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Translating the Latin Mottos of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Catholic University of America

written by: John Garger • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Learn about the Latin phrases of two universities. The mottos of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Catholic University of America are translated from Latin to English and discussed.

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    To express the educational philosophy of a university, institutions of higher learning often adopt a Latin phrase to server as their motto. However, Latin has been a dead language for many centuries; study of the language has diminished as the modern educational system has become more practical. Often, the officers of a university are themselves unaware of the literal translations of their own university’s motto.

    The University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Catholic University of America have adopted Latin mottos to serve as an expression of each institution’s educational philosophy. These two mottos are good examples of various uses of Latin lexicon and correct use of the language’s intricate grammatical rules. Read on to learn the literal translations of these mottos.

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    Translating the Motto of the University of Alaska Fairbanks from Latin to English

    The University of Alaska Fairbank’s official translation of its motto “Ad Summum" is “To the Top." This particular motto is an excellent example of one of Latin’s more common grammatical constructions.

    Summum is the singular accusative case form of the noun “summum" which means “top," “surface," or “highest point." Notice that as a neuter noun, summum has the same form for both the nominative and accusative cases, singular and plural.

    The accusative case is most often associated with direct objects. Direct objects are words that receive the action of a sentence’s verb. For example, in the sentence:

    Puer puellae rosam dat. (The boy is giving a rose to the girl.)

    rosam is the direct object because it is the object being given to the girl (the indirect object). However, the accusative case has another common use other than as an indicator of a direct object.

    “Ad" is a common Latin word which is most often translated as “to" or “toward." In contrast, “ab" means “from" or “away from." Coupled with the accusative case, “ad" forms the accusative of place to which. For example:

    Caesar ad urbem ambulat. (Caesar is walking to the city.)

    The University of Alaska Fairbank’s translation of “ad summum" as “to the top" not only accurately conveys the meaning of the Latin phrase, it is an exact literal translation.

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    Translating the Motto of the Catholic University of America from Latin to English

    The Catholic University of America has chosen a simple Latin phrase for its motto. This university offers the translation of “God is my light" for the Latin phrase “Deus Lux Mea Est." Recall that Latin is an inflected language; its words change to indicate how they are being used in a sentence. One of the most important concepts learned early in any Latin program of study is agreement of nouns, adjectives, and other parts of speech.

    Each of the three non-verb words in the motto “Deus Lux Mea Est" is in the nominative case. Recall that the nominative case is associated with the subject of sentence or phrase. However, predicate words are often found in the nominative with the verb of sentence acting like an equal sign. Translating this phrase into English is like saying:

    God = My Light

    with the verb “est" (he/she/it is) serving as that equal sign. Recall also that adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case, number, and gender but not necessarily form. Lux is a third-declension feminine noun and needs a feminine adjective. Mea is the nominative feminine form of the word “meus" which may be translated as “my." Taken together, “God is my light" is a succinct and literal translation of “Deus Lux Mea Est."

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    Language Study Opportunity

    Since Latin mottos tend to be short with few contextual clues, they can be difficult to translate when an institution does not offer a literal translation of the phrase. The two Latin mottos discussed in this document are not only grammatically simple, they are easily translated into English without need of context. Constructions like the accusative of place to which is a common grammatical construction among many in Latin. In fact, it is only the great number of these constructions that make Latin difficult, not translation of the constructions themselves. As always, agreement of adjectives and nouns is difficult after the second declension because noun endings no longer give clues to the gender of a noun, especially in the third declension. Translation of Latin mottos is an excellent opportunity to study the language in brief exercises.