Volō, Nōlō, Mālō, Numbers, Nouns of Limited Form and Variable Meaning

Learning numbers is important: Caesar XL barbaros videt does not mean “Caesar sees the very large barbarians”.

The normal Greek equivalent to unus, una, unum is the rather different ες, μία, ν (heis, mia, hen), but in the dialect spoken in Ionia (Western Turkey) the term for the face of a die with a single dot is ονη (oine = una) or ονος (oinos = unus).

Laboring under such handicaps as the lack of a specific term for zero or a million, the Latin numbering system will perhaps strike the modern reader as rather cumbersome. It may be worth observing, therefore, that few surviving Latin texts require a detailed knowledge of Roman mathematics. (Vitruvius’ De Architectura is a salient exception.) Fractions are rarely found outside specialist texts, and will not be discussed in this course. Slaves who were specially trained to calculate compound interest deserve particular admiration.

The reckoning of the year in relation to the birth of Jesus Christ (i.e. Anno Domini “In the Year of our Lord”) was first introduced in AD 525 by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (“Tiny Denis”); in devising this system, he was the first person in the Roman world known to use the number zero, which was introduced via Arab scholarship from India. The symbol 0 for zero is commonly supposed to be derived from (omicron), the first letter of the Greek word for “nothing” (οδέν [ouden]). The French astronomer and priest Denis Pétau devised the use of BC dating in his De doctrina temporum of 1627. It is a pity that he did not use the other Denis’ zero; interposing a year between BC and AD would have avoided the problem of calculating the actual date of the millennium.

Latin has no word for “million”, which is in fact derived from mille + the Romance augmentative suffix -one, i.e. “a large thousand”. Latin uses the periphrasis decies centena milia, i.e. “ten times one hundred thousand”.

“One and one, two; two and two, four [unum et unum duo, duo et duo quattuor] was a loathsome chant to me” (St. Augustine, Confessions 1.13.22, in one of his many outbursts of disgust at his schooldays). [The symbols + and -, abbreviations respectively for et and perhaps m(inus), were introduced in the late 15th or early 16th century, whereas the symbol =, with its parallel lines, was devised in 1557 by Robert Recorde, a Welsh mathematician, “bicause noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle”.]

The genitive and dative singular forms of unus, -a, -um, in -ius and -i, may initially seem rather surprising, but they occur also in many pronouns and some other adjectives (see Chapters 13, 17, and 18).

Despite the seeming illogicality, unus is occasionally found in the plural, declining like the plural of carus. It is used in the plural to refer to something as a set (e.g. unae manus “one pair of hands”) and with nouns which have a plural form but singular sense (e.g. una castra “one camp”). In English, “ones” can be used as a noun or pronoun: e.g. “Bay horses are more handsome than gray ones”. Spanish and Portuguese use the plural of uno to mean “several”; cf. also Italian alcuni and French quelques-uns.

Latin once had three grammatical numbers, the singular, the dual, which referred to two people or things, and the plural, which referred to three or more people or things. There were dual inflections for all parts of speech which retained singular and plural inflections; “the two little pigs were happy” will have had dual endings for “little”, “pigs”, “were” and “happy”, and they will all have been distinct from those used for the plural. “Two” might have been omitted altogether, since the dual forms of the other words will have given a clear indication of the number of pigs. The ending -o in duo and ambo “both” (which declines like duo) is almost the only vestige in Latin of this IndoEuropean dual number. (The neuter plural nominative, vocative and accusative forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives almost universally end in -a. Since duo and ambo are really duals, they are not true exceptions to this rule.)

The abandonment of the dual can be seen in other languages: in Old Irish, it is only found in company with the word dau (“two”) to mark it, and, although it survived quite strongly in classical Greek, it did so mostly in fossilized expressions. Even in Sanskrit, morphologically the richest IndoEuropean language, dual forms are not well marked, the same forms being used for several cases. It is found now only in Icelandic, the Slavic languages Slovenian and Wendish (Sorbian), and some dialects of Lithuanian. Arabic, and Hebrew to a lesser extent, use the dual. The English word “both” and its German equivalent “beide” come from the same root as ambo.

The Romans were convinced that Latin was more closely akin to Greek than it actually is. They were therefore puzzled that Latin showed no trace of the dual, even though remnants of it were so prominent in Greek. Quintilian felt the need to argue against the quite implausible view that such third person plural perfect indicative active verb-forms as scripsere and legere (for scripserunt and legerunt; see the Fetutinae on Alternative Word-Forms) are actually dual forms (Education of the Orator 1.4.42).

It may seem strange to us that there should be a dual as well as a singular and a plural, since we think of two as so obviously a plural. To a Greek mathematician, however, it might seem otherwise, if one thinks of the dual as “having properties of both singular and plural simultaneously” (Ps.-Iamblichus The Theology of Arithmetic 10).

secundus means second of many (e.g. “February is the second month of the year”), whereas alter means second of only two (e.g. “If day is first, night is second”). alter has a slightly irregular declension; see Chapter 13.

The stem of viginti, triginta etc. indicates a now lost word for “ten”, just as, more obviously, the stem of ducenti, trecenti etc. is centum. St. Isidore (Etymologies 3.3) suggests that “twenty (viginti) is ten twice born, with the letter v used instead of b” (viginti dicti quod sint decem bis geniti, v pro b littera posita).

To refer to 18 and 19 as duodeviginti “two from twenty” and undeviginti “one from twenty” respectively may reflect an Etruscan counting-pattern.

Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine may be written not only as viginti unus, nonaginta novem etc., but also as unus et viginti, novem et nonaginta etc.; compare the old-fashioned “one and twenty”, “nine and ninety” and the German einundzwanzig, neunundneunzig. It has been calculated that Livy puts the single digit before the multiple of ten 283 times (always with et vel sim.; e.g. septem et viginti), after it 147 times (usually without et vel sim.; e.g. viginti septem). It is perhaps slightly preferable to give the lower number first in a sentence such as unum et viginti porcos video “I see twenty-one pigs”, thus distracting emphasis from the only partial agreement of unum with porcos. There was, however, a certain fluidity in the formulation of compound numbers: viginti et unum porcum video, odd as it may seem, would also be permissible.

It is not possible to use centum, an indeclinable adjective, as a noun to say “I see many hundreds of pigs”. Depending on the context, however, both centum and mille can be used as adjectives to denote an indefinite large number; hence centum porcos video (with no word for “many”) can mean “I see hundreds of pigs”.

Specific high numbers, other than exact hundreds and thousands, were not generally used as frequently as we might expect. (It seems remarkable that Livy, in his surviving corpus of just over half a million words, should have a mere 430 instances of compound numbers written out in words; see above.) It is perfectly possible to say “The wolves eat four hundred and fifty seven thousand eight hundred and ninety three pigs”, but a Roman would more probably write multos/innumerabiles porcos devorant lupi.

“I give food to 2,200 pigs” is duobus milibus [sc. porcorum] et ducentis porcis cibum do, a somewhat unsatisfactory construction, since the substantival milibus requires the partitive genitive porcorum, whereas the adjective ducentis defines the dative noun porcis. For further discussion of the partitive use of the genitive, see Chapter 16.

“Cardinal” is derived from cardo, cardinis masc. 3 “hinge”, i.e. the principal numbers. “Ordinal” is derived, less interestingly, from ordo, ordinis masc. 3 “order”, “sequence”.

Most indeclinable adjectives are cardinal numbers. The opposing pair frugi “decent” and nequam “worthless” are the only other common adjectives which do not decline. (nequam does, however, have fully declining comparative and superlative forms, nequior and nequissimus; see Chapter 15.)

Since most cardinal numbers do not decline, it is therefore difficult to indicate their precise function in the syntax of a sentence: decem et octo sex triplo anteit would be indecipherable, and hence “Eighteen is three times six” is expressed as decem et octo numerus sex numerum triplo anteit “The number eighteen is triply in advance of the number six”.

Most distributive numbers higher than deni are rarely found.

Adverbs denoting “x times” are rarely found higher than decies.

When a French audience calls for an “encore” (Fr. “again”), they sometimes shout bis, with an irregularly old-fashioned sounding of the final s (contrast brébis, dis, fis, lis, pis, ris, vis).

Both the additive and the subtractive system were in use for letters signifying numbers; hence both IIII and IV meant 4.

88 is particularly cumbersome, requiring eight letters: LXXXVIII.

There is very little evidence for M used as an abbreviation for mille or milia before the 15th century.

nolle is constructed from ne + volo. For the negative prefix ne-, with a short e, a form which never stands as an independent word, cf. also e.g. nemo “no one” (ne + homo; see Chapter 13), neque “neither”, “nor”, nescio “I do not know” (ne + scio “know”; see Chapter 21), neuter “neither” (ne + uter; see Chapter 13), nullus “no”, numquam “never”. (non “not” is thought to have originated as ne + unum [see the Fetutinae on Alternative Word-Forms] = “not one thing”.) It is not to be confused with the interrogative suffix -ne, for which see Chapter 4, nor with the negative adverb/conjunction , for which see Chapter 22 etc.

Latin has no parallel to the modern English use of “swine” (cognate with “sow” and Germ. Schwein) which refers literally to pigs only as a zero plural (compare “one sheep, two sheep”, but the same form is used as a singular as a term of abuse.

liberi, liberorum masc. 2 “children” is related to liber, libera, liberum “free”, but it is not known precisely how. Donatus’ explanation, liberalitate regendi sunt, propter quod liberi dicuntur “Children are to be controlled in a liberal manner, and hence they are called liberi” (in his commentary on Terence’s Adelphi 57) looks distinctly half-hearted.

The plural of gratia is used most notably in the idiom gratias agere + dat. “to give (literally “drive”) thanks to someone”.

Unlike English, Latin always requires a plural verb when the subject is plural, even if the sense is singular; note the distinction between aedes magnae sunt (meaning “the house is big”) and “politics is a strange affair”.

When a plural form is used to refer to a single object (e.g. castra, castrorum neut. 2 means “camp”), it is not always possible to distinguish whether a singular or a plural sense is intended. Hence, castra Romana magna sunt means both “The Roman camp is big” and “Roman camps are big”; indeed, since castrum is also found in the singular, with a different sense, the intended meaning might be “The Roman forts are big”.

vis is an irregular noun. In the singular, it declines thus: vis, vis, vi, vim, vi (but the genitive and dative are very rare); the plural is regular, but is formed on a different stem from the singular: vires, virium, viribus, vires, viribus.


However improbable Nigidius Figulus’ discussion of the contrasting origins of first and second person pronouns may seem, it would seem that he is drawing on similar reasoning propounded by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus in his discussion of the origins of the corresponding Greek pronouns; see Galen, On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato 2.2.8ff. Since ancient etymologies often give insights into the way people thought about their world, they should always be given a degree of respect, even if their conclusions about particular words can be rather odd.

An example of poetic play with etymologising: Horace describes the Ides of April, the birthday of his patron, Maecenas, as Idus .../qui dies mensem Veneris marinae/findit Aprilem “the day which splits April, the month of marine Venus”. It is a compliment to Maecenas, who was descended from the Etruscan kings, that Horace should allude in the verb findit to the supposed derivation of Idus from an Etruscan word iduare, meaning “divide”, and, in describing Venus as marina, he is also hinting at the supposed derivation of Aprilis from Aphrodite, the goddess having been born from the foam (in Greek φρός [aphros]) of the sea.

Roma may actually be an Etruscan tribal name (i.e. non-IndoEuropean), but it was a useful coincidence for Roman propaganda that the Greek form of “Rome” (Ρώμη) was identical with a word meaning “physical power”. This point, noticed by the Greeks themselves already in the 2nd century BC, is made several times in Roman literature; for example, the Augustan elegist Tibullus says “Rome, your name is ordained by destiny for world-rule” (2.5.57).

The etymology of nox from nocere is possibly encouraged by the Greek euphemism for “night” εφρόνη (euphrone “the kindly minded [time]”), or indeed by the standard word for day, μέρα (hemera), which could be construed as the feminine form of the adjective μερος (hemeros “gentle”).