Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Deus cordis scrutator est verus

In English: God is a true examiner of the mind. (Wisdom 1:7)

In the previous three verses - stultorum infinitus est numerus; dignus est operarius cibo suo; and dominus est filius hominis etiam sabbati - there was a predicate phrase that wrapped around the entire sentence. In today's sentence, the subject comes in first position, Deus, but then the predicate phrase, cordis scrutator verus is wrapped around the verb. For English speakers, this is disconcerting, because we expect the word order to be Subject - Linking Verb - Predicate. In this Latin sentence, however, the word order is Subject - Predicate Part One - Linking Verb - Predicate Part Two.

The reason for choosing this kind of rhetorical presentation in Latin is to give a heightened emphasis to the portion of the predicate phrase that is reserved for the end. The sentence is going along just fine, and you might even think the sentence is over, but then - surprise! - there is a crucial piece of information which is tacked on at the very end, information that catches you by surprise because you did not expect it was coming.

Here's how that works. You start with Deus, a noun in the nominative case, so you know it is the subject of the sentence, or a predicate noun agreeing with the subject. As English speakers, we tend to assume that the subject comes first in the sentence, and in this instance at least we are not wrong in that assumption.

The next word, cordis, "heart" or "mind," is unambiguously in the genitive. It does not appear to go with the first word, so we are waiting for either a noun which needs this genitive as its complement, or for a verb which takes a genitive complement.

We get our wish with the next word, scrutator, "examiner" or "inspector." This is a word that very much wants to have a genitive complement: cordis scrutator, "an examiner of the mind." This could actually be a complete sentence already in Latin: Deus cordis scrutator, "God (is) an examiner of the mind." So, as we read on, we are already quite satisfied with what we have been told so far.

The next word, est, simply confirms what we have learned so far: Deus cordis scrutator est, "God is an examiner of the mind." That is a complete sentence, with a typical Latin word order pattern: Subject (Deus) - Predicate Phrase (cordis scrutator) - Verb (est). The sentence could very well stop here.

Yet there is another word at the end: verus. The predicate phrase, cordis scrutator turns out to be a more complete phrase, cordis scrutator verus, "a true examiner of the mind," which is wrapped around the innocuous linking verb est. It makes perfect sense to have wrapped the predicate phrase around the verb, since you want to reserve the first and last positions in any sentence or clause for the most important information. Putting the word verus in final position is much stronger rhetorically than having the more or less empty word est in final position.

It is possible to hint at this kind of word in English by using an incremental sentence structure that mimics the Latin: "God is an examiner of the mind, a true one." In English, we can put a noun phrase, "a true one," in apposition to the predicate, "an examiner of the mind." It is awkward and wordy in English, but that is the closest you can come to expressing the rhetorical force of the Latin word order, which is able to take the adjective verus from the predicate noun phrase and put it in the emphatic final position in the sentence. In Latin, this is easy to do because the word order is free and allows for precisely this kind of expression. In English, sadly, this power of expression is not readily available to us.

So, in honor of all the expressive possibilities of every language on the earth, both Latin and English and all the hundreds of other languages as well, here is today's verse read out loud:

124. Deus cordis scrutator est verus.

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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