Why does it seem that the prefixes of compound words end in O?

Ancient Greek used connecting vowels between two stems when forming compounds, unless the second stem started with a vowel (e.g. nost-os ‘homecoming’ + algos ‘pain’ > nost-algia). A vowel was also unnecessary if the first part of the compound was a numeral or preposition, which instead had their own optional vowels: tetr(a)– ‘four’, di(a)– ‘through’, an(a)- ‘on’, etc. So connective vowels really only apply when the first component of a compound is a noun or verb.

(And in the case of –logia, those formants keep their vowels: tetra-logy, dia-logue, ana-logy.)

Verb-initial compounds are rare in Greek, and even rarer in borrowings into English or novel coinages; they can have any of -e-, -o-, or -i- as a connecting vowel. mis-o-gynist ‘hate-women’ has an -o-, but arch-i-tektōn ‘lead builders’ has an -i-.

Almost all Greek compounds borrowed or newly coined in English are noun-initial. The connecting vowel was not always an -o-; however, it was an -o- much more often than not. The original rules are:

  • If the noun is in first declension (ends in -a(s) or -ē(s)), use -: agora ‘market, forum’ > agor-a-phobia
  • If the noun is in second declension (ends in –os or –on), use –o-: Angl-os ‘English’ > Angl-o-sphaira, archaios ‘ancient’ > archai-o-logia.
  • If the noun is in third declension: by default use –o-; you can skip a connective vowel if the stem ends in a vowel. ichthy-bolos ‘fish-catching’ but ichthy-o-pōlēs ‘fishmonger’ (and hence ichthy-o-logy)
    • If the stem ends in –es (or neuter –os), substitute it with –o-: pseudēs ‘false’ > pseudo

So you’re already seeing that most of the time it’s –o-.

o– got generalised even further, already in antiquity: first declension nouns could use –o– instead of –ā-, and that in fact happens with techn-o-logia < technē. I presume that in modern coinages, the –o– became universal with first declension nouns, by analogy. So the study of stones could be either petr-a-logy or petr-o-logy; the former is what you’d expect from Ancient Greek petr-ā, but the latter is more frequent in English, because we expect –ology in all such compounds. The third declensions with a bare stem do turn up: brachy-cephalic; but they are quite rare.

So most Greek and Greek-inspired compounds beginning with a noun use –o-, unless the second word starts in a vowel.

The reason why this rule of Greek has become a rule of technical English is because Greek formed compounds much more readily than Latin; so when a compound needed to be put together for a technical term, Greek was the language we reached for.

Answered 2017-07-29 · Upvoted by

David Maximilian Müller, Master’s degree in linguistics

What’s the meaning of the Greek expression: “We called Him John, but we did not see him yet”?

Contra Konstantinos Konstantinides, I’m assuming the expression intended is Ακόμα δεν τον είδαμε, Γιάννη τονε βγάλαμε “We have not seen him yet, (but) we have named him John.” It refers to jumping to conclusions, making premature moves—just as it would be premature to name a baby before it is actually born (in traditional society, with high mortality at childbirth).

Nikolaos Politis’ monumental catalogue of Greek proverbs remains unpublished past epsilon, but this proverb has made it: https://books.google.com.au/book…. Politis gives this interpretation and associates it with a just-so story. My translation:

Of those who anticipate things and foretell future plans, founded on uncertain and indefinite expectations. A fairy tale (related by Mr K.D. Papaioannidou of Sozopol) underlies this saying, belonging to the class of tales told among both our nation and others of foolish women lamenting future disasters for an as yet unborn child. The story is as follows:

There was once a man with two marriageable girls; and one day a matchmaker came and brought a groom for the eldest daughter. The matchmaker sent her to fetch him wine from the barrel. When she put her jug under the barrel, she pondered her wedding, and thought: I will get married, and I will have a child, and call him John. But then it occurred to her that she might die, and she started lamenting; and the wine kept running. After a long time had passed, the youngest daughter came to see what was going on. When she heard what her sister said, she too started lamenting her dear nephew; and the wine kept running. Then the father went down; and when he learned why they were delayed, he shook his head and said: He haven’t seen him yet, we’ve already called him John, and the wine’s running!

The corresponding ancient proverb seems to come from a similar source: the goat has not yet given birth, and the kid is playing on the roof.

Politis then gives a long list of equivalent proverbs in other languages:

  • Albanian “the child is not yet born, but his cap has been bought”;
  • Italian “he’s not yet born, but he’s been called Nick”; “she’s not yet pregnant but she’s been called a mother”; “she’s not yet born, and she’s being married off already”;
  • Catalan “The father has not yet been born and his son is already jumping on the roof”
  • Spanish “We don’t yet have a son and we’re naming him”; “The goat is not yet born and it’s already suckling the kid”; “The son is about to be born, and they’re already boiling his porridge”; “He’s not yet born and he’s already sneezing”
  • Rumanian “We haven’t seen him but we’ve named him”
  • English “Boil not the pap before the child is born”
  • Norwegian “Don’t write the child down in the book before it is born”
  • Russian “The son is not yet born and has been named”

No, I hadn’t heard of that English proverb either. But here it is: Better master to Call not. W.C. Hazlitt, comp. 1907. English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases