On inanimate objects as subjects

By aegor, in 'Latin Grammar Questions', Nov 10, 2017.

  1. aegor magister

    • Civis Illustris
    From Caesar: remorum motu...permoti (B.G. IV.25)

    The question of whether remorum is subjective or objective raised for me the larger question of when it is possible for inanimate objects to act as subjects. In other words, is it possible for the oars to move or only be moved? English obviously permits both. Lewis and Short states the former is very rare, which is not surprising.

    Can this be generalized (obviously excepting personification)? Are there good examples of verbs in Latin that can act transitively or intransitively with the direct object becoming the subject (while the verb remains active)?
    Last edited by aegor, Nov 10, 2017
  2. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    This isn't directly linked to whether the subject is animate or inanimate, but while a few verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, it isn't the case with most (or some transitive verbs occur a few times as intransitive, but it's the exception rather than the rule). You should perhaps have a look at "6. Passive in Middle Sense" here.
    Last edited by Pacifica, Nov 10, 2017
  3. aegor magister

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    Thanks Pacifica -- that is exactly what I was looking for.

    In the case of remorum motu, it seems then that remorum is an objective genitive, since the oars cannot move themselves.
  4. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    It actually looks subjective to me.
  5. AoM Rosa Caerula

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    There's this bit from the Aeneid:

    terno consurgunt ordine remi (V.120)

    Or are you looking for something with a direct object?
  6. aegor magister

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    Could you elaborate? To me, its being a subjective genitive would entail the existence of the clause remi movent, but your thorough post on the passive clearly established that such a sentence would not exist in standard Latin.
  7. aegor magister

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    I was looking for a verb that could either be transitive or be intransitive with the otherwise direct object being the subject. In other words:

    "The sailors moved the oars."
    "The oars moved."

    Something like that, but in Latin. As far as I am aware, consurgere does not typically take a direct object regardless of what the subject is because it does not refer to action done.
  8. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    Or remi moventur.
  9. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    Actually, motus more often means the fact of moving (intransitively, moveri) than that of moving something (movere). That's (at least partly) why the subjective-genitive interpretation feels more natural to me.
    Last edited by Pacifica, Nov 10, 2017
  10. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    Well, there are rare instances of moveo used intransitively. So remi movebant isn't an impossible sentence, but it's a rarity.

    "The oars moved" would more usually be remi movebantur.

    It's just English and Latin working differently.

    I guess you can say the following: both Latin and English have only two distinct voices: active and passive. While English chose generally to express the meaning of the middle voice with the active, Latin chose generally to express it with the passive.
  11. aegor magister

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    Are you taking moventur as a true passive here or a sort of middle? Because the subjective/objective distinction requires a uniform standard, which is generally an active verb.

    In which case an argument could also be made for possession, I would think.
  12. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    Middle.
    I'm not sure I understand what you mean here.
    I suppose you could say that the motion belongs to the oars, yes, but it remains an action by the oars, so to my mind that's still also a subjective genitive. In the end, though, it doesn't matter much which you choose to call it, as long as we all get what it means ("the motion of the oars").
  13. aegor magister

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    I guess I am wondering, then, whether the idea of the middle is predominant/salient enough in a clause like remi moventur that Roman speakers would have treated remi as actually being able to serve as the object of a non-passive verb (or was it interpreted as merely a subject of a passive verb with some unexpressed agent?).
  14. Wilahelmaz Member

    On this I ask: what sense are we to make of these constructions:

    Littera postest legi.
    "The letter can be read."

    ?

    How can some inanimate letter anything?
  15. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    I'm not sure what to respond to that. The question looks almost philosophical rather than grammatical. Litterae possunt legi in the same way as a letter can be read in English.

    (A letter as in an epistle is normally plural litterae, while the singular littera is a letter as in a character like A, B, C, etc.)
  16. Wilahelmaz Member

    Gratias tibi, Pacifica.

    Would not "posse"/"can" be proper of animation?...

    Would it not be better/more accurate to say "Possumus litteras legere."/"We can read a letter"?...
  17. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    No.
  18. Wilahelmaz Member

  19. Pacifica grammaticissima

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    I don't know why, but it's just a fact that in many languages (maybe all, but I don't know since I of course don't know all languages), including Latin and English, you can say that an inanimate object "can" something. Actually, you seem to want to limit the meaning of posse to that of an active abiltity/skill, but its meaning, just like that of "can" in English, is much broader than that, and includes that of a possibility of having this or that done to oneself and such.
    Matthaeus likes this.
  20. Wilahelmaz Member

    I ponder these matters...do not be bothered by my inquiries...

    But, when "can" is in truth "to know (how)", then when would something inanimate know anything? Of course, when this was forgotten, then divagation followed... But still in common use, if one letter cannot do anything, as it is inanimate, how can it be read?... Rather we can read letters... we know how to read letters....

    And I believe we see more animate subjects being "potis"/ "potens", than inanimate...

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