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The most popular form of Latin taught in High Schools and in Classics Departments of most universities is that from the Classical Period in Latin’s history. Classical Latin was the kind spoken by Caesar and enjoyed an approximate 300-year history.
Many universities and other institutions use Latin as the official language of their mottos. However, these mottos are normally from a period of Latin’s history centuries after the Classical Period. Often, the official translations of these Latin mottos offered by the universities that use them do not match up with a literal translation according to proper Classical Latin grammar and lexicon.
Translating these mottos is not only interesting in itself, it provides the Latin student and opportunity to explore Latin in a new way. Read on to learn how closely the official translations of the Latin mottos of Duke University and the University of Florida come to a literal Classical Latin translation into English.
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Translating the Latin Motto of Duke University
Duke University’s Latin motto is “Eruditio et Religio" to which the university offers the following official translation: “Erudition and Religion." At first sight, it would appear that the translation is correct according to Classical Latin grammar. Let’s analyze a Classical Latin translation into English and see how closely a literal translation corresponds to the official translation offered by Duke University.
As with many third-declension nouns, “eruditio" is formed from the fourth principal part (past participle) of a verb (erudio, erudire, erudii, eruditum) by removing the –um ending and adding –io. From there, the noun declines like a third-declension noun.
“Et" is simply an indeclinable conjunction similar to English’s “and." “Religio" is a third-declension feminine noun in its nominative form meaning “religious scruple," “reverence," or “religion."
Taken together, the Latin motto “Eruditio et Religio" can be appropriately translated into English as “Education and Religious Scruple." It is obvious that the words “eruditio" and “religio" come into English from Latin as “erudition" and “religion." Therefore, the translation offered by Duke University for its Latin motto is quite accurate according to Classical Latin grammar and lexicon.
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Translating the Latin Motto of the University of Florida
The University of Florida’s Latin motto is “Civium in moribus rei publicae salus" to which the university offers the following official translation: “The welfare of the state depends upon the morals of its citizens." Let’s take a closer look at a Classical Latin literal translation of this motto.
“Civium" is the genitive plural form of the common (either masculine or feminine) noun “civis" which means “citizen" or sometimes “fellow citizen." Recall that the genitive case in Latin is the case of possession, often used to indicate to whom or to what something or someone belongs. As an i-stem noun, “civis" has an –ium ending in the genitive plural case rather than the expected “civum."
“In moribus" is a grammatical construction known as the ablative of place where. The ablative of place where is often coupled with the word “in" to indicate where something did, is, or will take place. “Moribus" is the ablative plural form of the word “mos" which means “habit" or “custom" but often switches its meaning to “character" in the plural. “In" is similar to English’s “in" but can also mean “on" depending on context.
“Rei Publicae" is a common Latin phrase from the feminine noun “res" meaning “thing" and the feminine noun “publica" which means “public." Together, the “res publica" was literally the “public thing" or “that which concerns the public." It can also be translated to mean “the state" and is clearly where English gets “republic." In its singular plural genitive form here, it is being used to show possession.
“Salus" is a feminine third-declension noun in the nominative case and means “health" or “safety" but it can also mean “a greeting" depending on context. As the only word in the nominative case, this word is likely the subject of the motto.
Taken together, an appropriate translation of “Civium in moribus rei publicae salus" according to proper Classical Latin grammar and lexicon is: “The safety of the citizens in the character of the state." This is a close translation to that offered by the University of Florida except for the missing verb “depends" and the missing pronoun “its."
It is clear that the university accepts a figurative rather than literal translation of its Latin motto into English. This is common practice and illustrates that Latin students must understand what is figuratively in the Latin before them rather than simply relying on literal translations as taught in so many elementary Latin programs. This is especially important for intermediate Latin programs where reading of actual ancient Latin texts becomes the focus.
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Many universities that have Latin mottos do not offer literal translations of the Latin into English. This affords the Latin student an opportunity to explore Latin in an interesting and often revealing light. Sometimes it is the case where use and misuse of a Latin motto changes the entire meaning of the motto until the official English translation no longer resembles its Latin meaning. The two mottos above illustrate two types of motto translations: a literal one and a figurative one. Although both Duke University and the University of Florida offer correct translations of each university’s respective Latin motto, we can see here that translating Latin to English takes some experience and sometimes a deviation from the literal meaning found on paper.