well, good, easy
HEMI-half
HYPER-over, above,
HYPO-below, under
in-in, into, on
You often see this prefix as im.
Used with verbal roots.
in-not; occasionally, beyond belief
infra-below
inter-between
intro-within
intus-within
META-with, after, beyond
non-not
OPISTHO-behind
PALIN-again
PARA-along side of, beside
per-through, thorough, complete
PERI-around, near
post-after, behind
pre-in front of, before
PRO-before, in front of
PROSO-onwards, in front
re-back, again
retro-backward
semi-half
sub-under, below
super-, supra-above, upper
SYN-with
trans-across
ultra-beyond

Adjective + Root + Suffix = Word

The following tables contain Greek and Latin adjectives in the form used to combine with English words or with other Latin or Greek parts to make English words—like megalomaniac or macroeconomics, to take examples from the top of the table.

GREEK & Latin

Meaning in English
MEGA-, MEGALO-, MAKRO-; magni-, grandi-big
MICRO-; parvi-little
MACRO-, DOLICHO; longi-long
BRACHY-; brevi-short
EURY, PLATY-; lati-wide
STENO-; angusti-narrow
CYCLO-, GYRO; circuli-round
quadrati- rectanguli-square
PACHY-, PYCNO-, STEATO-; crassi-thick
LEPTO-; tenui-thin
BARY-; gravi-heavy
SCLERO-, SCIRRHO-; duri-hard
MALACO-; molli-soft
HYGRO-, HYDRO-; humidi-wet
XERO-; sicci-dry (Xerox®)
OXY-; acri-sharp
CRYO- PSYCHRO-; frigidi-cold
THERMO-; calidi-hot
DEXIO-; dextri-right
SCAIO-; scaevo- levi, sinistri-left
PROSO-, PROTO-; frontali-front
MESO-; medio-middle
POLY-; MULTI-many
OLIGO-; pauci-few
STHENO-; validi-, potenti-strong
HYPO-; imi-, intimi-bottom
PALEO-, ARCHEO-; veteri-, seni-old
NEO-, CENO-; novinew
CRYPTO-, CALYPTO-; operti-hidden
TAUTO-; identi-same
HOMO-, HOMEO-; simili-alike
EU-, KALO-, KALLO-; boni-good
DYS-, CACO-; mali-bad
CENO-, COELO-; vacuo-empty
HOLO-; toti-entirely
IDIO-; proprio-, sui-one's own
ALLO-; alieni-another's
GLYCO-; dulci-sweet
PICRO-; amari-bitter
ISO-; equi-equal
HETERO-, ALLO-; vario-different

Colors

A medical example of a Greek-based color word is erythrokinetics (e·ryth·ro·ki·net·ics), defined as "A study of the kinetics of red blood cells from their generation to destruction."

GREEK & Latin

Meaning in English
COCCINO-, ERYTHTO-, RHODO-, EO-; purpureo-, rubri-, rufi-, rutuli-, rossi-, roseo-, flammeo-Reds of various shades
CHRYSO-, CIRRHO-; aureo-, flavo-, fulvi-orange
XANTHO-, OCHREO-; fusci-, luteo-yellow
CHLORO-; prasini-, viridi-green
CYANO-, IODO-; ceruleo-, violaceo-blue
PORPHYRO-; puniceo-, purpureo-violet
LEUKO-; albo-, argenti-white
POLIO-, GLAUCO-, AMAURO-; cani-, cinereo-, atri-gray
MELANO-; nigri-black

Numerals

Here are more combining forms that are important to know since they are numbers. If you've ever had trouble remembering whether millimeter or kilometer was closer to an inch, pay attention here. Note that the milli- is Latin and the kilo- is Greek; the Latin is the smaller unit, and the Greek the larger, so millimeter is a 1000th part of a meter (.0363 of an inch) and the kilometer is 1000 meters (39370 inches).

Some of these numerals are derived from adverbs, most from adjectives.

GREEK & Latin

Meaning in English
SEMI-; hemi-1/2
HEN- ; uni-1
sesqui-1-1/2
DYO (DI-, DIS-) ; duo- (bi-, bis-)2
TRI-tri-3
TETRA-, TESSARO- ;quadri-4
PENTA-;quinque5
HEX, HEXA-;sex-6
HEPTA-;septem-7
OCTO-;octo-8
ENNEA-;novem-9
DECA-;decem-10
DODECA-duodecim12
HECATONTA-;centi-100
CHILIO-;milli-1000
MYRI-, MYRIAD-;any large or countless number

 

Source

John Hough, Scientific Terminology; New York: Rhinehart & Company, Inc. 1953.