At a recent workshop with Pete Bowers in Sofia, Bulgaria we were discussing the base of principal. This document is one that I found from Melvyn Ramsden in response to a child's question that was in the same vein. I hope it is useful.


Jim Anderson

Luke came up with a question about <principal> and <principle>. In the former, if <- 

al> is the suffix, then what is the base? I asked what he thought and he ventured

prince. I directed him to the online dictionaries and he seems to be very close if not

bang on. But that leaves the question of <ip>. Can a base as you describe it in your

flow chart be a Latin word or old English? But if so if does make it hard for students

to recognize the <le/al> spelling in <principal/principle>. Can you shed some light

on this for Luke.


Melvyn's answer:

The etymology of

The roots are Latin.

1 The root <prim(um)> "first".

2 The twin root <cap(ut) / capit(is)> "head"

Latin base elements are called "stems". When Latin stems combined with a

preceding stem the vowel in the stem often changed too: this is called its

'combining form'.

The combining form of <cap(ut) / capit(is)> is < -ceps > / < -cip(is) >.

Our two roots formed a compound in Latin - with the /m/ changing to /n/ with the

pronunciations, and the spelling followed since Latin (unlike English) was a

rigidly phonetic language and the graphemes represented only one phoneme.

prim + ceps => primceps => princeps

prim + cip(is) => primcip(is) => princip(is)

Its denotation was, the, "first head" (or "head man"). This has given us the

English base <principe> "first head(ing)". It is the base of such words as

<principal> and <principate>.

This Latin-origin base came into English through French. The French for

"principle" has always been the expected <principe>. When, though, the French

<principe> came into Middle English as a loan word it acquired - because of

English pronunciation at the time - an "intrusive" <l> and became <principle>.

Another case of the English "intrusive" <l> is the evolution of <syllabe / syllable>.

As far as English is concerned, then, we have the twin base <principe / 


The Old French for "prince" was <principe> (as it still is in Italian), but in Middle

French it was clipped to <prince>, which was the form that came into Middle

English. We could, then, even postulate a 'triplet' form <principe / prince / 



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