‘Palatina Medea’ or ‘Medea Palatina’? A preference for adjective-noun word order in Latin

We’ve been told that adjectives in Latin ‘tend to’ or ‘prefer to’ follow the nouns they describe.

But on the contrary, the statistical evidence shows that Caesar and Cicero actually preferred putting adjectives before nouns.

We didn’t learn that ‘noun then adjective’ rule from reading unadapted Latin. We didn’t discover it from real usage. We learned it from our textbooks and from word of mouth. ‘They’ said that it was true and ‘they’ must right!

So when Cicero dramatically calls Clodia a ‘Medea of the Palatine’, we think he should naturally put his adjective after the noun, but he doesn’t:

George Romney’s painting of ‘Lady Hamilton as Medea’. Source: [link]

Sic enim, iudices, reperietis … hanc Palatinam Medeam migrationemque hanc adulescenti causam sive malorum omnium sive potius sermonum fuisse.

For indeed, judges, you will find out… that this Palatine Medea and this migration of hers [to Caelius’s neighbourhood] has been the cause of either all the ills or, rather, all the rumours for the young man. 

However, examples like this don’t change our minds about adjective-noun order. Since they told us that adjectives ‘usually follow’ the noun, that must mean that Cicero was violating the ‘natural word order’ for dramatic effect.

It doesn’t matter how many anecdotal counter-examples we read when actually encountering the Latin; ‘this was the rule’ when we learned Latin, therefore whatever we see later confirms it. Whenever an author puts a noun first, it’s because of the rule; and whenever an author puts an adjective first, it’s because he does it for effect; ‘the exception proves the rule’ (!!).

So let’s get into the actual statistics.

In an article from 1918 plainly titled ‘Some Facts About Latin Word Order’ by Arthur T. Walker, I found an segment which contradicted everything I had been told about noun-adjective word order:

In the Classical Journal for June, 1913, Miss Elizabeth F. Smiley presented some figures which surprised me at the time. She showed that in the equivalent of four books of Caesar 82.35 per cent of all nouns modified by adjectives or pronouns follow their modifiers. She convinced me that teachers of Caesar ought to teach that adjectives usually precede their nouns.

Walker acknowledged that Miss Smiley’s initial figures might not have told the whole story:

But when I said so to an eminent grammarian he pointed out that Miss Smiley had not classified her adjectives, and maintained that if she had done so she would have found all but adjectives of quantity and some other specific classes usually following.

For one, I remember being told there were ‘common exceptions’ to the noun-adjective word order: that multus, magnus, and demonstratives like hic and ille tended to go before the noun they described, but that all other adjectives followed the ‘rule’ of going after the noun they described.

Therefore, Walker suggested to another scholar (Miss Mabel Merryman) that she do her Masters Thesis on the position of attributive modifiers in one or more Latin authors. Miss Merryman took him up on the suggestion – and chose to do a deep dive into all seven books of Caesar’s Gallic wars, plus seven of Cicero’s speeches (the four against Catiline, the Manilian Law, the Archias, and the Marcellus).

Her results? In the seven books of Caesar, 80.67% of modifiers (omitting participles) came before the nouns they described; in the seven speeches of Cicero, that figure was 68.52%. Walker adds that if Cicero had not thrown around so many instances of res publica and di immortales, ‘the percentage would have been considerably greater’.

Table 1 from the 1918 paper shows a more detailed breakdown of attributive modifiers in Caesar and Cicero.

position of attributive modifiers of nouns

In the Pronominal Adjectives section, it is no surprise to anyone that the demonstratives overwhelmingly precede the noun they describe. More interesting are all the categories that Merryman classified the adjectives into. She separated from the mass of adjectives those that could be called quantity and size (multus, magnus), cardinal numbers (unus, duo), oridinal numbers (primus, secundus), etcetera, and even with all that partitioning, the ‘miscellaneous’ section of leftovers still has a predominantly adjective-first word order.

Miss Merryman tried every classification that seemed worth while. The classes given in the table are the most important. It will be seen that adjectives and pronouns of virtually every class more often precede their nouns. Some are more likely to precede than others; but, classify as you will, there is no remnant that usually follows. The group called “miscellaneous” in the table is the remnant left after deducting all the preceding classes and, of course, the stereotyped phrases.

For more details and pre-emptive counter-arguments, you can check out the full 1918 paper at Jstor.

Walker ended his discussion by pointing out that others in his faculty had found similar results with the modifiers in Vergil’s Aeneid and Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. I can attest from my experience in reading Vergil’s Aeneid that adjectives do more often precede their nouns; and I admit that until now I have always said ‘it’s for effect’, despite seeing this adjective-noun word order more often than the so-called ‘expected’ one.

I’m sure the real Clodia wouldn’t’ve been happy being called either Palatina Medea or Medea Palatina.
Bakalovich, “Little Luxury”. Source: [link]
So the next time someone tells you that ‘noun then adjective’ ought to be the natural Caesar-and-Cicero-style Latin word order, you know what to do. Politely show them the statistical breakdown of the position of attributive modifiers in Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

And the next time someone says that an adjective coming before a noun is ‘probably done for emphatic effect’, you can say as Walker did in 1918:

How can anyone maintain that an adjective can be made emphatic by being put in its usual place?

Now for some final thoughts on this – I have a genuine question. How did we get this noun-adjective misconception in the first place? Was it the influence of Romance word-order? Was it the influence of catchy set-phrases such as res publica and di immortales? Or was it just luck and contagion, and no one bothered to fact-check it, since it seemed like such a basic point that was obviously right? What do you all think?


One response to “‘Palatina Medea’ or ‘Medea Palatina’? A preference for adjective-noun word order in Latin”

  1. I guess the reason was stereotypical expressions like virtus romana, urbs aeterna, imperium romanum etc. which influenced later romance word order which in turn influenced medieval Latin because the authors usually had as their mother tongue a romance idiom already unintelligible with Latin. So I wonder what applying the same method to texts deep in the middle ages would tell us.

    May I suggest you do a post with some suggestions on Latin phonology and usage for us today? There seems to have been no serious attempt to agree upon how Latin should be pronounced and used today or how to render words for modern concepts. What do we do when faced with sounds which didn’t exist in classical Latin? I mean, how should we pronounce and write “mayonnaise”, “ketchup”, “béchamel”, “caoutchouc” or “cashmere” in the Roman tongue? How should we translate things like “policeman” or the word “state” in the modern nation-state sense? How do we translate clumsy modern expressions like “lingustic determinism”? Which form do we pick when there are several? Caryophyllum, caryophyllon or garyophyllum? And in such cases such as this when you have unlatin sounds like “y” and “ph” that only snobbish upper class people would have bothered to pronounce shouldn’t we rather choose something like “garofilum” which is closer to the form that actually produced the modern romance descendant of the word?

    Maybe all these questions are irrelevant but if a modern competent Latin-using community of some decent size were to appear they have to be answered. We would also need some more focus on informal and “vulgar” ways to use Latin that are suitable for casual communication because most of what we get to read is just too literary. A language that pretends to live outside texts requires a practical colloquial side.

    Many of the suggestions of the church in this regard here are frankly ridiculous https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/latinitas/documents/rc_latinitas_20040601_lexicon_it.html

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