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

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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:

507px-George_Romney_-_Lady_Hamilton_as_Medea

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.

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Moving words: which languages have the closest word order to Ancient Greek?

There’s an art to translation. It involves moving concepts from one language into another while trying to refit the same thought into a different set of grammar rules. In this study I’d like to look at one obvious part of the translation process: word order change. In studying this, I don’t mean to suggest that the inevitable changes in word order are necessarily bad or represent the degree to which information is lost in the act of translation. Quite the opposite. Where it is needed, the word order should change so that the meaning can be properly conveyed. Otherwise, there would be no point in translating anything.

Art of Conversation II (L'Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

Art of Conversation II (L’Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

What I want to investigate is how much the word order changes when translating a passage from Ancient Greek (specifically Koine) into various other languages. For instance, how closely can a Latin translation mirror Greek word order? Are Romance languages any closer to Greek word order than Germanic languages? Was medieval English more similar to Koine Greek syntax than contemporary English? And roughly how close is Modern Greek to its ancestor?

In this study, I’ll explore how much word order change occurs in several published translations of the same Koine Greek sample text, analysing eleven translations spread out over six languages: Latin, English, German, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Modern Greek. What I like about studying word order is that it’s a fairly obvious part of the language and you can see it move around. This is not a subtle study about ineffable shifts in semantics. It’s a crude, chunky experiment looking at how blocks of data move positions in different languages to express more or less the same thing according to different syntax rules. Although the sample text is short, at least this exercise can give a taste of how similar and distant the various languages are to Ancient Greek in this particular respect.

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