I already know that 'continuous' is stronger than continual, but that both derive from the same Latin etymon continuus. These answers on ELU evidence this difference, but does not explain the cause.

That which is continual is that which is either always going on or recurs at short intervals and never comes to an end; that which is continuous is that in which there is no break between the beginning and the end.

My research on the suffixes (below) motivate my conjecture: The Latin etymon of -ous denoted fullness, and so 'continuous' meant fullness of continuity, and so meant no interruptions.
However, the Latin etymon of -al lacked this denotation of fullness, and so the possibility of interruptions was ascribed to 'continual'.

How sound is my conjecture? I ask because I beware of the Etymological Fallacy.

-al Etymology 1 (of 2)
From Latin adjective suffix -ālis, or French, Middle French and Old French -el, -al. [...]

-ous Etymology : From Old French -ous and -eux, from Latin -ōsus ‎(“full, full of”).


The substantial discussion on ELU seems to address this: ‘continual’ came first ("without cessation"), then ‘continuous’ arose (“without gaps”), then the latter took over the meaning of the former (presumably, by spatial analogy), and as a result, ‘continual’ got a distinct sense. If this trajectory is correct, how could the original Latin sources of the suffixes be the cause?

Glancing quickly at CELEX, it looks like there are very few similar pairs in current English, and ‘-al’ is (almost?) never otherwise used in a context where ‘possibility of interruption’ could make any sense. Without other evidence, I'd conclude that this distinction (continuous/al) is an isolated, arbitrary event, and not an example of a general sense of -al vs. -ous.

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