27 December 2013

Magnus aeterni logotheta Verbi

Vatican II very sensibly suggested that the old Breviary collection could be enriched by rescuing other hymns from the treasury of the Western Church. Happily, a gorgeous composition by S Peter Damian (d1072) was found for the Festum of S John the Evangelist: Virginis virgo venerande custos, in the Sapphic metre (I wonder what the dear old girl would have made of it if she could have known how much Christian Latins would make enthusiastic use of her metrical innovation). The bad news: Dom Anselmo Lentini and his merry men decided to Correct it.

Starting even before the Carolingian Renaissance, Latin writers and especially hymnographers, often when they wanted an effect of majesty and grandeur, reached for the Greek language. So, after the first line with its alliterative wordplay (O venerable virgin guardian of the Virgin) S Peter went one better in his second line: magnus aeterni logotheta Verbi. Given a pedestrian translation, this would be 'Great wordplacer of the eternal Word', where the Greek neologism logotheta hits you, in all its quadrisyllabic sonority, immediately after the caesura. It plays with the Johannine description of our Lord as the Word, the Logos, Verbum, and a suggestion of assonance in aeterni ... logotheta. But whereas in the first line, with its "Virginis ... virgo", the Saint uses the same Latin word but changes the case ('anaphora with polyptoton'; an elegance particularly associated with the 'hellenistic' poets), in the second line he achieves an elegant variatio by creating a Greek compound containing logos to match his Latin Verbi.

The post-Conciliar Revisers detested any sort of fun with words; in their austere schoolmasterly comments there are few stricter see-me-afterwardses than nimius lusus verborum. Here they call in aid the principle of 'graecismum nunc insuetum'. And Dom Anselmo claims to find the nominative 'magnus' (instead of the vocative 'magne') unacceptable: naughty Anselmo; he must have known perfectly well that this little problem, if problem it is*, could have been corrected by "magne et".

So what did the revisers write? 'praeco qui Verbi coleris fidelis'.

Oh dear. (But to be fair, Lentini was himself a Latin poet of no mean ability, and did his best with the assonance 'praeco ... coleris'.)


*Nominatives in place of vocatives seem to be no problem in the Gloria in excelsis Deo.


Joshua said...

Nominatives in place of vocatives? Yes, at every Mass:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis...

and in the Trisagion on Good Friday, strictly paralleling the Greek which uses Hagios (not Hagie):

Sanctus Deus, Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis...

Fr H., is there a technical term for using the nominative where the vocative is intended?

Fr John Hunwicke said...


I suspect that one might sometimes be able to say that the word concerned is "in apposition" to another word ... as in Livy "Audi, tu, populus Albanus".

Joshua said...

Is this akin to what is done in the Te Deum, where accusative is used where a vocative might be expected given our usual Englishings?

After all, it's not "We praise thee, O God" (voc.) but Te, Deum, laudamus - "Thee we praise, the God" (acc.) - and so on: Te, Dominum,...; Te, æternum Patrem,... ;Te..., Patrem... Filium... Sanctum quoque Paraclitum Spiritum.

Anonymous said...

NOte too, the use of the accusative as a vocative in the following prayer in Missale Romanum ''Praepartio ad Missam'':
0ratio ad s. Joseph. O felicem virum, beatum Joseph, cui datum est...etc.

Anonymous said...

My theory is, that in both Greek and Latin, already in the classical period, the vocative was beginning to be substituted - at first occasionally, later regularly - by other cases, depending upon certain unknown to us grammatical circumstances, until finally the vocative completely disappeared, leaving no traces in the neo-Latin languages. Of the modern Indo-Germanic languages only Lithuanian, and Polish (together with some other slavic languages) preserve a regularly used vocative case. Modern written Greek also has kept the masculine singular vocative, but i donot know whether the modern spoken tongue has.

St said...

Alberte, a chara: May I point out that in modern Irish also the vocative is alive and well? (A chara being the vocative of cara, which means friend; cf. carus.)

I notice an interesting case in today's Introit (Holy Innocents, EF): Domine, Dominus noster: quam admirabile etc. This reflects the Greek of Ps 8: kurie o kurios heemoon, where o kurios in turn reflects the arthrous semitic vocative. So one wonders to what extent the use of the nominative for the vocative in later Latin in fact goes back to Hebrew?

But then I open my Gildersleeve and Lodge, and read there: "The Vocative differs from the Nominative in form in the second declension only, and even there the Nominative is sometimes used instead, especially in poetry and solemn prose." The two examples given are from Horace, Odes I. 2,43: "Almae filius Maiae", and Livy, I. 24.7: "Audi tu, populus Albanus".

So magnus logotheta, Agnus Dei, and Filius Patris are not as barbarous as we - or Little Lentils - thought.

Thank you, Fr H., for getting me thinking and looking up my reference library! What a wonderful blog!

Figulus said...

I write from memory, without checking my references, but I believe that some 2nd declension masculines have irregular vocatives in -us. Among these are "agnus" and "populus". The "popule" that sometimes appears in the Vulgate seems to be a late regularization of that slightly irregular word, just one of many reasons strict classicists look down on Jerome.

As for the Sanctus, I consent with Fr Hunwicke. I suspect it should be interpreted, "[Thou art] the Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Sabaoth," etc.

Anonymous said...

St-e, I am happy to know that Modern Irish too has a vocative!
Figule, in modern languages (such as Lithuanian) which have a vocative, the words for Dominus Deus are rendered in the nominative; obviously the translators of the Sanctus believe that the words in fact do mean: Holy, holy, holy {is the} Lord God of Hosts. In one modern sung italian versino of Sanctus, the verb ''é'' (est) is even added to make this clearer. Santo, santo, santo é il Signore, Dio del universo.
Definitely literal translation from the Hebrew influenced both the Greek Septuagint and the latin (both the Itala and Vulgata).
I have no explanation for the use of the accusative in stead of the vocative, as in the example from Missale ROmanum which i gave. Do any of you?

Figulus said...


It is common in Latin to use accusatives in exclamations. "Oh that happy man! That blessed Joseph!"

Anonymous said...

Gratias ago tibi, Figule, pro explicatione usus accusativi in loco vocativi !

Maureen Lash said...

I thought that the Sanctus was a statement rather than an invocation, meaning "Holy IS the Lord God of hosts", there being no berb 'to be' in Hebrew.

I should also add that Urdu, another Indo Germanic language, has a vocative case.

Father Anonymous said...

There's a fairly regular vocative in Romanian as well. "Fairly" in the sense that some words can be formed with it and others can't.

William said...

Figulus is right about the use of the accusative in exclamations, but it is not to be understood as being used in place of the vocative. In "O felicem virum, etc.", Joseph is not being spoken to – he is, of course, in the immediately following versicle "Ora pro nobis, beate Ioseph" – but rather spoken of, in terms of admiration.

Such use of the accusative presumably represents the understood presence of a verb which is not actually stated but affects the grammar. (In this instance, one might understand "videte" or maybe "veneremur".) Cf. such expressions as "Felicem diem natalem!" (sc. "desidero tibi" or something similar.)

Figulus said...

Thank you Father, for re-posting this goodie.

I winced when I saw that I hadn't bothered to check my references three years ago, and I momentarily doubted that what I said then was true. I am relieved to find that, if I was then in error, I was joined in it by Lancelot, who backs me up on page 68 of his "New Method of Learning with Facility the Latin Tongue, Volume 1", easily available on Google books. (Google "populus agnus vocative"; it's not far from the top of the results.) To Agnus and Populus he also adds Chorus and Fluvius and, of course, Deus. (Now why didn't I think of that?)

On the following page, he speculates that the origin of these irregularities is a poetic affectation of Attic Greek, and he all but recommends that we should regularize these nouns in our own compositions. Good. That will save me the trouble of having to memorize them. They won't be on the test, will they Father? ;)

William said...

Haha! I hadn't noticed that all the other comments were from 2010 – I fondly imagined I was contributing to an ongoing discussion. No matter – even if I had seen the post before, it well bears repeating. (The successive "corrections" or "improvements" to the fine old Latin hymns constitute a regrettable tendency of which it is good that people be aware.)