or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Latin Rights

There aren't a whole lot of Latin words and phrases in common usage these days: this page lists 273, but I think most of them strain the sense of the word "common", since the list contains such things as "ad eundem gradum" and "gaudeamus igitur", which, I think it is fair to say, most people are unlikely to encounter in a lifetime. This page seems a little more on the mark: not necessarily things people will use over the dinner table, but things they might encounter occasionally, such as "in extremis" and "quod erat demonstrandum".

The fact is that most of us--myself included--have no daily contact with unadulterated Latin. A century ago, many Latin phrases were in the vocabulary of every educated person; but since it's no longer taught in most schools, it's vanishing from everyday life. This isn't necessarily a tragedy (though I wish I had been taught it in school, when I was still capable of learning language easily), but it's a shame.

This appeared on the front page of Slate.com yesterday (though I saw it only today):

and this appeared on the page itself:

Now, one of them has to be wrong. They could both be wrong, but as it turns out, one of them is right, and it's the headline for the article itself: whoever does up the front page typed in a Latin phrase, one that's still in relatively common currency, and got it wrong.

"Ad nauseum" is probably the more common of the spellings, but it's a mistake. It's an understandable one: "-um" is a very common ending in Latin, and we see it all the time in the word "museum", which resembles the incorrect "nauseum" very strongly.

However, "ad nauseam" is correct, and wouldn't you like to know why? (You may skip the next four paragraphs if you know what grammatical case is.)

In grammar, "case" refers to the function of a noun (or a pronoun). English doesn't really have cases, for reasons that I'll get to in a minute, but our nouns and pronouns can still be expressed as being in one of three cases. The subjective case, as its name suggests, refers to the subject of the sentence; let's say "the dog". (This is what's also referred to as the nominative case, because it names something.) Then we have a verb (" is eating"), and then the object--the thing that the subject is acting on by way of the verb ("a salami")--which is in the objective case, logically enough (also known as the accusative case). The third case is the possessive (also known as the genitive); "Mrs. Braunstein's begonias".

English, in fact, is what's called an SVO language, for subject-verb-object. Unless we're deliberately constructing something in the passive voice ("A salami is being eaten by the dog"), our sentences are going to have the subject appearing before the object; this is how we tell them apart. Word order is therefore crucial in English, and since word order tells you the relationship of one word to another, we don't need cases--or, more accurately, we don't need any other way of exhibiting cases.

Many other languages, however, put endings on the words to show which case they're in, and this gives them a freedom that English doesn't have: you may mix up your word order (within reason) and still know which noun is the subject and which is the object, because the endings tell you so. To use the most obvious, famous example, in English "dog bites man" and "man bites dog" are dramatically different sentences, but in Latin, you could put either "dog" or "man" first and have the sentences mean the same thing, as long as the endings are correct, since it's the endings that tell you which is the actor and which is being acted upon. "Canem vir mordet": "man bites dog". "Canis virum mordet": "dog bites man". Even if you put the words in either sentence in some other order, and you can, you'll know what the sentence means, because those endings--which change according to case and gender--tell you who's who.

German has four cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive, as English sort of does, but also dative, which indicates the indirect object: in the sentence "I gave my love a chicken", "my love" would be in the dative case, since it's neither the subject ("I") nor the object ("a chicken"), but a third thing, the noun or pronoun that receives the direct object in some way. Again, in English, we indicate the indirect object by its relationship to the other words in the sentence rather than by using a visible case ending. (We could accomplish the same thing with a preposition: "I gave a chicken to my love".)

In German, different prepositions take different cases; there are historical reasons for this, but the real reason is, "They just do, that's all." For example, "durch", "through", always takes the accusative case, while "während", "during", always takes the genitive case. This sort of thing is also true in Latin. "Ad", meaning "to" (because "ad nauseam" means "to the point of nausea"), takes the accusative case, and the accusative form of the feminine noun "nausea" is "nauseam". Not "nauseum".

Having said that, I think "ad nauseum" is well on its way to becoming de facto correct. In a generation or two, when people are even further divorced from everyday Latin than they are now, "ad nauseum" will simply be the way the phrase is written, by nearly everybody who uses it, and only a few dusty old relics will even care that it used to be something other than what it is. (You could probably argue that that is where we are right now.) That's the way of language: it changes all the time. Old meanings eclipse new, mistakes supersede their originally correct forbears, and life, somehow, goes on.


Anonymous joe805 said...

Insofar as I get "peeved" much anymore (I don't), "ad nauseum" is one of my pet peeves. I wasn't sure how I felt about your prediction that "nauseum" would become the de facto spelling eventually, but then I Googled both versions and found that "nauseum" had 1,090,000 hits and "nauseam" only 665,000, so you may very well be correct.

I harbor my own belief that "your" (instead of "you're") will become standardized eventually. I base this on the fact that "your" is already so common in informal writing. I don't have particular outrage at this possible change; to me it's just a very tangible, present-day example of language change -- something I don't think we sense very often because change is usually such a slow creep.

Monday, January 14, 2008 5:21:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

We all have our own personal fuses. I can stomach "irregardless", though it still makes me wince a little, but I will never, ever be able to countenance the swapping of "you're" and "your" in either direction. Ever!

"Ad nauseum" doesn't really bother me much; I don't like it, but there it is (probably because of--and this only just occurred to me--"ad infinitum"). If we all had schooling in Latin and people still made that mistake, then it would probably infuriate me. You're right, though; language does change, and that's probably one obvious sign of it. If we could be around in five hundred years, we wouldn't recognize English--and we'd be crusty old fossils raging about the decomposition of the language.

Monday, January 14, 2008 7:25:00 PM  

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