Many English vocabulary-building books (for example, Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder, Word Power Made Easy) break the meaning of words down into three pieces: prefix + root + suffix.

On the website “Etymology Online”, I was wondering how to determine the root of a given word in English, given that etymology details which past words in past languages the word evolved from.

If the word is descended from various parts and pieces from various languages, which one is considered the ‘root’?

English etymology traces back to many languages: Old French, Latin, Proto-Italic, Proto-Germanic, Greek, PIE, and more. Which one should we seek the original “root” or origin of the word in?

Are we looking for some point where a compound word in the past was split into a prefix, a root, and a suffix?

Can that split can happen in any language English inherits from?

What if there is no split in the ancestral tree of a word? How do I figure out which component today is the “root”?

For example, “component” has prefix “com-“, root “pon”, and suffix “ent”. If I only knew that “component” comes from Latin, could I use that information to figure out the prefix-root-suffix structure, on my own?

  • 2
    What do you mean by "root"?
    – Draconis
    Jun 10 at 3:06
  • updated. How many kinds of "root" do you have in mind?
    – Tim
    Jun 10 at 3:11
  • 6
    The question is how many kinds of root you have in mind. The roots you use to learn English vocabulary are not the same roots as those you’ll find by tracing the etymology of English words. If you’re learning the word unladylike, it’s useful to know that un- is a prefix, -like is a suffix and lady is the (synchronic) root. It’s not particularly useful to know that the etymological roots are ‘loaf’ and ‘dough/knead’, because the word doesn’t mean anything like that anymore. Jun 10 at 7:35
  • I think the heart of your question is “morphemic segmentation” - you want to know where to break the word into parts, for any given word - and you rightly observe the relevance of the word’s history in determining any such rules towards that. In the interim (of getting the answer you seek), my opinion is, yes, first figure out what language the word comes from, then basically familiarize yourself with the language until you get better at recognizing familiar “parts”. Like, “anesthesia” I think is Greek, “an-“ means “not”, “esthesia” relates to “aesthetic” (I think) and means “feeling”.
    – Julius H.
    Jun 19 at 9:14
  • Not a direct answer, but in the ballpark of the topic, of a technique: aclanthology.org/2022.sigmorphon-1.15.pdf
    – Julius H.
    Jun 19 at 9:15

1 Answer 1


The popular notion of "root" of a word is "historical origin". This is not the linguistic sense, which refers to a particular constituent of synchronic morphological analysis. From context we can see that the question is about determining the history or a word, e.g. is "queen" from Latin, Greek, or what?

Once one understands that there were language that are only known from historical reconstruction (e.g. PIE), one can ask more sophisticated questions about history, not being limited to "Is this from Old English, or from French". For example given knowledge of historical change, one can better see in what sense pterodactyl and feather are related words. I'm skeptical that one can in any sense "build" your vocabulary on that basis (why don't you know the word "feather" already?), but it is an interesting intellectual exercise.

In aid of pure intellectual curiosity, one would like to know the source of the words hemp and cannabis – turns out to be a common root! – and yet there is massive speculation as to what the original source was (Iranian? Semitic?). We usually don't spend much time looking for Ket sources of words, because we don't have a lot of information on the language, but there is no a priori reason to exclude Ket as a source of knowledge about the source of English words.

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