Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pascua sunt divitum pauperes

In English: Poor people are the feeding grounds of the rich people. (Sirach 13:19)

In my comments about the past several verses, I've focused on examples of "wrapped" word order where a noun phrase is wrapped around a verb or around another noun phrase. This artful word order can produce some strong rhetorical effects, which is certainly the case here in this saying from the apocryphal book known as "The Wisdom of Ben Sira by Yeshua ben Sira" ("The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach") or simply "Sirach." In the Latin tradition this book is often referred to as "Ecclesiasticus," not to be confused with the canonical book of "Ecclesiastes."

As you begin this sentence, you get the word pascua, "pasture lands" or "feeding grounds." Because it is a neuter noun, you cannot be sure if it is in the nominative or the accusative case, but the next word, sunt, strongly suggests that the word is nominative, serving either as the subject of the sentence, or the predicate. Although in English we expect the subject to come first in the sentence, there is no reason to expect the subject to come first in Latin. Very often it is the predicate of the sentence which comes first, not the subject.

The next word is a bit unexpected: divitum. This genitive plural can certainly be taken with pascua, and could form a complete sentence already as it is: Pascua sunt divitum, "They are the feeding grounds of the rich people." I have said "they" here, because we do not know what the subject is yet - although that question will be answered unambiguously by the last word.

Pauperes. With this last word, the statement is revealed to be a powerful metaphor indeed and a defiant bit of social criticism. Now we know what the subject of the sentence is - pauperes, "poor people" - and the sentence now reads, Pascua sunt divitum pauperes, "Poor people are the feeding grounds of the rich people."

Now, since Latin word is completely free, there are in fact 24 different ways in which these words can be arranged, each and every one of them grammatically correct. Try it out just to see what you discover! (Mathematically, this is referred to as 4!, a factorial expression, which is 4*3*2*1, or 24.) The question then is what is the special quality of this combination, the rhetorical features that let it rise to the top of those twenty-four possible combinations.

Here are some impressions I have of why this word order is especially expressive. First, it keeps the uninteresting verb sunt inside, not occupying the strong first or final positions. If we posit that the verb needs to go in second or in third position, that eliminates half of all the possibilities, bringing us down from 24 options, to just 12.

Next: word wrapping. If you decide that it is more powerful to wrap the predicate phrase around the verb or around the entire subject and verb, you can eliminate four more possibilities, leaving you with eight: four possibilities where the predicate phrase wraps around the verb (1-2-3-4), and four possibilities where the predicate phrase wraps around the entire sentence (5-6-7-8).

1. Pascua sunt divitum pauperes.
2. Divitum sunt pascua pauperes.
3. Pauperes divitum sunt pascua.
4. Pauperes pascua sunt divitum.

5. Pascua sunt pauperes divitum.
6. Divitum sunt pauperes pascua.
7. Divitum pauperes sunt pascua.
8. Pascua pauperes sunt divitum.

Now, keep in mind that this is a statement where the metaphorical level is already pretty high. Remember that the core sentence here is absolutely a metaphor: pascua sunt pauperes, "poor people are feeding grounds." That is a simple statement, but highly metaphorical. Metaphorical statements such as this already make some serious demands on your audience, and syntactic displacement also demands a high level of attentiveness from your audience. So, in order to avoid the extreme displacement of wrapping the predicate around the entire sentence, I would opt for a more limited displacement, wrapping the predicate around the verb.

Consider, then those remaining four possibilities:

1. Pascua sunt divitum pauperes.
2. Divitum sunt pascua pauperes.
3. Pauperes divitum sunt pascua.
4. Pauperes pascua sunt divitum.

As you can see, one of the main choices that you then have to make is whether you want to have the subject, pauperes, come first - or whether you want to save it for the end, as a dramatic surprise. That would be my preference, which leaves us with two possibilities:

1. Pascua sunt divitum pauperes.
2. Divitum sunt pascua pauperes.

Between these two options, the stylistic choice is then how you want to emphasize the paradoxical presence of two opposite words, rich and poor, divitum and pauperes, in the sentence. You can either put them in first and last position, as you see in possibility number two: Divitum sunt pascua pauperes. That is definitely a sentence with strong rhetorical force.

To my way of thinking, however, it is better to concentrate the force of the surprise at the end. You already have the surprise of pauperes at the end of the sentence, and you can heighten that sense of surprise by having the word divitum as the word immediately preceding pauperes.

That is the version of the saying we find in Sirach: Pascua sunt divitum pauperes. The sentence starts off innocuously, but also a bit mysteriously - something about feeding grounds. Then we find out these are the feeding grounds of the rich. Okay: but what is going on here exactly? We need to know more for the sentence to really make sense. And then - enter the poor. The poor are the feeding grounds of the rich, the very grass on which they feed, the food they consume. Those who are already richly fed are feeding on those without food to eat.

That is the paradox which the Latin word order drives home - and likewise in the Greek: νομαὶ πλουσίων πτωχοί.

So, with a bow to the author of this apocryphal wisdom book of the Bible - a book which is a joy to read, in Latin or English or Greek - here is today's verse read out loud:

160. Pascua sunt divitum pauperes.

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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