Unus, solus, totus, ullus…

Un nouveau quiz sur Language Log: ré-écrire la devise des État-Unis, E pluribus unum … en latin.

There’s another quiz up at Language Log, this time set by Geoffrey Pullum.

The task is to rewrite the USA motto E pluribus unum (”out of many, one”, representing the union of the original 13 states) to signify the converse “out of one, many” — in Latin.

I’m a bit hesitant to offer my solution. The idea to be presented with Dan Brown novels as a prize is just too scary. But still, let’s not chicken out!

First step, e or ex? Well, ex is always fine, e only before consonants, I think, and the next word is a form of unus so it’s ex. And ex takes the ablative case, so it’s ex uno.

Now, how to transform pluribus? It could be in the accusative case here, the object of an elided verb (”Let’s make one[many] out of many[one]”). On the other hand, the nominative case would fit as well (”From the multitude[unity] springs unity[multitude]”). Not that it helps much, as for both the masculine/feminine form plures and the neuter plura, the nominative form is the same as the accusative.

So what gender do we choose? It depends on whether, in the original, unum is the attribute of something (a state, a nation), or if it refers to the abstract, unity, the condition of being one. I’d go for the latter, but we’re not finished, because I’m not sure that Latin would use the neuter plural plura to refer to the corresponding several-ness. In other words, I’d be asking plura/several what, and we are back to the missing noun. If that noun’s gender is neuter — or if the abstract can be used in the plural –, the solution is plura, otherwise it’s plures.

For the elided noun (if there is one), I come up with natio (feminine) or populus (masculine), or civitas (feminine). Neither fits with the neuter unum in the original motto.

Final submission:

  1. Ex uno plura (with the original neuter adjective)
  2. Ex uno plures [nationes]

P.S.: I’m surprised Geoffrey Pullum doesn’t mention the origin of the motto. It probably came from a sort of 18th century Reader’s Digest called Gentlemen’s Magazine, which was widely read by the elites. This is not a lofty classical quote.

P.P.S.: The title of this post refers to a mnemotechnic aid (Eselsbrücke in German, i.e. a bridge for donkeys) used by German learners of Latin to remember which adjectives/quantifiers take the ending -ius in the genitive case and ī in the dative case. It goes like this:

Unus, solus, totus, ullus,
uter, alter, neuter, nullus,
alius erfordern alle
ius in dem zweiten Falle,
und im dritten setze sie
stets mit einem langen i.

P.P.P.S.: I wonder if I should tell the amusing story about how I got my copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language…

2 comment(s) for 'Unus, solus, totus, ullus…'

  1. (Comment, 2005-07-07 23:03 )
    #1 — Paul Clapham

    My father studied Latin and so did both my children, but I am in the Lost Generation that didn’t. All the Latin I know I picked up on the street. Nevertheless as a mathematician I instinctively translated “a bridge for donkeys” as “Pons Asinorum”. This traditionally refers to a theorem from Euclid, as described here:


  2. (Comment, 2005-07-08 00:07 )

    congrats on your LL win, Chris!