Sunday, April 20, 2008

Verse: Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram?

In English: Isn't man's life upon the earth a military campaign? (Job 7:1)

As I mentioned in the previous post about the grammar of Latin particles, I'm going to be focusing my blog posts for the next few months on grammar topics and how those can be explored through Bible verses and other Latin sayings. One very important grammar dilemma that students of Latin face is learning how to ask and answer questions in Latin. I chose today's verse as a good model of one way that a question can be asked in Latin.

As you can see at the beginning of this verse, the first word is nonne, which is really the word non with the enclitic particle ne added afterwards. When non and ne are combined in this way at the beginning of a sentence, it indicates a question to which the expected answer is an affirmative: Isn't man's life upon the earth a military campaign? Implied answer: Yes, it is!

The rule for making this kind of question in English is actually quite similar to the Latin rule: you add "not" (like adding Latin non).

So, for example, in English, you could ask the open-ended question: Is man's life upon the earth a military campaign? Nothing in the question implies whether the answer is yes or not. The form of the sentence, with the verb preceding the subject, indicates that the sentence is a yes-or-no question, but there is nothing implied about the answer. If you add "not," then the question expects an affirmative answer: Is not man's life upon the earth a military campaign? Yes, it is!

In Latin, word order does not indicate anything about whether a sentence is a question or not (unlike English, Latin word order is remarkably free). Instead, in Latin, the particle ne is used to indicate a question: Militiane est vita hominis super terram? That would be the neutral form of the question in Latin, expecting either an affirmative or a negative answer. Throw the non into the mix, just like in English, and an affirmative answer is expected. Conventionally, the non attracts the ne and stands first in the sentence: Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram?

This verse from the Book of Job is found as a question in some versions of the Vulgate, while in other versions of the Latin text (as in the Vulgata Clementina), it appears as a simple direct statement: Militia est vita hominis super terram, "Man's life upon the earth is a military campaign."

If you ask me, the rhetorical form of the question with nonne is much more compelling. A question that starts with nonne implies an affirmative answer, so it conveys the same information as a simple affirmative statement, but it does so in a way that pulls you in, compelling your assent. We can appreciate the rhetorical style of different forms of questions in English, and it's important to be able to "feel" the different qualities of different forms of questioning in Latin, too. The word nonne wants to pull you in and compel your assent - but it cannot exert that rhetorical force unless you are able to understand its meaning!

So, in the spirit of rhetorical questions compelling your assent: Aren't you going to listen to the audio? :-)

127. Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram?

The number here is the number for this proverb in Vulgate Verses: 4000 Sayings from the Bible for Teachers and Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Vulgate Verses blog to listen to the audio.

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