An Exercise in Translating the University Mottos of Barton College and Dartmouth College from Latin into English
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 9/13/2013
The Latin mottos of universities are an opportunity to explore both the pedagogical paradigms of institutions of higher learning and the intricacies of Latin grammar.
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Latin College Mottos
Latin’s influence on our own language is still felt today in the many Latin phrases and mottos used by universities and other institutions. The close bond between Latin and education in previous periods of Latin’s history makes the adoption of these phrases appropriate for institutions of higher learning.
Both Barton College and Dartmouth College use Latin phrases to serve as their mottos. Dissecting these mottos is a good exercise in Latin grammar and allows us to understand the educational paradigms of these institutions.
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Translating the Latin Motto of Barton College – Habebunt Lumen Vitae
Barton College offers the following translation of its Latin motto: “They Shall Have the Light of Life." Let’s dissect this Latin phrase to see if this official translation is accurate.
Habebunt is the third-person plural future active indicative form of the second-conjugation verb “habeo." As a common Latin verb, every student of Latin knows that the correct translation of habeo is “to have" or “to hold."
“Lumen" is the accusative form of the neuter noun “lumen." Notice that as a neuter third-declension noun, “lumen" has the same form in the nominative and the accusative. Also, recall that the accusative case is the case of direct objects. Lumen means “light."
“Vitae" is the genitive form of the noun “vita." The genitive case is the case of possession or ownership. Note that in the first declension, words have the same form in the nominative and accusative singular but also share the same form in the nominative plural. This often gives students studying Latin for the first time trouble. “Vita" means “life."
Taken together in their respective forms, the words of the phrase “Habebunt Lumen Vitae" can accurately be translated into English as “They Will Have the Light of Life." Barton College’s use of “shall" is also appropriate although some scholars believe that “shall" is reserved for the first-person while “will" should be used for the second and third.
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Translating the Latin Motto of Dartmouth College – Vox Clamantis in Deserto
Dartmouth College offers the translation “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness" for “Vox Clamantis in Deserto." Let’s see if this translation is accurate.
Vox is the nominative form of the word “vox." Recall that the nominative case is the case of subjects. “Vox" literally means “voice."
“Clamantis" is the participial form of the common first-conjugation verb “clamo," which means “to shout" or “call out." Recall that participles in English are identified by use of an –ing ending. In this case, “clamantis" can be translated to mean “shouting" or “calling out."
The phrase “in deserto" is a good example of the ablative of place where. This ablative construction indicates where something is or is taking place. “In" is akin to English’s “in" but can also mean “on" depending on the context. Coupled with “deserto," the entire phrase can be translated into English as “in the wild."
Taken together, “Vox Clamantis in Deserto" can be appropriately translated as “A Voice Calling Out in the Wild." Consequently, the translation of Dartmouth College is completely accurate.
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Not all translations of Latin phrases are one-hundred percent accurate. Over time, the meaning of a Latin phrase can change due to mistranslation or adoption of a figurative rather than a literal meaning. The translations of the Latin mottos of both Barton College and Dartmouth College are accurate and should offer the Latin student little trouble in translation.