Saturday, December 22, 2018

Some descendants of Latin comparatives, part 2: Comparisons in English, Spanish, and Latin

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 20, "Some descendants of Latin comparatives", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]



Comparisons in English, Spanish, and Latin

Comparative adjectives

In linguistics, comparison refers to the use of expressions to indicate the relative degree or amount of property or quality in terms of the adjective or adverb that express that quality in the language. Comparative adjectives (and adverbs) are in some languages derived from the basic adjective by means of inflections, such as suffixes (cf. Part I, Chapter 5). Eng. bigger is thus a regular comparative of the adjective big: big+er. The only ‘irregularity’ has to do with the spelling of the sound [ɡ], with by convention is spelled gg after the suffix ‑er ([əɹ]) is added. It many languages, it is common for some of these derived comparative adjectives to be irregular, however, such as the comparative adjective better in English or mejor ‘better’ the Spanish. Do note that this is not the only ‑er suffix that English has, for there is at least one other one, namely the native agentive suffix ‑er that has a different source, namely Proto-Germanic *‑ari, which is a cognate with Latin ‑or.

Another way of deriving comparatives is syntactic, not morphological, by forming a phrase out of the adjective and a modifier, such as more or less in English, as in the expressions more interesting or less interesting (cf. Sp. más interesante and menos interesante). As we can see, English has morphological as well as syntactic comparatives, including a number of irregulars, as shown in Table 167. Spanish, on the other hand, has irregular morphological comparatives as well as syntactic ones, but lacks regular morphological ones

Comparative type
English examples
Spanish examples
Morphological (suffixed), regular
bigger, smaller
Morphological, irregular
better (*gooder, *more good)
mejor (=más bueno)
Phrasal (regular)
more (or less) interesting
más (or menos) interesante
Table 167: Types of comparatives

Note that English has five irregular comparatives: better (< good), worse (< bad), less (< little), more (< much), and further/farther (< far). In English, irregular comparatives normally block the creation of regular ones such as *gooder or *badder or *more good and *less bad, though badder was used for a while and it still exists colloquially in some dialects, for at least some senses of bad, and less bad is also used in some contexts. Spanish too has a handful of irregular comparatives, namely mayor (< grande), menor (< pequeño), mejor (< bueno), peor (< malo), all of which descend from Latin, where they were already irregular, unanalyzable comparatives. However, in Spanish, it is possible to use regular synonyms of these adjectives, such as más grande and más pequeño, which are equivalent to mayor and menor in some contexts. In Spanish, más bueno and más malo are also perfectly good alternatives to mejor and peor.

As we saw, in English there are two regular ways to form comparatives, but which one we used is determined by characteristics of the adjective easy. If the adjective has one syllable or if it has two syllables and ends in ‑y, then the comparative is formed by adding ‑er. Thus from big we get bigger and from silly we get sillier. Notice that the ‑y of the adjective changes to ‑i in the spelling, though it is pronounced the exact same way: [ˈsɪ.li] - [ˈsɪ.li.əɹ]. All other comparatives are formed by adding more (or less) before the adjective. For all other two-syllable adjectives and more than two-syllable adjectives, English uses the phrasal method of forming comparatives. English also uses the phrasal method with adjective derived from verbal past participles by conversion, even if they are less than two-syllables long, such as bored, whose comparative is more bored, not *boreder.

Regular comparatives in Classical Latin were formed by suffixes, much like the comparatives of short English adjectives, with the suffix being ‑ĭōr‑ which, interestingly, is a cognate of the English comparative suffix ‑er, since they both descend from the same Proto-Indo-European suffix. The Latin endings were a bit more complicated because of all the cases involved and the different inflections that were added to the comparative suffix. Thus, for example, the comparative of the adjective longus, feminine longa, neuter longum ‘long’ (Sp. largo/a), meaning ‘longer’ (Sp. más largo/a) had the following wordforms in the different cases, genders, and numbers:

Case / Gender

Vulgar Latin simplified this system by switching to a phrasal or analytic system of comparatives. In different parts of the (Vulgar) Latin-speaking world two different analytic solutions arose. One was to use magis ‘more’, an adverbial form of the adjective magnus ‘big’, before the adjective. That was the route that the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula followed. In Spanish magis changed to más, in Portuguese to mais, and in Catalan to més. Other Romance languages, such as French and Italian, used the Latin word plūs, also meaning ‘more’, or ‘more much’, which was the irregular comparative form of the adjective multus ‘much, many’. This resulted for instance in the French comparative adverb plus [ply] and the Italian più [pi̯u].

Romance language
Adjective ‘big’
Comparative ‘bigger’
más grande
plus grand

Finally, we should note that not only adjectives can be compared, but other parts of speech too. Adverbs, for example, can also be compared and most adverbs are derived from adjectives, by means of the suffix ‑ly in English and the suffix ‑mente in Spanish (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.5, § The comparison of adverbs is always done phrasally in both English and Spanish by means of the adverbs Eng. more and Sp. más, or their opposites, Eng. less and Sp. menos, e.g. Eng. more quickly and Sp. más rápidamente.

Nouns are also compared by means of quantifiers, both in English and in Spanish, cf. Eng. more, less, fewer, and Sp. más, menos, as in more/less rice and Sp. más/menos arroz, and Eng. more/fewer books and Sp. más/menos libros. (In standard English, fewer is preferred instead of less for countable nouns, though generalizing less to all types of comparisons is perhaps the norm in speech, e.g. I read fewer/less books now than when I was a student = Sp. ‘Leo menos libros ahora que cuando era estudiante’.)


There is another type of adjectives used in comparison, one that is closely related to comparatives, namely superlative adjectives. In English they are formed in an analogous manner to the comparatives. The irregular cases are best, worst, least, most, and furthest/farthest. The rest are formed by adding ‑est instead of ‑er or most instead of more, e.g. biggest, most interesting, etc. In Spanish, superlatives are identical to comparatives, with the only difference that they are always accompanied by the definite article (el, la, los, las), since superlatives always refer to unique entities. Note that in English too, superlatives are always preceded by the definite article the, e.g. the most interesting class.[1]

Comparative type
English examples
Spanish examples
Morphological (suffixed), regular
biggest, smallest
Morphological, irregular
best (*goodest, *most good)
(el) mejor (=más bueno)
Phrasal (regular)
most interesting
(el) más interesante
Table 168: Types of superlatives

Spanish, as we can see, has a few irregular comparatives, namely mejor, peor, mayor, and menor, all of which we will explore below, and the rest are formed by adding más (or menos) before the adjective, as in el más feo ‘the ugliest’ or el más interesante ‘the most interesting’.

The superlative of Latin adjectives was formed by means of the suffix ‑issim‑, longissimus (fem. longissima, neut. longissimum), meaning ‘the longest’ (Sp. el más largo). These Latin superlative adjectives could also be used to express a high degree of the quality in question, in this case ‘very long’. Note that Spanish has borrowed this suffix from Latin in recent times, but only with the latter meaning. Thus, in Spanish larguísimo/a, derived from largo/a ‘long’, means ‘very, very long’, ‘extremely long’, but not ‘the longest’ like its ancestor could in Latin.[2]

The Latin suffix ‑issim‑ seems to derive from a combination of two Proto-Indo-European suffixes, the first one of which is *‑is‑, a (zero-grade) variant or allomorph of *‑yōs, the comparative (and intensive) suffix that we saw earlier was the source of Latin ‑ĭōr‑, and an absolutive suffix that has been reconstructed as *‑(t)m̥mo‑, which can be seen in the irregular superlatives optimus ‘best’/’very good’ and summus ‘highest, greatest’ (see below).

The following table gives the three forms of the adjective longus: the simple base form, the derived comparative and superlative forms. We are giving here the accusative masculine singular forms which show the inflections better, since the comparative nominative masculine/feminine form has no case/number inflection.

‘longest’/’very long’

Latin irregular comparatives

The Spanish irregular comparatives, which all end in ‑or, are remnants of irregular Latin comparatives in ‑ior, in which the stem of the comparative was different from the stem of the regular adjective. There are four such irregular comparatives in Spanishmayor, menor, peor, and mejor the remnants from an even greater number of irregular comparatives (and superlatives) that Latin had. The ‑i‑ of the Latin ‑ĭōr‑ suffix either became a consonant, as in mayor, merged with a preceding consonant to produce a different sound, as in mejor, or was lost, as in peor.

The following are the main Latin irregular comparatives, all of which have different stems in the positive adjective and the comparative one (some, very different ones). They are given here in the nominative singular masculine/feminine form, with the neuter form in parenthesis. The first one is the comparative māior that we discussed earlier. Another one is mĕlĭor ‘better’, the source of Sp. mejor ‘better’, and one of the words that learners of Spanish tend to confuse with Sp. mayor, as well as with Eng. major and mayor. We will return to the descendants of these two words in the next section, to discuss them in greater detail.

  • Lat. māior (neut. māius) ‘bigger’ (see previous section)
  • Comparative of magnus ‘big’
  • Source of Sp. mayor ‘bigger, etc.’
  • Superlative: māxĭmus/a/um ‘biggest, greatest’ > Sp. máximo/a ‘maximum, highest’ ~ Eng. maximum
  • Lat. mĭnor (neut. mĭnus) ‘less, smaller, inferior’
  • Comparative of parvus/a/um ‘small, etc.’
  • Source of Sp. menor ‘smaller, younger’ (= más pequeño, más joven) (cf. Eng. minor, minus)
  • Lat. mĕlĭor ‘better’
  • Comparative of bonus/a/um ‘good’
  • Source of Sp. mejor ‘better’ = más bueno/a
  • Superlative: optĭmus/a/um ‘best’ > Sp. óptimo/a ‘ideal, very best, optimum’
  • Lat. pēior (neuter pēius; acc. pēiōrem) ‘worse’
  • Comparative of malus/a/um ‘bad’
  • Source of Sp. peor ‘worse’ = más malo/a
  • Latin superlative: pessimus/a/um ‘worst’ > Sp. pésimo/a ‘very bad’ (= malísimo/a)
  • Lat. plūs (only neuter) ‘more’ (plural masc./fem. plūrēs, neut. plūra)
  • Comparative of multus/a/um ‘much, many (in the plural)’
  • Old Latin plous, cognate with Ancient Greek πολύς (polús) ‘many’, source of the prefix Eng. poly‑ ~ Sp. poli‑, and with Old English feolo ‘much, many’
  • Lat. plūs is the source of Eng. plus (Sp. más)
  • Lat. multus/a/um is the source of Sp. mucho/a (not of Eng. much)
  • Latin superlative: plūrĭmus/a/um ‘most, very much, very many’; in the plural: plūrimī
  • Derived adjective: plūrālis ‘relating to more than one/many’ (plūr‑āl‑is), source of Eng. plural ~ Sp. plural
  • Lat. prĭor (neut. prĭus) ‘former, prior, previous, etc.’
  • Comparative of indeclinable prepositions prae (Old Lat. pri) and pro ‘before’ (regular stem prĭor‑)
  • Superlative: prīmus/a/um ‘first’, source of Eng. prime
  • Derived Latin adjective: prīmārius/a/um ‘first in rank, principal, eminent, distinguished’, source of Sp. primero/a ‘first’
  • Medieval Latin derived word prioritasprioritatis, source of Eng. priority ~ Sp. prioridad
  • Lat. sŭpĕrĭor (neut. sŭpĕrĭus) ‘higher’
  • Comparative of sŭpĕrus/a/um ‘situated above; upper, higher’; rarely used as an adjective, more commonly used as a noun in the plural: sŭpĕrī ‘the heavenly gods’
  • Related to the preposition sŭper ‘over’, source of (patrimonial) Sp. sobre and (learned) Sp. super and Eng. super
  • Source of Eng. superior ~ Sp. superior/(a)
  • Latin superlative #1: summus/a/um ‘uppermost, highest, topmost’ > Sp. adj. sumo/a ‘great’, Eng. sum ~ Sp. suma ‘sum; addition’, Sp. sumar ‘to add’
  • Latin superlative #2: supremus/a/um ‘highest, uppermost’> Sp. supremo/a ~ Eng. supreme
Other Latin comparatives were irregular because the positive adjective they are supposedly derived from does not exist any longer, though they supposedly did exist at one time, such as ōcior ‘swifter’ (superlative ocissimus). Some comparatives are irregular in the sense that the word they are derived from is not an adjective but rather an adverb or a preposition, e.g. prĭor (see above), intĕrĭor, and ultĕrĭor. Other comparatives are irregular in the sense that the positive form is primarily used as a noun, usually in the plural, rather than as an adjective, e.g. extĕrĭor (< exter(us), pl. exterī ‘foreigners’), infĕrĭor (< infĕrus, cognate with Eng. under, pl. īnferī ‘the gods below’), posterior (< posterus, pl. posterī ‘posterity’), and sŭpĕrĭor (see above). Let us look at extĕrĭor, for example:

  • Lat. extĕrĭor (neut. extĕrĭus) ‘outward, outer, exterior’
  • Comparative of exter(us)/a/um ‘on the outside, outward, of another country, family, etc., foreign, strange’
  • Derived from the preposition ex‑ ‘out of’
  • Source of the nouns Eng. exterior ~ Sp. exterior
  • Superlative extrēmus/a/um ‘outmost’, source of Eng. extreme ~ Sp. extremo
Two interesting, somewhat irregular Latin comparatives are the following two antonyms, mostly because they have turned into such common words in English and/or Spanish:
  • Lat. iūnior ‘younger’, comparative of the adjective iuvenis ‘young, youthful’: this comparative used to be regular, as it was iuvenior ‘younger’ in early Latin, but the middle syllable was lost; it has turned into Eng. junior; the positive adjective iuvenis has become the patrimonial adjective joven in Spanish
    • Lat. sĕnĭor ‘older, elder’, comparative of the adjective senex ‘old, aged’, though senex could also be used as a noun meaning ‘old person, old man’; this word has turned into Sp. señor ‘sir, mister, lord’, as well as Eng. sir and senior (cf. Part II, Chapter 3); synonyms of the Latin adjective senex were senectus (< senex +‎ ‑tus) and vetus (gen. veteris); the diminutive of vetus was vetulus, source of patrimonial Sp. viejo; derived from Lat. vetus we get the learned words Eng. veteran and Sp. veterano

    [1] Note that there are some exceptions to this rule in set expressions, such as a most X Y, as in That is a most interesting question. This translates into Spanish as Esa es una cuestión/pregunta de lo más interesante, using the neuter article lo (cf. lo más interesante ‘the most interesting thing’).

    Note that comparative adjectives can also refer to definite entities and thus be accompanied by the definite article, as in the phrase the more interesting books in the sentence The more interesting books in that pile are the ones on top. Note, though, that the meaning would not have been really different if the phrase the most interesting books had been used instead. Spanish only has one potion, however, namely los libros más interesantes, which could be translated as either the more interesting books or the most interesting books. The distinction could be made by using a relative clause, with or without the definite article before the comparative: los libros que son más interesantes vs. los libros que son los más interesantes.

    [2] Note that Lat. lŏngus/a/um meant ‘long’. This word is cognate with Eng. long, a patrimonial (native) word derived from Proto-Germanic *langaz ‘long’. Both words go back to Proto-Indo-European *dlongʰos ‘long’. Spanish had a patrimonial word luengo/a ‘long’ that came from Latin longus, but by the 16th century, this adjective had become archaic and it is now obsolete. It has been replaced with largo/a, an adjective that comes from Lat. largus/a/um that meant ‘generous, bountiful, lavish, plentiful, copious’ in classical Latin, and later added other meanings such as ‘lengthy’, ‘broad’, ‘wide’, ‘spacious, extensive’, and even ‘free, unconfined, unrestricted’ (cf. Eng. at large). English borrowed this Latin adjective as large [ˈlɑɹʤ], from Old French large ‘vast in extent, copious, etc.’.

    The suffix ‑ísim-o/a is added the adjectival stem, after removal of the inflectional vowel, if there is one, e.g. guapa > guapísima, limpio > limpísimo, fácil > facilísimo. When added to adjectives ending in …ble, such as amable ‘kind, nice’, the two blend into the ending …bilísimo/a, as in amabilísimo ‘extremely kind’.

    The suffix ‑ísim-o/a has a variant ‑císim-o/a which is used with adjectives ending in ‑or or ‑n, such as joven ‘young’, which changes to jovencísimo/a ‘very, very young’.

    Speakers waver as to whether to regularize a diphthong in a regular adjective when the suffix ‑ísim‑ is added and thus the stress is moved away from the diphthong, e.g. fuerte > fuertísimo/fortísimo, bueno > buenísimo/?bonísimo, caliente > calentísimo/?calientísimo, etc. Note also that some types of adjectives do not admit the suffix ‑ísim‑, such as próximo ‘next’ (*proximísimo) , heroico ‘heroic’ (*heroicísimo).

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