Thursday, May 8, 2008

Stultorum infinitus est numerus

In English: The number of fools is infinite. (Ecc. 1:15)

The grammar topic I would like to consider this time is the way that Latin can so elegantly "wrap" a phrase or sentence, with a noun phrase split into two parts as you can see here. The charm of this saying in Latin does not consist simply in what it says but in the elegant way in which the words are arranged, with the noun phrase stultorum numerus, "number of fools," split into two parts so that it encloses the whole sentence.

In English, unfortunately, there is no way to mimic this sentence structure since, unlike Latin, English depends on word order to define grammatical relationships, while Latin instead relies on an inflectional system of word endings.

If you want to follow the Latin word order in English, you have to change the syntax considerably: "When it comes to fools, infinite is the number." That is awkward in English, but at least it does convey the word-by-word development of the sentence in Latin.

For many English speakers, learning to savor Latin word order can be difficult at first, but once you relax and let go of your English assumptions, Latin word is delightfully expressive. Cognitively, you have plenty of clues - it may feel like you are walking a tightrope, but that is not the case at all. Even if it's not quite safe to look down, you do have handrails you can hang onto! In this sentence, for example, the first word, stultorum, is unambiguous: it is a genitive plural. That means it is looking for some noun to form a noun phrase, or else it is seeking out a verb that takes a genitive complement.

When you get to the second word, infinitus, you are dealing unambiguously with an adjective. Even better, it is an adjective in the nominative case. That means it does not link up directly with stultorum; instead, it is looking for a noun as well - either a noun to agree with in a noun phrase that will be the subject of the sentence, or a noun that can be the subject with this adjective in the predicate. The nominative case is absolutely your best friend in Latin, because the only thing words in the nominative can do is to serve as the subject of the sentence, or as the predicate, agreeing with the subject. So, you are not surprised to next see the verb est, a nice linking verb joining the subject and predicate.

Then comes the last word, numerus, which ties it all together for you: this is the noun which takes the genitive complement to make a noun phrase, stultorum numerus, "the number of fools," with the adjective as predicate, infinitus est, "is infinite." You are dealing with two phrases in this sentence: stultorum numerus, "the number of fools," and infinitus est, with the first phrase elegantly wrapped about the second.

Reading a "wrapped" sentence like this requires some mental operations that are quite different from what your brain does when you read English. That is why - at first - reading Latin can be a real challenge for English speakers (but less so for speakers of other highly inflected languages, such as Russian or Polish). My recommendation is always just to read very, very slowly, pausing at each word, and sniffing out any clues you can discover about the phrases that are taking shape. You need to be aware of how the words are connected together to form phrases even if those connections are disrupted by the word order, rather than reinforced by it. Once you get the hang of it, you can do this unconsciously, just as you don't think about how you are moving your feet when you are riding a bicycle. Proverbs and Bible verses are a great way to get started, since they are short and often familiar - kind of like training wheels on a bike for beginners!

Meanwhile, hoping you have managed to steer clear of that infinitive number of fools in your day's endeavors, here is today's verse read out loud:

40. Stultorum infinitus est numerus.

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

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Anonymous said...

Of fools, infinite is the number.

Anonymous said...

Like you observed it can be more intuitive in Polish.
I would translate it:
Głupców nieskończona jest liczba.

The order of words in the translation is the same. It does sound a bit archaic but intelligible nonetheless.