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Patterns and niches in diachronic word formation: the fate of the suffix -men from Latin to Romance


The Latin suffix -men of words like foramen, nutrimen, albumen, etc. has left traces in all Romance idioms, but the outcome has been quite different in each of them. The present paper describes in some detail the distribution and the meaning of the successors of -men in each of the Romance idioms and tries to uncover the mechanisms behind the fragmentation process. Some of the changes already took place in Latin, while others occurred in Romance times. It is argued that in the absence of lexical continuities between Latin and Romance a close attention to word-formation patterns and semantic niches, as well as a close comparison of similar developments in Romance idioms can be helpful in reconstruction.

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  1. 1.

    For their comments on an earlier version of this paper I would like to thank Maria Grossmann, Wiltrud Mihatsch, Jesús Pena and Xavier Rull, as well as two anonymous reviewers.

  2. 2.

    Kluge only mentions suffixes, since prefixes in his time were generally treated as part of compounding.

  3. 3.

    Lloyd (1963: 745) erroneously attributed this innovation to Meyer-Lübke. The reason was that Meyer-Lübke failed to mention his debt towards Kluge.

  4. 4.

    In modern psycholinguistics, such a set of similar bases or derivatives is usually called a “gang”.

  5. 5.

    A leader word is a complex word that has served as a model for a small semantic niche of similar formations. The term goes back to Spitzer (1925: 588), but has been popularized by Yakov Malkiel.

  6. 6.

    The variants with short vowels, -imen and -umen, will play no role in this paper. Meyer-Lübke (1894: 484) observed that -imen is present in at least one neologism, viz. *leg-imen, a variant of leg-ūmen ‘vegetable’ that is postulated as an etymon for some Northern Italian words. However, these words are all synchronically opaque.

  7. 7.

    Leumann (1977: 369–371) lists Perrot’s work in his bibliography, but his own treatment of the suffix remains rather coarse.

  8. 8.

    These, of course, were not the only meanings of agmen. For simplicity’s sake, I will normally only give one gloss in the case of polysemous words, except when meaning is a crucial issue. For the same practical reasons, I will also sometimes simplify the glosses somewhat when semantic detail is not essential.

  9. 9.

    The arrow symbolizes a relation of synchronic motivation between base and suffix. The synchronic base, of course, does not necessarily coincide with the etymological base.

  10. 10.

    The waste niche was already well developed in Latin, and will remain so in Romance. In Perrot’s study I found the following members of this niche, apart from the ones mentioned above: praesegmina ‘scraps, shavings, clippings’, putāmen ‘peelings’, purgāmen ‘rubbish’, recisāmina ‘clippings, chips’, resegmina ‘clippings’, absegmen ‘clipped piece’, rasāmen ‘stuff scraped off’. What is even more important than the numbers is the fact that many of these words pertained to everyday language or the language of husbandry and as such had a high chance of being passed on to the Romance languages.

  11. 11.

    Romanists, on the contrary, beginning with Meyer-Lübke (1894: 484), invariably sided with the later faction. Both factions have arguments on their side: the latus faction can argue that vases are not made of bricks, while the later faction can retort that a vase isn’t a collection or mass of “sides” either. Vases are made of clay, which is at the same time on the “side” of vases and the material out of which both vases and bricks are made…

  12. 12.

    The base could possibly also have been nōdāre ‘to tie in a knot’, if the knot is conceptualized as the result of the action.

  13. 13.

    A verb sanguinare exists, but its meaning (‘to bleed’, itr.) does not seem to fit semantically.

  14. 14.

    Perrot (1961: 281) gives “vitreus ‘verre’’’ as a base, but this meaning is not attested in Latin dictionaries. However, Spanish vidrio ‘glass’ presupposes vitreu(m) as an etymon.

  15. 15.

    Ovidius had used it both as a result noun (‘that which is cleaned away’) and an instrument noun (‘that which serves to clean away’) derived from pūrgāre ‘to clean’.

  16. 16.

    The term reanalysis, of course, is an anachronism here. Meyer-Lübke, as we can see, talked of a change of function, that is, part of speech, accompanied by a change of meaning.

  17. 17.

    One anonymous reviewer still seems to find some appeal in this explanation: “to support Meyer-Lübke’s idea of a contamination of -umen by -itudo or -ugo, one could also mention the fact that the three belong to the class of N with a secondary stem in -in- at the oblique cases”.

  18. 18.

    The register of derivatives in -men had long been a matter of dispute among Latinists (cf. Cooper 1895: 84–86; Olcott 1898: 123). Some held -men to be an essentially literary device, others ascribed it to popular speech. In reality, it was both at the same time. Its use in popular speech is sufficiently proven by the survival in all Romance languages, including the dialects, while its more fugacious use in poetry and literary prose was motivated by the needs of the meter and the estrangement obtained by the use of an unexpected suffix.

  19. 19.

    It seems advisable to exclude from such a count the following 14 root-based derivatives, most of which were hardly motivated already for Latin speakers and even less so at the Romance stage, when the base verbs had died out: culmen, exāmen, flūmen, germen, lūmen, nōmen, pulmen, sēmen, stāmen, strāmen, sūmen, tegmen, termen, and vīmen.

  20. 20.

    The only Latin collective noun in -īmen is *sagīmen ‘fat’, which is generally explained as the result of a suffix exchange on the basis of sagīna. FEW XI 54b–58a documents numerous descendants of this word in France and Italy (OFr. saïm, which survived in saindoux, It. saime, etc.). Is this noun sufficient proof for the existence of a collective meaning for -īmen in Latin? Probably not. Cohn (1891: 57) surmised that sagīna still had the meaning of an action noun—‘fattening’—when the suffix replacement took place. It is improbable, anyway, that it should have acted as a leader word, since the base sag- did not correspond to any nominal or verbal root of Latin.

  21. 21.

    When a derivative appears in a context in which it is explicitly classified with a category such as ‘collective noun’, ‘action noun’, etc. no gloss is provided in order to avoid redundancies. It is clear, for example, that the collective meaning of ‘robber’ can only be ‘band, gang, bunch of robbers’.

  22. 22.

    The feminine ending -ă, of course, was added in order to express the feminine gender of these words explicitly.

  23. 23.

    Note that the base of this formation is the plural stem. The plural stem also occurs in some other formations, probably induced by the plural meaning of collectives; cf. Gherman (2015: 131).

  24. 24.

    In view of the presence in most Romance varieties of comparable formations, a Latin etymon *ossāmen (or *ossāmine(m), for Sardinian and Spanish) can safely be postulated: Romanian osamă, Italian ossame, Sicilian ussami, Sardinian ossamene, Friulan uessam, Fassano osam, Romansh ossam, Catalan ossam, Spanish osambre.

  25. 25.

    This formation has cognates in other Romance varieties, though derived with the rival suffixes -imen and -umen: Old Romanian amărâme (< -īmen), Corsican amarume, Friulan marum, Old Provençal/Modern Languedocian amarum, Portuguese amarume (presupposes as a base Old Portuguese amaro, not modern amargo). If these words did not irradiate from Old Occitan, we would have the right to postulate a common Latin etymon *amarūmen.

  26. 26.

    This word has cognates in -men in several Romance varieties, sometimes in -Ūmen or with slightly different meanings: Old Italian selvaggiume, Sicilian sarbaggiumi, Triestine salvadigume, Piedmontese salvajum, Corsican salbaticime, Languedocian salvatjum, Gascon saubadyumi. It is closely related semantically to derivatives derived from ferus ‘wild’ (or ferae ‘wild animals’): Old French ferain, Occitan, Catalan, Aragonese ferum, Aragonese ferumen.

  27. 27.

    The lexeme petra ‘stone’ is a frequent base of -men in Romance: Romanian pietrime, Sicilian pitrami, Corsican pitraculume, Sardinian pedramene, Catalan pedregam, Aragonese pedramen.

  28. 28.

    For a discussion of potential action nouns such as despărţime ‘separation’ (← a se despărţi ‘to separate’), cf. Gherman (2015: 132). Meyer-Lübke (Meyer 1883: 87) also thought to have identified a small group of action nouns: departzime, pătrunzime, serbătorime, spuzime, strimtorime, strimtime. A look into Dănilă’s glossary, however, raises doubts about his classification of most of these derivatives.

  29. 29.

    This lexeme has several cognates in other Romance varieties: Ladin fuiam, Occitan fulham and fulhum, Portuguese folhame. Corsican has the same concept, but uses different bases: frundame, frundulame, frundulime, cascime.

  30. 30.

    This lexemic type has a wide geographical distribution in the Romania, cf. Corsican bestiame, Sardinian bestiamene, Friulan besteam/bestiam, Fassano beštyam, Old Occitan and Catalan bestiam, Aragonese bestiamen, Portuguese bestiame. The postulation of a common Latin etymon would nevertheless be problematic, since at least in some varieties the derivative has a decidedly learned or semi-learned character. Some formations are probably loanwords from Italian bestiame, others may be independent local formations.

  31. 31.

    Note that a metonymic switch must have occurred here: the word does not designate a group of billy goats, but a collection of hides derived from these animals.

  32. 32.

    Torricelli (1984) argued that the pejorative meaning of -ume in Italian was due to a contamination of this suffix by the connotations of Latin bitūmen, even though this word is not itself a derivative in -ūme. The sticky, oily and bad-smelling connotations of this word, she believes, prompted the use of -ume instead of -ame or -ime with bases like sudicio ‘dirty’. Other representatives of this niche, according to Torricelli (1984: 16) are: fetidume (← fetido ‘fetid’), fradiciume (← fradicio ‘soaked’), lerciume (← lercio ‘filthy’), lordume (← lordo ‘dirty’), morbidume (← morbido ‘soft’), putridume (← putrido ‘rotten’), and viscidume (← viscido ‘slimy’).

  33. 33.

    Legūmen ‘vegetable’ is treated in all Romance sources as derived from legere ‘to pick’, but this could at most be qualified as a popular etymology. The origin of the word is unknown (cf. Perrot 1961: 174). As a consequence, Meyer-Lübke’s (1890: 277) conjecture that the leader word for -ume was legūmen is highly doubtful.

  34. 34.

    Meyer-Lübke, in his various publications of the subject, adduces some more words, mostly obsolete or dialectal, often Tuscan. The GDLI gives the following information about them: allevime ‘newborn animals’ (b 1811; ← allevare ‘to rear’), acconcime ‘repairing’ (b 1348; ← acconciare ‘to repair’), fondime ‘dregs’ (b 1566; ← fondo ‘bottom’), guastime ‘damage’ (OIt.; ← guastare ‘to damage’), grassime (← grasso ‘fat’; missing in the GDLI), impostime ‘sediment at the bottom of a river’ (b 1647; ← imposto ‘area formed by sediments’), lattime ‘eczema caused by the mother’s milk’ (b 1348; ← latte ‘milk’, with a metonymic relation to the base, or lattare ‘to breastfeed’), marcime ‘manure’ (19th c.; ← marcire ‘to rot away’), pastime ‘animal feed’ (← pasto ‘id.’), piantime ‘seedlings’ (← pianta ‘plant, according to the GDLI, but more probably piantare ‘to plant’), sentime ‘osteoarthritis’ (b 1779; ← sentire ‘to feel’).

  35. 35.

    Derivatives corresponding to vanzume are widely attested in Tuscan and in northern Italian dialects (cf. LEI I 45), as well as in Rhetoromance: Lucchese avvanzume, Piedmontese vansum, Friulan vanzum, Romansh vanzem. For the standard language, the GDLI provides a first attestation for Tuscan avanzume from Piero Soderini (b 1522). Since the intransitive use of avanzare in the sense of ‘to be left over’ is derived from avanzo, a postverbal action noun, a common Latin etymon is excluded.

  36. 36.

    An interesting case of metonymic switching is sulami, which designates the waste that remains on the threshing floor (solu).

  37. 37.

    Note that Sicilian ìnchiri ‘to fill’, the base of inchimi, goes back to a verb of the Latin second conjugation, viz. implēre.

  38. 38.

    The fact that Corsican is now considered a separate language is important for speakers, sociolinguists and politicians, but can be neglected from our diachronic point of view. A word of caution is in order here concerning my way of presenting the Corsican material. The language is very diverse dialectally and the process of standardization is not yet completed, hence many derivatives exist in various shapes. Since this kind of variation is not relevant in the context of word formation, I will simply choose one form as a representative for the lexeme. Unfortunately, the data base I used does not specify the geographical extension of the single variants. It is therefore probable that the variants I have chosen do not all pertain to one and the same dialect area.

  39. 39.

    Sickel observes that -ime also occasionally occurs in quality nouns (agrime ← agru ‘sour’), collectives (cascime ← cascia ‘leaf’, latticime ‘dairy products’ ← latte ‘milk’) and locatives (fanghime ← fangu ‘mud’).

  40. 40.

    Meyer-Lübke (REW 6093 ordīre) only mentions Spanish urdimbre in the section on derivatives. However, this derivative has cognates in many Romance varieties: Catalan ordim, Aragonese urdimen, Spanish urdimbre and Galician/Portuguese urdime, to which one may add Languedocian ordum. This widespread presence certainly warrants the reconstruction of a Latin base *ordīmen (or *ordīmine(m), for Spanish).

  41. 41.

    As the reader will remember, nouns derived from deadjectival change-of-state verbs gave rise to the quality-noun pattern characteristic of Romanian. The resultant-state nouns of Corsican, as one can see, are derived from verbs that do not lend themselves to this kind of reanalysis.

  42. 42.

    Postverbal, as already mentioned, is a term used in Romance linguistics for action nouns formed by verb-noun conversion, as in abbaghj-àabbaghj-u, where -à is the infinitive ending and -u the desinence realizing the feature bundle [+masculine, +singular]. Neither the infinitive ending nor the nominal class marker participates in the conversion process. The formal identity of the verb and the noun stem, as well as the sameness of the general meaning favour reanalysis in the related derivative in -ume.

  43. 43.

    Cf. Old Italian serrame ‘lock’. No base is provided for ispašiđamene ‘fright’. It could be related to ispasimu ‘id.’, or ispasimare ‘to frighten’, both listed in Casu’s (2002) dictionary, with -m- changed to -đ- by dissimilation.

  44. 44.

    This lexeme has cognates in Corsican ferrame and Ladin feram.

  45. 45.

    Note that a metonymic switch is involved in this and in the next derivative: the base designates the location (belly) where the innards are to be found. In minudzamine, by contrast, the base-derivative relationship is regular.

  46. 46.

    Dolimine ‘pain’ seems to be derived from the verb dolere ‘to hurt’.

  47. 47.

    A metonymic switch is involved here: the base denotes a person with a sweet tooth, not a sweet or candy.

  48. 48.

    Bases are supplied with the help of von Rossi (1999), but adapted to Elwert’s system of transcription for the sake of uniformity.

  49. 49.

    In EWD (III 276), fyorimes is classified as denominal, just like čučim (II 207) and solim (VI 313). For the base noun flor, Kramer also attests florùm ‘hay flowers’ for the Fodom dialect and fioram ‘flower decoration; ice-ferns’ for Fassano. With respect to etymology, he states (III 277): “Bei den Ableitungen liegen Kollektivbildungen auf -ūmen, -īmen, -āmen vor.” Since Latin had no denominal derivatives in -īmen and -ūmen, this comment is unsatisfactory. For fyorimes, the verb fiorì ‘to flower’ might be taken into consideration as a potential base.

  50. 50.

    Kramer comments in EWD II 86–87: “Bildungen mit dem Suffix -ūmen [sc. derived from cera ‘wax’] tauchen vielfach in der Romania auf, haben aber wohl keine vulgärlateinische Basis, sondern sind unabhängige Neubildungen.”

  51. 51.

    In EWD VII 53 and 308 they are listed without comment.

  52. 52.

    The bases are taken from Peer’s (1962) dictionary.

  53. 53.

    The Sursilvan variant -em could also in some cases have arisen from -īmen, which yielded the same phonological result as -ūmen, at least in the variety covered by Vieli and Decurtin’s dictionary. There are no relevant nouns in -im in Lutz & Strehle’s inverse dictionary.

  54. 54.

    The attested Latin word, as we have seen, is laetāmen.

  55. 55.

    Starting from here, I will only give Sursilvan forms in -em. Iterative nouns are rare in Upper Engadinese anyway, a fact that Jochems (1959: 250) attributed to the rivalry of the dedicated iterative suffix -öz, absent from Sursilvan.

  56. 56.

    Where iterativity amounts to habituality, deverbal nouns in -em come close to quality nouns, as Jochems (1959: 236–237) observed: dubitem ‘skepticism’ (← dubitar ‘to doubt’), fittem ‘obsession with dressing up’ (← fittar ‘to dress up’), rachergem ‘avarice’ (← rachergiar ‘to be stingy’), palandrem ‘slowness’ (← palandrar ‘to stroll’), etc.

  57. 57.

    Aromanian as described by Capidan (1908) would constitute an exception: it has iterative nouns, but apparently no result nouns of the waste-niche type. However, Capidan’s description is too sketchy to give too much weight to this case, and the waste niche may have disappeared after having done its job.

  58. 58.

    The word *sagīmen, which yielded Old French saïm ‘fat’ (cf. Modern French saindoux ‘lard’), was assimilated to nouns in -īmen, but had no separately existing base.

  59. 59.

    For Gascon, cf. Rohlfs (1970: 230), for the dialects of the Pyrenees in general, Rohlfs (1931). Ronjat (1937) concentrates on Provençal, where the situation is complicated by the fact that the descendants of -men merged phonologically with those of -ānus, -īnus and -ūnus.

  60. 60.

    In Alibert’s dictionary I find revolum with the same meaning. The related verbs with the meaning ‘to swirl’ are revolzer and revolumar (derived from revolum).

  61. 61.

    In Languedocian, the descendants of -īnus and those of -īmen have remained clearly distinguished formally. Some elliptical uses of adjectives in -īnus refer to a species, a meaning close to that of collective nouns: cavalin, cavalina ← caval ‘horse’ (cf. cavalin ‘of horses’), etc.

  62. 62.

    It is unclear whether laidum ‘ugly person’ (← laid ‘ugly’) had the abstract or the collective meaning as starting point. The abstract meaning is now expressed by laidor.

  63. 63.

    Solé Solé (2002) contains nothing of interest from our perspective.

  64. 64.

    In fact, there is also aviram ‘poultry’, a synchronically opaque word derived from Latin avis ‘bird’. This word is also attested on the continent and in Occitan.

  65. 65.

    Possibly Balearic corquim ‘woodworm powder’ should be classified here, too. It manifests a metonymic switch in the relation of the derivative and its base, viz. corc ‘woodworm’. The word does not designate a collection of woodworms, but the powder produced by them.

  66. 66.

    Possibly borrim ‘fluff’ (← borra ‘id.’) should also be classified here. According to the DIEC, it also means ‘drizzle’, but it is unclear to me what the base should be for this meaning.

  67. 67.

    Propensity is expressed in Catalan by the dedicated suffix -era (ballarballera ‘desire to dance’, etc.).

  68. 68.

    These nouns are also present in Gascon, according to Rohlfs (1970: 230), both with an abstract (e.g., bielhumi ‘old age’, clarume ‘brightness’) and with a collective meaning (e.g., saubadyumi ‘wild animals’). Even the smell niche is attested (e.g., herumi ‘smell of deer’).

  69. 69.

    Saura Rami’s (2005) collection contains one deverbal derivative, viz. ligamen (< ligāmen ‘bond, tie’).

  70. 70.

    This word also has a figurative use as a derogatory term applied to people.

  71. 71.

    Mott (2002–2004: 1563) surmises that the use of -umen instead of -amen might have had a dissimilatory motivation. However, in the light of caballamen with its three /a/s we should not attribute too much weight to this factor. Though, caballumen is attested for the dialect of Biescas in Saura Rami (2005: 67).

  72. 72.

    In Latin America curtiembre designates a tannery.

  73. 73.

    Aragonese -amen would be a better formal fit, but extralinguistic considerations (there are few sailors in the Pyrenees) speak against an Aragonese origin.

  74. 74.

    The origin of the Neo-Latin term is itself in need of an explanation. Could it be a latinization of the corresponding formations that we found in some Romance varieties (of northern Italy)?

  75. 75. (accessed 15 June 2017).

  76. 76.

    Albume ‘white of the egg’, a collective nouns corresponding to Latin albūmen, is synchronically opaque (the adjective albo ‘white’ is not used in common language).

  77. 77.

    This is the only word contained in López Viñas’ (2015) dictionary of Old Galician word formation.

  78. 78.

    Cf. also synonymous aziúme, which Machado derives from azia ‘gastric acid’.

  79. 79.

    The big picture of the evolution of the category of action nouns is clear by now, but the precise dynamics remains to be studied. It could be worthwhile to investigate how the 1.000 most frequent verbs of Latin were nominalized in Latin and later on in the older stages of Romance and in the dialects. In that way one could possibly pin down who ousted whom.

  80. 80.

    I have found no lexeme that one might want to project back to Vulgar Latin or Proto-Romance: the correspondence between Old Italian gentame and Sardinian dzentamene should probably better be interpreted as evidence for Italian influence on Sardinian, than for *gentāmen.

  81. 81.

    The etymon *florūmen postulated by Machado for Portuguese chorume should probably be interpreted as derived from the verb florēre ‘to flower’, not directly from flor ‘flower’.

  82. 82.

    The example has a purely illustrative purpose. The presence of ferum in Occitan and Catalan, and of ferumen in Aragonese, does not by itself warrant the reconstruction of *ferūmen. The word could just as well have been irradiated from Occitan to the neighboring varieties.

  83. 83.

    Catalan influence cannot be responsible here since this language has no quality nouns in -im.

  84. 84.

    In Catalan, frescum means ‘fresh pork’. Some of the derivatives quoted above could also have been denominal in origin.

  85. 85.

    Catalan ferum and Aragonese ferum/ferumen interestingly only seem to have the smell meaning, which would seem to corroborate the hypothesis that these words are loan words from Occitan. The same could be true of Middle French ferun, though the meaning, according to Baldinger (1950: 148), was “odeur très agréable”.

  86. 86.

    Baldinger (1950: 148) documents dialectal French lanüm with the same meaning (Dauphiné).

  87. 87.

    Metonymy was occasionally also involved in derivatives outside the smell niche, for example in Corsican ortame ‘vegetables’ (← ortu ‘garden’), Occitan lanum ‘wool animals’ (← lana ‘wool’), or Catalan verrim ‘dirt’ (← verro ‘pig’) and porquim ‘pork’ (← porc ‘pig’).


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Rainer, F. Patterns and niches in diachronic word formation: the fate of the suffix -men from Latin to Romance. Morphology 28, 397–465 (2018).

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  • Diachrony
  • Reconstruction
  • Word formation
  • Latin
  • Romance languages
  • Action nouns
  • Quality nouns
  • Collective nouns
  • Fragmentation
  • Reanalysis
  • Semantic change