Saturday, April 7, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Homicidium

This essay is my first attempt to rise to this challenge: is it possible to explain a two-line Latin poem to an audience who doesn't know Latin? By explain, I mean something more than translate. In fact, it is exactly because I find translation such a dissatisfying experience that I've decided to try this experiment. Let's see what happens!

[Quick note about reading out loud: there are no silent letters in Latin, and it is very phonetic, which means it is easy to pronounce. Just make sure you pronounce every consonant and every vowel; you can find out more about Latin pronunciation here: Introduction to Latin Pronunciation. The word stress is either on the second- or third-syllable from the end, so for the words that are three syllables or longer, I've marked the stress with an accent mark. For words that are two syllables long, the stress has to go on the first syllable.]

I thought I'd start with one of the two-line Latin poems of John Owen, a Renaissance Latin poet who was born in Wales around 1564. His two-line Latin poems ("distichs") are usually based on some kind of paradox or sharp contrast between the first and second line.

Owen almost always gives his poems titles, and the title of this poem is HOMICÍDIUM. This is the Latin word that gives us the word homicide and it means man-slaughter, from the Latin noun homo, meaning person, man, and the Latin verb caédere, meaning chop, cut to pieces, murder.

Here is the poem:

Unus homo per se ipse potest occídere mille;
Unum hóminem possunt vix generáre duo.

Let's read through it phrase by phrase!

Unus homo. This means one person or one man (using man in the generic sense; the Latin word for man as opposed to woman is vir). The phrase unus homo is in what is called the nominative case, so we know it is going to be the subject of the verb in the sentence.

per se. You might know this as a Latin phrase used it English! It means by means of itself, on its own. But here we are not dealing with an it, but instead with a homo, a person. I'll opt for he as the neutral pronoun in English (apologies to those of you who feel strongly about that): on his own.

ipse. This is a tricky little word in Latin - ipse is a word that adds emphasis and intensity, and just how you translate it into English depends on the context. Here it emphasizes the homo, meaning he himself or that very one.

So, we've got the subject of the sentence: Unus homo per se ipse - One man, on his own, yes, just one man!

Now for the verb:

potest occídere
. This means can kill, is able to kill. The verb occídere, meaning to kill, is a compound verb: ob+caédere (you saw caédere as a root in the title, homicídium). The prefix ob- adds the idea of confrontation, so this means to kill in a particularly aggressive sense (think of English words like obstruction, obstacle, etc.).

So, we have: Unus homo per se ipse potest occídere - One man, on his own - yes, just one man! - can kill. That would be a complete statement on its own, but we might want an object. Owen gives us one in the last word of the line:

mille. This means a thousand, as in English compounds such as millimeter, millennium, etc. Here it would mean a thousand (men), a thousand (people).

That's the first line: Unus homo per se ipse potest occídere mille - One man, on his own - yes, just one man! - can kill a thousand (men).

Owen loves paradox so much that we have a paradox already in the first line of the poem in the numbers that start and end the line: Unus ... mille. You might think that one man should be able to kill just one man, but no - in the terrible economy of murder, one man can kill a thousand men. Worse, as we have learned in modern times, one man can kill a million men. Or more.

Now we can do the second line:

Unum hóminem. The second line starts off with the same words as the first line, but in a different case: unum hóminem means one man (just like unus homo), but this time it is in accusative case. The accusative case most often indicates the object of a verb. There's no way, unfortunately, to reflect that difference in the English (although consider the difference between our words he, nominative, and him, accusative). Thanks to the case system of Latin, we know that one man is going to be the object of the verb this time, instead of the subject.

possunt. We also have the same verb as in the first line: can, be able. In the first line the form was potest, third-person singular. This form, possunt, is the third-person plural form: they can, they are able. So, we have a plural subject for the verb this time, but we do not know who the subject is yet. We also need an infinitive complement for this verb: they can do something.. but what?

vix. This is a Latin adverb, meaning hardly, barely, scarcely. So, before we get the infinitive, we get a little adverbial information: they can barely do ... something. But what? We are still waiting to find out.

generáre. This is the infinitive we were waiting for: to generate, to procreate, to give birth to.

We don't have our subject yet, but we have everything else - the verb, the object, and an adverb, too: Unum hóminem possunt vix generáre - They can scarcely give birth to one man.

Can you guess who the subject will be? Just remember the elegant little paradox of the first line: Unus... mille, where Owen used numbers to wrap the line. That's what he is going to do here again:

duo. That is our subject: two, meaning two people.

So here's the second line:

Unum hóminem possunt vix generáre duo. Two people can barely generate one (person).

Just as in the first line, Owen has framed the line with numbers, again paradoxically: Unum...duo - Two people can barely manage to produce a single person.

So, it's a paradox, doubled. By means of murder, one man can manage to put a thousand people to death (first paradox), but two people together can barely manage to bring one to life (second paradox).

There you have it, Owen's poem! Now see what you think looking at the Latin again:

Unus homo per se ipse potest occídere mille;
Unum hóminem possunt vix generáre duo.

For an English verse translation, here is one by Thomas Harvey:

One man himself may kill a thousand men:
But two can scarce beget one man agen.

For more of Owen's poems in Latn, you can visit the Owen stream in my Latin distichs blog. Here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays (this is just the first one), you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. I've added a second essay about an ostrich: Cursu Praetervehor Omnes.


  1. Knowing absolutely nothing about Latin I found this thoroughly enjoying. Thank you. And yes, it was no translation, it was opening (giving access to) a poem, a clever poem, and a clever way of bringing it to a reader with no knowledge of Latin. Thanx.

  2. I will use this in my Latin classes and would love to have these in other languages. I think I'll make some up for languages I am OK in and some I am studying. Very fun. Congratulations on doing something others only think about.

  3. Thank you, Hans - I am so glad you found it useful! Translation drives me crazy but this was fun to write so if it is fun/useful for readers, I am even more happy.

    Pat, I miss you! I barely ever go to LatinTeach anymore... but yes, what got me thinking about this was actually the way my Sanskrit teacher used to teach subhashita, which are the amazing little proverbial poems of the Sanskrit tradition. If you do anything like this for your languages, LET ME KNOW absolutely. I would really enjoy the experience of being on the receiving end for a language I don't know but crave to know!!! :-)

  4. Thank you! I am self-taught in Latin, and not very far along. I teach others now who are much further behind me. I attempt to use this method in every class to go through at least one sentence at their level, but I'm so inexperienced that it's sometimes a stretch. And, sometimes I just give up and we translate. But, reading in order is my goal.

    Would it be okay if I lifted this in its entirety, listing you as a source, and used it in my Latin class? At least until I develop some confidence with this technique?


  5. Oh Nadine, yes, of course - that is my whole goal! I am really glad if this can be useful. I am happily surprised by the positive reactions I am getting to these essays from all folks with different levels of Latin so I think I will try to write many more of these essays over the summer. If you have feedback after using them with your students, definitely let me know. My goal is to have fun writing them (that's easy - it's a lot of fun for me to write them) and also for them to be useful. Dulce et utile! :-)

  6. First of all, thank you very much. I'm a foreign-speaker of English, but I could understand the Latin verses well (the only word I didn't know was vix).

    But in the English translation, what does "agen" stand for in the last line? I don't know its meaning.
    Thank you.

  7. Ah, that is just the craziness of English spelling, which was still very very very chaotic in Thomas Harvey's day - that is the word we spell as "again" but Harvey spelled it there as "agen" (rhyming it with men). You can see it listed as an "obsolete" variant on again here: Wiktionary: agen.


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