As a throwback to earlier times in Latin’s history, many universities and colleges use Latin as the language of their mottos and phrases. These phrases provide not only an opportunity to study Latin grammar, they provide a glimpse into the each university’s educational philosophy.
John Hopkins University and New York University are both prominent institutions of higher learning in the United States. The founders and administrators of each have chosen to express their purpose and philosophy in a Latin motto. Each of the phrases discussed in this document illustrates important grammatical constructions necessary for a basic understanding of the language. The result is a fun and educational way to explore Latin as a language that has had an important impact on the languages of Europe.
Veritas Vos Liberabit: Translating the Latin Motto of John Hopkins University
Like Harvard University’s single word motto, John Hopkins University also uses the word “Veritas” in its motto. However, this university uses the complete Latin phrase “Veritas Vos Liberabit” to express its purpose and educational philosophy.
Veritas is a Latin word in its nominative singular form and can be accurately translated as “truth.” English speakers may recognize that the word “veracity” is related to this Latin word. As a third-declension noun, veritas changes its form throughout the remainder of the declension with the genitive form written as “veritatis” and its dative form as “veritati.” In its present nominative form, we know that veritas is likely the subject of the phrase.
Liberabit is a first conjugation verb in its third-person singular future tense active indicative form. Recall that to form the future tense in the indicative mood, you take the stem of the verb libera–, add the future tense indicator –bi–, and then add the person ending, in this case –t. The result is a word that may be accurately translated as “he/she/it will free.”
Vos is a personal pronoun in its plural accusative form. Latin students will recognize that Vos has the form “tu” in its singular nominative form and “vos” (exactly the same form) in its plural nominative form. Since vos is a second-person personal pronoun, it may be accurately translated as “you” (plural).
Taken together, the entire phrase “Veritas Vos Liberabit” is translated as “Truth Will Free You (plural).” Although John Hopkins University offers this phrase as its official translation, some people may be more familiar with another valid translation, “The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Here the definite article “the” is used to indicate that a specific truth, not just any, will set you free. In addition, the word “shall” is substituted for “will.” Some scholars argue that the word “shall” should be reserved for the first-person only. However, people often use the word “shall” to add an air of sophistication to writing and speech.
Perstare et Praestare: Translating the Latin Motto of New York University
Latin students may recall that the second principal part of every verb is the present active infinitive form of the verb. The infinitive is the basis for all of the forms a verb can take for the present, imperfect, and future tenses. English infinitives are identified with the word “to” and can even be the subject of a sentence. For example, the phrase:
To be or not to be.
has an infinitive that appears twice. Notice the telltale use of the word “to” to indicate that “to be” is the infinitive form of the word “be.”
Similarly, New York University’s Latin motto incorporates two infinitives. Perstare is the present tense infinitive form of the Latin word “persto” meaning “to stand firm,” “to remain standing,” or “endure.” Praestare is the present tense infinitive form of the Latin word “praesto” meaning “to stand before,” “to be outstanding,” or “surpass.”
The Latin word “et” is an indeclinable conjunction similar to English’s “and.” Although it can be used in other ways (such as “et…et…” meaning “both…and…”), here it acts just like English’s “and.”
Taken together, “Perstare et Praestare” may be accurately translated as “To Remain Standing and To Stand Before.” However, this literal translation does not quite capture the meaning behind New York University’s sentiment. Much more appropriate is its own preferred translation, “To Preserve and Surpass.”
Like many institutions of higher learning, both John Hopkins University and New York University use Latin mottos. The examples here that include use of the future tense, personal pronouns, and the infinitive forms of verbs, illustrate important and common grammatical constructions in the Latin language. Studying mottos like this is similar to using flash cards for vocabulary. Instead of studying lexicon, the Latin student can conveniently practice identifying and translating Latin into English.