Things It’s Best to Say in Latin


Latin sentences and sayings seem to be designed to be carved out of stone. This is a matter of their concision and weightiness. Because of its highly inflected grammatical structure, Latin uses far fewer words to express something that a non-inflected language such as English. Here are some of our favourite Latin sayings. “Veni, Vidi, Vici” Julius Caesar’s most famous remark, apparently made in Roman Senate in 47 BC and referring to his victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus at the battle of Zela is an example of Latin at its most concise. English takes twice as many words to convey the same meaning. The English translation doesn’t come close to matching the patent terseness, those alliterative V’s, those final long I’s of the original. “Requiescat In Pace” One of the most familiar of all Latin sayings is unusual in not being notably more terse than the English equivalent but, here the weightiness and the solemnity of Latin come to the fore. The big words have a sort of baroque splendour and strictly speaking, this is more succinct or conveys more meaning in the same number of words than the English equivalent because the Latin word, “Requiescat” is a subjunctive and represent a pious wish; “May he or she rest” – not a simple command. “Carpe Diem.” The famous saying from the eleventh poem of Horace’s first book of Odes is possible the best known Latin tag of all. It’s certainly the one which has inspired the naming of more restaurants and wine bars than any other. Why is it so memorable, and why does it work so well in Latin? For a start, it has the classical Latin succinctness which is two balanced syllables to convey a whole world of meaning, even an entire philosophy – in this case, the philosophy of epicureanism. There is also the weightiness, especially in the second word. A Latin ‘dies’ is more significant than a mere English ‘day’. And finally, this poet saying has a marvelous poetic ambiguity and richness as the word ‘Carpe’ can mean so many different things from seize to pluck. “Homo Sum: Humani Nil Ame Alienum Puto.” This saying from the early Roman comedian, Terence, is genius for plain eloquence. The English version is 50% longer in terms of words and nothing like as memorable, especially when it comes to word order. The ability to manipulate word order is a great advantage that Latin gains from its grammatical inflections. The way nouns and adjectives incorporate their own cases and verbs include person, mood and tense within a single word, Here, being able to hold back the verb to the end of the sentence enables Terence to juxtapose the ‘Homo Sum’ with the ‘Humani Nil’. ‘Parturient Montes, Nascetur Ridiculus Mus.’ Here, from Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’, his hugely influential treatise on how to write, is a lovely example of Latin being playful, as it were, using its own weightiness against itself. Latin is able to enact the process by huge effort, the mountains going into labour, produces a laughably puny result – the birth of a miniscule, unimpressive rodent. ‘Capax Imperii, Nisi Imperasset.’ The master of the witheringly terse, put down in Latin or maybe in all languages, is the Roman historian, Tacitus. This marvellous foreworder refers to the emperor Galba but could be seen as an equally fitting epitaph on at least one recent British prime minister. Here, both succintness, enabled by grammar and the unique Latin weightiness find a perfect expression. ‘Caelum Non Animum Mutant, Qui Trans Mare Currunt.’ Another Horacian gem, this time from his first book of Epistles depends once again for its memorable force on the genius of Latin grammar. The way the accusative tense is signalled in the final Um’s of ‘Caelum’ and ‘Animum’ so that the contrast between the climate or the colour of the sky, ‘Caelum’, which the traveller can change, and her state of mind, ‘Animum’, which the traveller can’t alter so easily is pointed out with the maximum impact. Latin, more than any other tongue, is the language in which things are not just said, but stay said. The tight grammatical structure of the language helps give Latin sayings a massive architectural grandeur. The verbal equivalent of a colosseum, the pantheon or the Pont du Gard like those great edifices, they’re built to stand the test of time.

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