Stupid to Its Roots

My dad loved languages. He convinced me to study Latin for two years in high school.

“Latin and Greek are very important building blocks for English. Lots of English root words come from Latin. Once you learn to recognize them, you can figure out the meaning of words that you may not know.”

Sometimes I think he was just messing with me, though.

“What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m memorizing hic, haec, hoc and huis, huis, huis. How does that help me understand English?”

“Here’s a good example,” he said, “Tomorrow night is the equinox. Do you know what that is?”

“Not exactly. Isn’t that when eggs balance on their ends?”

“Let’s figure it out from what you know about Latin. Equinox is formed from two root words: equi– and –nox. What Latin word is like equi-?”

Equus means horse.”

“And nox means night. So put horse and night together, and what do you get?”

“Horse and night? Nightmare?”

“Now you’re getting it, son!”

The Old Man had a point. But you don’t have to take two years of Latin to learn a few basic root words that can help you figure out meaning of unfamiliar words in English. One that you probably already know is the prefix in- , meaning not, as in

sane / insane

expensive / inexpensive

The prefix im- is basically the same thing. It also means not. It just uses the letter “m” instead of “n” when the letter combinations would be hard to pronounce.

movable / immovable (try saying ‘inmovable’ and you’ll see where the switch to “m” came from.)

balance / imbalance

¬†The reason you don’t need to study dead languages to get this one is that it is easy to infer the general rule from just listening to English itself. You learn the pattern from pairs of words like these:

perfect / imperfect

definite / indefinite

finite / infinite

decent / indecent

But like all the other “rules” of the English language, they are there just to lull us into a false sense of security. Just when you think you can figure this language out, the exceptions start popping up ruin your day.

Because the opposite of sight is not insight, of that you can be sure. Unless you’re not sure, which is not insured, but unsure. And just because you have lots of intuition, don’t think that would cancel out the tuition at some fancy private school where you could learn all the intricacies of this crazy language. All the ins and outs of English make me tense sometimes, because the confusion can be intense, which doesn’t help me relax at all. And let’s not get started again on flammable and inflammable.

The defenders of English will be jumping up and down right now, claiming a perfectly good excuse for this. Some words come from Latin origins, and in Latin in– meant not. Other words come from other places, like German maybe, where in– means, well, in. The opposite of out. Such as:

income (money that comes in)

inhale (suck in breath)

ingest (stuff cheeseburgers into your gullet) (as opposed to in jest, which is to eat a lot of cheeseburgers to get a laugh from your drinking buddies)

This excuse is perfectly true. But it doesn’t stop English from being stupid. If you were building a language from scratch, would you have a prefix with two different meanings? Nope. But English does. Just because it’s the result of a historical accident doesn’t mean it isn’t stupid.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t study Latin or Greek when you get the chance. Or Swahili or Mandarin or Urdu. The more languages you know even a little about, the more you understand that they were not constructed out of some logical system of rules. Language is just people expressing themselves. What people do in large groups is usually messy. Linguists can describe the structure in general ways, but there never were any real “rules”.

Besides, as my dad would say when I wanted to quit Latin, “It will come in handy some day when you go to Latin America.”