Inexactness in Latin

Symposion

Member
One thing that has started to iritate me a bit in Latin is how inexact it actually can be. For exampel verbs can have many different meanings. Another example is this short sentence:

Livia examplum matronae Romanae praebuit.

This sentence can mean either of these two translations into English:

Livia showd example of a Roman married woman. (Singular genetive)

Livia showed example to a Roman married woman. (Singular dative)

How can one know wich of these two the author has originally intended?

Irritating! :mad:
 

socratidion

Civis Illustris
Every language has its own ambiguities -- and language is fundamentally ambiguous anyway. The key is, that you usually know the sort of thing that anyone is likely to say before they say it, so your brain automatically filters out the meanings that are technically possible but highly unlikely, and homes in on the intended ones. It's not a perfect system, which is why people sometimes misunderstand each other, especially if they don't have much in common culturally. But it works most of the time.

That is true of Latin as much as anything else. The meaning of this sentence comes not just from the inexact words used to express it, but from the longer passage in which it occurs, and also from the wider cultural context, and your experience of reading other similar things, so that you already know which meanings are probable, and which you can filter out.

If this sentence comes from a teaching textbook, you won't have the context of a longer passage, so there will be ambiguity (but you'll have some clues about the agenda of the author). Even so, despite lacking any kind of context, I might ask: if Livia showed and example to a Roman married woman, which Roman married woman was that? And what would be the point of showing an example, if it wasn't an example of something in particular? On the face of it, it's more likely that matronae is genitive...
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
For exampel verbs can have many different meanings.
That was also something I was finding hard until not so long ago. The many meanings one word could have. But now as I have aquired a little more experience in reading, it's getting much easier, because as you become able to read more fluently, and you become more familiar with the different ways in which words are used, then your mind gets used to discern what meaning is fitting in what context, and it's even often quite obvious. That is just a question of time and exercise. What Socratidion said:
Every language has its own ambiguities -- and language is fundamentally ambiguous anyway. The key is, that you usually know the sort of thing that anyone is likely to say before they say it, so your brain automatically filters out the meanings that are technically possible but highly unlikely, and homes in on the intended ones. It's not a perfect system, which is why people sometimes misunderstand each other, especially if they don't have much in common culturally. But it works most of the time.
Is a thing we all do every day in our own language without even realizing it. Now it is more difficult to operate it with a language we're not yet completely at ease with, because as we're going to analyse and parse everything bit by bit, as maybe several words will be unclear for us in the passage, it will be harder to put everything together. But if you persevere a little, that state of affairs won't last eternally!
 

Matthaeus

Vemortuicida strenuus
I can say one thing: repetitio mater studiorum est!
 

Iohannes Aurum

Technicus Auxiliarius
There is the Latin phrase Malo malo malo malo.
 

Matthaeus

Vemortuicida strenuus
lol
What does that have to do with anything here?
 

socratidion

Civis Illustris
I guess it's a Latin sentence that exploits the ambiguity of a single word.
BTW does it really work? I understand that it's supposed to mean more or less "I'd rather be an apple tree than a naughty boy in adversity", but the grammar is stretched to breaking point. It's not exactly 'Latin', is it?
 

Iohannes Aurum

Technicus Auxiliarius
I mentioned the "Malo malo malo malo" sentence to discuss how one word can have four meanings in Latin, which emphasizes the inexactness of the language.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
The only "meaning" I'm able to think about for it is an ablative absolute saying something like:

The bad apple being a bad apple
The bad apple being the bad evil
The apple being evil, evil being an apple
...

Lol.
 

socratidion

Civis Illustris
malo = I prefer
malo abl. s. from malum = apple (ablative of place?)
malo abl. s. masc. of malus = bad man (ablative of comparison)
malo abl. s. neut. of malus = trouble (abl. of, er, something)

Hence, I prefer to be in an apple than a bad man in trouble. But, well, hardly.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
It can't mean that, that's just impossible of course. It would have to be in malo malo esse quam malus in malo. (If in malo can be said for "to be in trouble". Can it...?).
 

Imber Ranae

Ranunculus Iracundus
malo = I prefer
malo abl. s. from malum = apple (ablative of place?)
malo abl. s. masc. of malus = bad man (ablative of comparison)
malo abl. s. neut. of malus = trouble (abl. of, er, something)

Hence, I prefer to be in an apple than a bad man in trouble. But, well, hardly.
I think rather that it's mālus f. "apple tree", rather than mālum n. "apple".

But yeah, it's like that stupid "buffalo buffalo buffalo...buffalo" sentence in English. It wouldn't actually mean anything if spoken to a native speaker, but it's technically permitted by the language's syntax (though I'm not sure that's even quite true of the Latin example).
 

Imber Ranae

Ranunculus Iracundus
It can't mean that, that's just impossible of course. It would have to be in malo malo esse quam malus in malo. (If in malo can be said for "to be in trouble". Can it...?).
Not sure about in malō meaning "in trouble"*, but a locative ablative mālō for "in an apple tree" would surely be permissible in poetry. The bigger problem is with the ablative of comparison: though it is found with the verb mālle in poetry and post-Augustan prose, I very much doubt it can be used when the comparison is between an adverbial element like a prepositional phrase (which the locative ablative is equivalent to) and a plain noun (substantive adjective in this case). A locative ablative directly modifying a noun without a participle is hardly usual, either.
What does it mean?
I've never tried to really figure it out myself. You can read about it here if you care to make sense of it.



*We do have Concesseras enim nullo in malo mortuos esse "For you had conceded that the dead are not in any bad condition" in Cicero [Tusculan Disputations 1.46].
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
It's actually a mnemonic verse , used by Benjamin Britten , among others, in his opera The Turn of the Screw.
His take on it (for all it's worth)

Malo: I would rather be

Malo: In an apple tree

Malo: Than a naughty boy

Malo: In trouble.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
though it is found with the verb mālle in poetry and post-Augustan prose, I very much doubt it can be used when the comparison is between an adverbial element like a prepositional phrase
Clearly, I'm quite sure it can't. And even without the preposition, malo esse (or any other verb) X quam (esse (or other v.)) Y, Y can't just be an ablative. It just doesn't make sense. It's quite different from saying malo mala piris.
I've never tried to really figure it out myself. You can read about it here if you care to make sense of it.
This one is nice too (but personally I find it less intricate than the buffalo one): "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher".
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Clearly, I'm quite sure it can't. And even without the preposition, malo esse (or any other verb) X quam (esse (or other v.)) Y, Y can't just be an ablative.
I have found one example with a verb: nullos his mallem ludos spectasse (Hor.s.2.8.79). But still not sure it can do for malo esse X quam esse Y.
 
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