The Motto of Princeton University: Dei sub Numine Viget
Unlike the motto of Harvard, Princeton University’s motto is much more interesting, with inconsistencies between its official and literal translations. Princeton University was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey and has called not less than three cities home. Originally located in Elizabeth, it moved to Newark in 1747 and then to Princeton in 1756. However, it wasn’t until 1896 that Princeton, NJ became its namesake when the institution was officially renamed Princeton University.
Princeton’s motto, Dei sub Numine Viget, is a combination of several of Latin’s grammatical constructions. As with most Latin sentences, let’s start with the verb. Viget is the 3rd-person singular present active indicative form of the verb vigeo vigere, a second conjugation verb meaning “to thrive” or “flourish.” On its own, viget can be literally translated as “he/she/it is flourishing.”
Dei is the genitive singular masculine form of the second declension word “Deus” meaning “God.” Recall that the genitive case is the case of possession or ownership indicating to whom something or someone belongs. On its own, Dei may be literally translated as “of God” or “God’s.”
The phrase sub Numine is an excellent example of the ablative of place where that indicates the location some action did, is, or will take place. Sub is an indeclinable preposition meaning “under.” Numine is the ablative singular form of the neuter noun “numen” which means “nod” or in the case of God, “divine will.” When in reference to the action of a deity, numen ultimately denotes the approval of God. As a phrase, sub Numine can be literally translated a “under the divine will.”
Taken together, a literal translation of Dei sub Numine Viget is “he is thriving under the divine will of God.” Princeton University prefers the phrase “under God’s power she flourishes.” The use of “flourishes” instead of “thrives” is reasonable and the genitive can be translated as meaning either “of God” or “God’s.” However, without an identifying pronoun, viget can mean “he/she/it is thriving.” Since no pronoun is given, Princeton’s translation requires tacit knowledge that “she” refers to the university itself. To remove ambiguity as to the gender of the subject of the motto, the addition of the Latin pronoun for “she” is needed. The University would need to change its motto slightly to reflect this. For example:
Dei sub numine ea viget. (She is thriving under the divine will of God.)
The addition of the pronoun “ea” (from is, ea, id) makes it clear that the subject of the motto is feminine (referring to the university) rather than leaving it up to the form of the verb which in this case is ambiguous. Translation of the word numine as “power” rather than “divine will” is reasonable even though the two translations denote technically different concepts.