Thursday, June 7, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Nescio Quid Sit Amor

This is my thirty-seventh "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. Today I chose another poem for the love series; this time, love is a mysterious and dangerous force, quite unlike the conjugal sweetness we saw in yesterday's poem. The poem comes from the rhyming distichs collected by Wegeler, and this time it features line-end rhyme, which is also so popular with English poets:

Néscio quid sit amor: nec amo, nec amor, nec amávi,
Sed scio, si quis amat, úritur igne gravi.

Here is how the poem works:

Néscio. This is from a wonderful Latin verb, nescíre, which means to not know (it is a compound ne-scire, not-know; the verb scire, to know, gives us the English word science). The form is first-person singular, néscio, I don't know.

quid. This is a form of the Latin interrogative pronoun quis, meaning who; quid is the neuter form, meaning what: néscio quid, I don't know what…

sit amor. The word sit is a form of the Latin verb esse, meaning to be (compare the English word essential), and we also have here the Latin word for love, amor (compare the English word amorous), which gives us the subject of the verb sit. That results in a complete statement: néscio quid sit amor, I don't know what love is.

nec amo. Here we have the Latin verb amare, to love, in the first-person singular form: amo, I love. The word nec negates the verb: nec amo, I do not love.

nec amor. Here we have a different form of the verb, the first-person passive: amor, I am loved. Again, the verb is negated: nec amor, I am not loved. When used in a series, necnec… means something like the English neither…nor…: nec amo, nec amor, I neither love, nor am loved. (Note also the play on words: the noun amor, love, and the passive verb amor, I am loved, are written the same way; like English, Latin abounds in homographs.) 

nec amávi. Here we have yet another form of the verb, first-person perfect: amávi, I have loved. Again, the verb is negated: nec amávi, I have not loved. So, we can put all three statements together: nec amo, nec amor, nec amávi, I neither love, nor am loved, nor have loved.

That gives us our first line, which serves as a kind of crash-course in the forms of the Latin verb amare, to love! Now let's see what the second line brings:

Sed. This Latin word means but.

scio. Here we have the verb scire, to know, in the first-person form: scio, I know. The first line was about not knowing, néscio, but now we will get an affirmative statement: scio, I know.

si. This Latin word means if.

quis. This is the Latin relative pronoun, meaning who. When combined with si, the pronoun quis has a hypothetical quality: if somebody, if anybody.

amat. Here we have another form of the verb amare, this time in third-person: si quis amat, if anybody loves, if anybody is in love. 

úritur. This is from the Latin verb urere, to burn (from the participle of a compounded form of this verb, we get the English word combustion). The form is third-person singular, passive: úritur, he is burned. So, that is what happens to the lover: scio, I know that, si quis amat, if someone is in love, úritur, he gets burned.

igne. This is from the Latin noun ignis, meaning fire (compare the English word ignite). The form is ablative, meaning by fire, with a fire. So, the lover gets burned by a fire, úritur igne.

gravi. This is from the Latin adjective gravis, meaning heavy, weighty, serious, great (compare the English word gravity). The form is ablative, agreeing with igne, fire. So, the lover is burned not just by any fire, but by a serious fire: úritur igne gravi.

Put it all together, and you have to feel sorry for the poet who does not know love - but you also have to feel sorry for the lover, too, burned by the fire of love as he is!

Néscio quid sit amor: nec amo, nec amor, nec amávi,
Sed scio, si quis amat, úritur igne gravi.

For more of these medieval rhyming poems in Latin collected by Wegeler, you can visit the Wegeler stream in my Latin distichs blog, and here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next essay is about Jupiter and love: Iupiter.