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5.3: §35. The Latin suffix -ALIS (> E -al) / -ARIS (> E -ar or -ary)

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  • More than any comparable Germanic morpheme in English, one Latin suffix was supremely important in forming adjectives from nouns. This is the ending -ālis, which could be attached to the BASE of a great many Latin nouns—and even a few adjectives—to create new adjective forms. Since vita meant “life,” then vitalis meant “pertaining to life,”[1] “full of life,” “lively.” Since mors, mort-is was the Latin noun for “death,” then mort-alis could mean “pertaining to death,” “subject to death,” “deathly.” No matter whether the noun was 1st declension, like vita, or 3rd declension, like mors, mortis, the derived adjective was a 3RD DECLENSION type, as the ending –alis should make self-evident. Latin adjectives in –alis almost always evolved into English words in –al. In fact, if you set out to collect all the English words that end in –al (and there are thousands), you would find that virtually every one of them either is derived from a Latin adjective in –alis or has used this Latin suffix to create a hybrid English form.

    navis, navis ship margo, marginis edge
    flos, floris flower ordo, ordinis rank, order
    mos, moris custom limen, liminis threshold
    os, oris mouth semen, seminis seed

    Table 5.1 presents a mixture of new masculine, feminine, and neuter words; their gender is not important for us now, though you may recognize limen and semen as neuter nouns like lumen and nomen. The regular suffix –alis can be added to the base of these nouns so as to form Latin adjectives: nav-is > nav-alis (“pertaining to a ship”), flor-is > flor-alis (“pertaining to a flower”), etc. As the English language evolved, these Latin adjectives provided it with very useful derivatives: naval fills a gap caused by the lack of a native English adjective like shippy or shippish, and floral is a much more general word than the metaphorical flowery. (Flower itself is derived from flos, floris, as is its doublet, flour.) The Latin plural form mores is used in English to express its original meaning of “customs” or “character,” but the adjective moral is a far more common English word. Table 5.1 also produces English marginal, ordinal, (sub)liminal (“below the threshold”), and seminal. We’ll soon encounter other derivatives from the last three nouns.

    The –alis suffix is by no means limited to 3rd declension nouns:

    1st form-alis (formal), caus-alis (causal), person-alis (personal)
    2nd foc-alis (focal), radi-alis (radial), termin-alis (terminal), verb-alis (verbal)
    3rd leg-alis (legal[2]), voc-alis (vocal), corpor-alis (corporal), gener-alis (general)
    4th manu-alis (manual), gradu-alis (gradual), ritu-alis (ritual)
    5th speci-alis (special), re-alis (real), seri-alis (serial)

    For some of these English derivatives, we can find almost exact Germanic counterparts, in terms of word structure, though their meanings may be quite dissimilar. For example, formal is closely analogous to shape-ly, verbal to word-y, and corporal to bodi-ly. Even though they may not be synonyms, pairs of this kind are useful etymological parallels.

    In special phonetic circumstances, the Latin suffix -ālis had a variant form -āris, which comes into English as –ar (sometimes -ary). If the Latin word base ended in L, the derived adjective was hard to pronounce, so words like *sol-alis and *ocul-alis were changed to sol-aris (solar) and ocul-aris (ocular).[3] In fact, if there was an L anywhere in the last two syllables of a noun base, this variant was used, as can be seen from lun-aris (lunar) and milit-aris (military). Other examples from vocabulary that we have met include popularis (popular),vulgaris (vulgar), and similaris (similar). The English words liminal and subliminal were coined by psychologists in the 1880s; because the Latin adjective from limen was liminaris, the modern technical term should perhaps have been liminar or liminary (cf. preliminary < prae-limin-aris, “before the threshold”).


    1. Although there is always more than one way of translating any Latin morpheme into English, you will find that “pertaining to” is a very useful general definition for all the adjective-forming suffixes in Latin.
    2. Legal and loyal are doublets; so too are regal and royal, focal and fuel, hospital and hostel (= hotel ).
    3. The asterisk in front of a word like *solalis shows that it is a hypothetical form; no evidence has survived to prove its historical existence.
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