Friday, March 12, 2010

Hyperbaton Revisited

In my blog of September 15 of last year, I talked about hyperbaton, that trick that Latin poets love to play on the unsuspecting: jumbling up the sentence so that adjectives get separated from the nouns they modify and nouns from the nouns they go to.  Here is a well-known example of an adjective divorced from its noun:

magnā cum laude 
If we added puerī [of the boy],  school-book Latin would yield:

cum laude magnā puerī

But if we "hyperbated" the phrase, we might get:

puerī magnā cum laude.
Latin can do this fancy stuff because it is a highly inflected language. The gender of nouns and the different case endings tell the reader how to put the sentence back together after the poet has "destroyed" it for his own purposes. If you saw a phrase like:

magnī cum laude
you had better be looking for a noun to stick magnī  to, because it couldnʻt, per Hercule, go with laude, a feminine noun in the ablative case. 

There is, of course, another possibility. Maybe magnī doesnʻt go with any noun, but is a noun itself meaning "of the great one."

This "other" possibility has led me to realize something about hyperbaton. What if every noun and every adjective in Latin at some level in the Roman mind was a unit of meaning complete in itself? What if magnā didnʻt just mean 'great' but 'from the great feminine one'?  

It is hard to make sense of this in English because we no longer make adjectives agree in gender. Try French: de la grande

To a Frenchman, there is no need to look for a noun to stick grande to. In his mind 'grande' can either be an adjective or a noun. In other words, it is complete in itself, and for the Frenchman as well as for speakers of thousands of other languages, the distinction between adjectives and nouns is not so clear. Adjectives can be nouns. Unfortunately, this is not a feature of English.  We cannot say 'the big' and leave it at that. We have to add 'one,' making a clumsy ʻthe big one.' 

In lines 3 and 4 of yesterday's ode O DIVA GRATUM we find the adjective/noun superbōs [proud] being separated from its noun triumphōs [triumphal parade]:

superbos vertere funeribus triumphos

What if the Roman mind interpreted Horace in this way?

the proud-ones   to-turn   into-funerals   the-triumphal-parades

In other words, what if the Latin speaker wasnʻt as bothered by superbōs being suspended in midair as I am? To him superbōs could either stand alone or be attached to a noun. Then when he came to triumphōs, which agrees in gender, number, and case with superbōs, his mind automatically connected the two.

The endings in Latin make it possible to think of each word as a little bundle of meaning. These bundles can either stand alone or attach themselves to larger bundles, depending on the context. 

In lines 5 —6, we find pauper [poor] separated from colonus [tenant farmer] by four words:

te pauper ambit sollicita prece ruris colonus

This is an extreme case of hyperbaton and it offers a good example for English speakers of what must have gone through the Roman mind as he decoded Horaceʻs words:
you     the-pauper circles    with-the-solicited-one
So far so good. Everything makes sense. Now comes
Since with-the-prayer matches in case and gender with-the-solicited-one, they are merged yielding:

with-the-solicited prayer. 
Next comes: 
of-the-countryside   tenant-farmer 
The Roman interprets this easily as: 

the tenant farmer of the countryside.
Now the Roman does something extraordinary—to us English speakers. He realizes that he must decide whether pauper is a noun or an adjective. Since the sentence cannot have two subjects, he merges pauper with colonus and comes up with 'the poor tenant farmer.'

The dual nature of Latin adjectives—that they can be both adjectives and nouns—has been a revelation for me and lets me understand a bit more how and why hyperbaton works in Latin.

:: Latin books by James Rumford ::

For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetizedfor $11.50 at 

For a Latin translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at $12, click here: 

To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015; 
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.

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