There is class of relational adjectives that their meaning is "belong to" "pertain to" like grammaticus. (maybe that distinction is somewhat artificial, as one can say that magnus is "belongs to the magni")

Is there a perceptible different between using them and using the genitive case of the corresponding noun?

For example is there a different between:

Ab equinis pedibus procul recede (Trust not a horse's heels)


Ab equorum/equi pedibus procul recede.

Or between "furnus aeneus" and "furnus aeris", or between "ars grammaticae" and "ars grammatica"

  • latin.stackexchange.com/questions/2331/… Here is close question. Maybe it helps to you.
    – TrmIntrs2
    Jul 5, 2020 at 18:47
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    @TrmIntrs2, thanks for the input. Yet I'm not sure that question addresses the issue presented here. In this case I'm quite certain that both types(genitive or adj) are valid, and have nearly the same meaning
    – d_e
    Jul 5, 2020 at 20:59

2 Answers 2


I know you are asking for a semantic answer but I will instead adopt a syntactic approach.

Why ? Because as an answer to your question, I would tend to say :

no, because they are both semantically empty.

I will support my claim using a major DM-style assumption, namely that there is no essential difference between inflection and derivation.

The difference between the genitive and relational adjectives pertains to functional (as opposed to semantic) content.

Relational APs are, by definition, never predicative (cf. 1), which may be predicted by assuming them to lack the semantic PredP layer and only retain the functional aP layer.

(1) # Hic pes est equinus. 'This foot is equine.'

The genitive, in turn, may be regarded as semantically similar to English of and was later replaced by Vulg. Latin de : it expresses the vaguest relation possible, and may be interpreted in various ways according to the context -- quite similarly to what accusative case does with the Verb, since the object of a Verb may denote whatever thematic role is needed ; the genitive is, somehow, the direct case of the Noun -- hence the idea that such projections are purely functional.

Strikingly, the only way (1) may be interpreted is by relating it to (2).

(2) Hic pes est equi. 'This foot is that of a horse.'

That is, in both cases the predicative use coerces the structure into receiving a non-vague interpretation, and it seems to be encoded at least in the adjective as a structural variation since it is reflected in the grammar, e.g. by the fact that relational adjectives are usually found after the N :


  • a. pes equinus / ? equinus pes
  • b. furnus aeneus / ? aeneus furnus

Such analogy, it seems to me, supports a hypothesis of GenP and aP as semantically null, purely functional projections, the only difference being that the complement of Gen is always a NP/DP, while aPs need not embed a nP unless they are relational (= little a may attach to a bare Root), cf. (4) .


  • a. # Hic pes est equinus.
  • b. Hic pes est magnus.

In (4a), A is relational, and as such, necessarily denominal. We have a [aP [nP √]]-style structure. This correlation is similar to what we find with the genitive.

In (4b), A is predicative and as such, not necessarily denominal : here we likely have a structure more like [PredP [aP √]].

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    Thank you for the helpful comments on my post and the information here. Do you have more information about the word order section? I found it curious that the example you found and the one I have found so far for definite/specific use of relational adjectives are in prenominal position.
    – Asteroides
    Feb 23, 2022 at 19:28
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    Are we sure relational As cannot refer to a particular individual ? It appears to me that, in numerous cases, relational As may refer to a precise person as well : patriisque in vultibus haerens / aestuat (Ovid, Metamorphoses, X, 359–360) 'and fixing her eyes upon her father's face she shivers' Feb 23, 2022 at 21:19
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    @Asteroides For Ovid, this is poetry, so we whouldn't draw any grammatical conclusions from word order. For Plautus, this is oral language, and the order is not standard here, it expresses some affective dimension: note that "meam", as a possessive, should also preferably be located after the N. But more importantly, don't forget those are verses as well : Plautus puts a lot of care into obtaining the most expressive prosody in adequation with the spirit and state of mind of the speaking character (I wrote a mémoire about this, where I studied rare prosodic facts in the Miles Gloriosus). Feb 23, 2022 at 21:32

[Note: this answer was revised in response to Vincent's post]

I have a feeling that when a genitive noun phrase has a definite meaning, such as when "equi pedes" and "equorum pedes" have the senses "the horse's feet" and "the horses' feet", it is less likely to be replaced by a relational adjective than when the genitive noun phrase has an indefinite or general meaning ("a horse's feet" or "horses' feet").

(Context typically makes it clear whether a genitive noun has a definite/specific meaning: we'd usually only expect to find a phrase meaning "the horses' feet" in a context where we've previously mentioned specific horses.)

However, I'm not sure that my feeling is correct. Relational adjectives derived from proper nouns are a common type of exception to the above: even though proper nouns have an inherently definite meaning, the use of relational adjectives derived from them is common in Latin.

Vincent has mentioned the example of patrius used with a sense "her father's", and the paper "Slavic Possessive Genitives and Adjectives from the Historical Point of View," by Ranko Matasović, gives the example "meam [...] erilem concubinam" = "the concubine of my master (Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 49)" (page 10). Although meam here agrees syntactically iwth concubinam, semantically it seems to apply to erilem.

I wonder however whether all relational adjectives are used as freely, or if ones referring to specific common personal relationships such as patrius and erilis might show special behavior that is not generally productive.

I found a passage that points out the difficulty of evaluating the semantic meaning of relational adjectives for this type of noun:

In adjectives derived from nouns referring to highly individuated human beings and, at the same time, that can also refer to an institutionalized figure (like erus, pater, rex, etc.) a clear-cut distinction between the indication of a specific participant (corresponding to the nominal status) and, on the other hand, the categorial value (corresponding to the adjectival status) tends to fade and, in short, it can depend on the context.

("Possession", by Philip Baldi and Andrea Nuti, in Constituent Syntax: Quantification, Numerals, Possession, Anaphora, edited by Philip Baldi and Pierluigi Cuzzolin, page 362)

It seems also that there was some change over time: in some contexts where early Latin texts used adjectives, Classical Latin texts tended to use genitive nouns instead:

Another characteristic feature of early Latin that survives in later popular language but was originally probably unmarked for register is the employment of an adjective where Classical Latin prefers an adnominal genitive (see in general Wackernagel (2009) 487–490; Löfstedt (1942–1956) I.107–124). A classic instance is nostra erilis concubina “our master’s concubine” (Pl. Mil. 458) as opposed to concubina nostri eri. This usage occurs frequently in Plautus (cf. erile scelus “my master’s crime” (Rud. 198), seruiles nuptiae “a slave’s wedding” (Cas. 68), facinus muliebre “the woman’s shameful deed” (Truc. 809), etc.) but can be found in a wide range of texts. This helps to account for the great productivity in Old Latin of denominal adjectives with purely relational meaning: alongside formations with specific meanings such as -ōsus “full of” or -ātus “endowed with”, which remain productive in Classical Latin, there are countless adjectives in -āl/ris, -ārius, -icus, etc. that simply indicate an adnominal relation, and these types lose ground in the Classical period in favour of the genitive (Rosén (1999) 53–56).

(John Penney, "Archaic and Old Latin", Chapter 14 in A Companion to the Latin Language, edited by James Clackson)

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