Saturday, May 12, 2012

Numinous




Larry from Traverse City reported that he recently encountered a word that he had to look up. The word was numinous, and it is defined as “revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity.” He noted that it came from the noun numen, a divinity, god, or local spirit.

Larry’s question was not about the meaning, however; it was about the spelling. Why does the letter –e– in the noun form (numen) change to the letter –i– in the adjective form (numinous)? The same thing happens with lumen/luminous, nomen/nominal, and abdomen/abdominal, among others.

When you memorize Latin nouns, you memorize two forms: the nominative case (used as subject spelling, for instance), and the genitive case (used for possession). The Latin forms for the words used above would be numen/numinis, lumen/luminis, nomen/nominis and abdomen/abdominis. In all those cases, the second spelling (genitive case) is a slight expansion of the first, and involves a vowel change.

The reason for the vowel change is ease of pronunciation. Quite simply, certain sounds are easier to articulate than others. Since all of these examples pertain to Latin words, I turned to an old friend and classmate, Gregory Carnevale, who taught Latin for many years. He sent me this gracious answer:

“In Latin there are instances where there's a vowel change to facilitate pronunciation. This is a perfect case. All of these nouns have the genitive -inis, even though there's an E in the nominative. Take nomen, for example.  The genitive is nominis. Thus the stems of all the words you give derive from the genitive. Hence the change from E to I.  If we were to try to say nomenis, or numenis, or abdomenis, the syllable with the E (which is a long A sound) is harder to say than if  we pronounce the I (which is a long E sound). Try it out -- it's a jaw thing. The E is a jaw, the I is a labial. That is true for all the examples given. The Romans were very efficient in all things, language included.”


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