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In the Latin Vulgate, Luke 2:13 is translated:

Et subito facta est cum angelo multitudo militiæ cælestis laudantium Deum, et dicentium ...

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ..." (ESV)

We've been trying to understand why laudantium and dicentium are plural in number. They agree in genitive case with militiæ cælestis, the heavenly army. But I don't see any plural noun in the clause to agree with laudantium and dicentium in number.

Is this because militia could be considered a collective noun, plural in meaning but singular in form? I didn't think that sort of meaning led to plural forms in agreeing modifiers, but maybe I'm wrong about that?

Multitudo obviously also is a collective noun, but I don't think that affects the participles laudantium and dicentium since they are genitive, agreeing with militiæ, not with multitudo (nominative).

Why are laudantium and dicentium plural in number here?

Related: Can a morphologically singular collective noun be syntactically plural?

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    Just to point out that the original Greek text does exactly the same thing: καὶ ἐξέφνης ἐγένετο σὺν τῷ ἀγγέλῳ πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου αἰνούντων τὸν θεὸν καὶ λεγόντων. – cnread Dec 6 '19 at 20:53
  • One angel with (i.e. plus) one multitude make a grammatical plural. – Hugh Dec 6 '19 at 22:12
  • @cnread Good point. So maybe it's influenced by the grammar of the Greek. – LarsH Dec 7 '19 at 0:03
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In my interpretation, multitudo is accompanied by two discrete genitive constructions: the partitive genitive militiae caelestis (so, not the whole heavenly host but just much of it), and then a genitive indicating the contents of the multitude, the substantives laudantium and dicentium: a multitude of the heavenly host, consisting of beings who are praising and saying.

The difference between this interpretation and Shootforthemoon's is that laudantium and dicentium are here dependent on multitudo instead of militiae. Only the members of that portion of the host that happens to be present are praising and saying; the remaining members are off doing something else.

It's true that, in classical Latin at least, if a single noun has two genitives of different types dependent on it, there's a tendency to put one of them before the noun and the other after. However, it's just a tendency, not a rule; and at any rate, this isn't classical Latin.

Still, I wouldn't insist on this interpretation. I think it's very possible that fdb's answer is correct.

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Militiae is the genitive singular of militia, which is grammatically singular, but which (like other collective nouns) designates a plurality. Laudantium and dicentium are genitive plural. They agree with militiae ad sensum, but not ad litteram. It is like when you say in English “the whole class are doing their homework”. “Class” is grammatically singular, but can be construed as if it where plural.

  • Thank you, this is helpful. I wish I could accept all three answers. – LarsH Dec 10 '19 at 17:10
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It is true that this may be considered an example of constructio ad sensum et non ad litteram.

Nevertheless I prefer another perspective: if laudantium and dicentium are substantivized participles that indicate the composition of the militia, we could even translate as follows

"...a large multitude of the heavenly militia of those who praised God..."

which unfortunately is not the best translation but at least would explain the letter of the text and would reflect the underlying grammar.

  • 1
    Wow, three good answers, two very close to each other. It's going to be hard to choose which one to accept! – LarsH Dec 10 '19 at 17:09

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