From the statistics that WordPress dutifully gathers and makes available to each of its writers, I know that someone once did a search for the phrase

“sistema” word origin greek.

That search brought the unknown someone to my posting on anagrama, where said person was probably frustrated not to find the origin of sistema (but no doubt thrilled to learn about anagrams). Today I’d like to belatedly answer the question about sistema, even though the person who was searching for the information will probably never read this posting.

Based on the Indo-European root *sta-, which meant the same as its English descendant stand, Greek created histanai, a verb meaning literally ‘to cause to stand’ and more generally ‘to set up, establish.’ The prefixing of ‘sun ‘together with’ produced the verb sunistanai, which meant ‘to cause to stand together,’ i.e. ‘to combine.’ That compound verb generated the noun sustema, which referred to ‘a set of things standing together as an organized whole.’ Late Latin borrowed the Greek term as systema, which we’ve carried over as sistema/system. This paragraph, though brief, has taken you through the development of sistema/system in a way that I think you’ll concede has been sistemático/systematic. In addition, we have the adjective sistémico/systemic, which means ‘affecting an entire system.’

This column focuses on etymology, but you’ll forgive me if I add one note about grammar. Greek had three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Abstract Greek nouns ending in -ma were neuter, and Latin, which also had three genders, understandably kept the original gender of any of those Greek nouns that it borrowed. As Latin evolved to the Romance languages, the neuter gender disappeared*; neuter nouns had to be reclassified as masculine or feminine, and Spanish systematically chose to convert all those neuter Latin-from-Greek nouns in -ema to the masculine gender. The most common are sistema, problema, tema, dilema, and poema. Because those words end in -a, foreigners can be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that those words are feminine, and even some native Spanish speakers make that mistake.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

* There are still a few Spanish pronouns that might be considered neuter: eso, esto, aquello, ello. There is also the lo in a construction like lo importante ‘the important thing.’

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Spanish To English Words | | LANGUAGE LEARNİNGLANGUAGE LEARNİNG

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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