Getting ahead with prefixes

Learning a new language can be helped by your own understanding of English grammar – most people who have English as their primary language learn it ‘as-is’ – that is, without truly ever being explained the grammatical or morphological reasons behind things.

I studied Latin and Ancient Greek since a young age. While this doesn’t exactly make me immediately popular at parties, it has helped me recognise word forms, even if I hadn’t seen a word before.

One of the things that helps the most is recognising prefixes – those bits that are commonly attached to the beginning of words which give you a clue to their meaning (if you know what they mean, of course). Due to English’s wealth of linguistic sources, we tend to use a lot of prefixes – but the vast majority come from Latin or Ancient Greek.

You may be familiar with most of the numerical prefixes, such as kilo- for thousand (Gk. chilioi / χιλιοι), mega- for million (Gk. μέγας – “large”), cent- for hundred (Lat. centum), or nano- for a billionth (Gk. νᾶνος – “dwarf”).

A pretty comprehensive list of prefixes (and other word bases) can be found here, if you’d like to learn more.

So then, the first time I heard one of my all-time favourite words, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis – which, even though it is basically something of a linguistic hoax, is referred to in the Oxford English Dictionary – it sounded pretty much like nonsense. But once I saw it written down I noticed that it was basically a bunch of Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes thrown together to make one long word. Break it down into its parts and you get:

pneu- Gk. meaning “breath”
-mono- Gk. meaning “one/alone”
-ultra- Lat. meaning “beyond”
-micro- Gk. meaning “small”
-scopic- Gk. meaning “looking”
-silico- Gk. meaning “rock/sand”
-volcano- Lat. meaning “volcano” (from Vulcan, the God of fire)
-coni- Gk. meaning “dust” (from konis)
-osis Gk. meaning “condition”

So when I found out that the word was supposed to mean “a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, causing inflammation in the lungs”, it almost made sense.