At least Italian and French have an idiomatic way to say "I have only one friend":

  • Non ho che un amico.
  • Je n'ai qu'un ami.

Finnish has the same thing: "Minulla ei ole kuin yksi ystävä." I can't think of a parallel way to phrase it in English. ("I have but one friend" is perhaps closest.) Is there something comparable in Latin?

I can express the same though in Latin easily enough: unum solum amicum habeo or similarly with possessive dative. But this is structurally quite different, and I am specifically after the structure. Is there something like non habeo quam unum amicum, which corresponds quite literally to the three ones given above? (If you add a plus before quam, the syntax seems to work out, but I don't know if the Romance versions used to have such a word.)

What would be the closest Latin equivalent to the construction in Italian and French? I assume a similar thing is found in many Romance languages and they descend from Latin. The closest I can think of is nihil habeo nisi unum amicum, but perhaps there is something closer.

  • Constructions like non plus ultra suggest me something like non plus quam amicum unum habeo. But it seems implied by your question that you are looking for somethinkg more concise, not that "regularly" grammatical, so to say?
    – Rafael
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:37
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    @Rafael I am looking for the closest Latin equivalent of the Romance thing. Perhaps there is indeed no exact match. I agree that Latin seems to require plus (as in your non plus quam unum amicum habeo or my non habeo plus quam unum amicum), but there might be options in Latin I had considered impossible. If there's an answer "you can't get closer than that" with upvotes, I'd be happy to consider the matter settled, as it's hard to prove impossibility. Any insight into the origins of the Romance construction would be fun, too, as it would shed light on the absence in Latin.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:58
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    I guess (but it is no more than a far fetched guess) the omission of the word for more is a regional thing. In Spanish the "más" is needed: you can't say *no tengo que un amigo.
    – Rafael
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:13
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    @Rafael That Spanish requires its plus unlike Italian and French is good evidence that the omission is not global and thus might not trace back to Latin. (And that the whole thing could or should be seen as omission of plus/más/più.) I'm getting pretty convinced – and I'm glad to learn more about Spanish as I'm in the slow process of learning some basics.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:31

4 Answers 4


The construction at issue here seems to have its origin in Late Latin. According to Moignet (1973: 50), one has to consider Fr. ne que "come remontant au latin tardif non...quam, représentant non aliud quam influencé par non...nisi". It seems then that non quam is a crossing of these two constructions. Unfortunately, as acknowledged by this author, this is just a hypothesis since the construction at issue (non quam) is not attested in Latin. Cf. also the unattested construction nihil... quam as an interference between the attested ones nihil aliud quam and nihil nisi. For related data and further dicussion, see Moignet (1973: 49-50).

SOURCE: Moignet, Gérard (1973). Les signes de l'exception dans l'histoire du français. Genève: Droz.

The construction at issue could be said to have its origin in the omission of plus in the construction non plus quam (cf. It. Non ho che un amico or Fr. Je n'ai qu'un ami; cf. It. più and Fr. plus). However, following Löfstedt's (1936: 23-28) studies on the syntax of quam in Late Latin, Moignet (1973: 49) points out that this cannot be a valid hypothesis since it seems that in Late Latin the first correlative element of the comparative clause is not necessary.

Still, in spite of the compelling data offered by Moignet (1973: 49) (see the data on the top of this page), note that, unlike what happens in Italian and French, the presence of magis in the construction non magis quam is compulsory in Romance languages like Spanish or Catalan: cf. Rafael's comment above on Sp. no tengo *(más) que un amigo or Cat., no tinc *(més) que un amic. Same in Portuguese, I think. So it could be the case that the different nature of the comparative adverb (plus vs. magis) could be relevant in solving this puzzle. Importantly, note that the proposal put forward by Moignet does not explain why the construction at issue here is not found in Spanish/Catalan/Portuguese. So the proposal based on the omission of the first element of the cp. clause (plus) is not to be discarded. What I don't know is why this omission was possible in the case of plus but not in the case of magis. For further interesting discussion on these two adverbs, please see this post

NB: unlike Contemporary Catalan, Old Catalan has the cp. adverb plus (cf. O. Cat. pus). It would be nice to know if the Italian/French construction at issue here was also possible in Old Catalan. Note that the prediction from my present post is that it could be well-formed.

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    Thanks, this is interesting! I should add though that I don't think magis works here in Latin; plus seems much more appropriate although words like más seem to come from it.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 7:20
  • @MItomino: Doesn't "non" link with "habeo" = "I don't have"? Why "non...quam"? For me the problem was "plus...quam". Initially assuming this to be one-word-written-as-two c/f "prius" & "quam" = "priusquam" = "before". Single-word "plusquam" does not appear to exist (Ox., L & S., Wiki). When "quam" = "than", it's usually comparing nouns in the same case e.g. "puella tristior est quam puer". Arguing with Joonas, about "solum", I was still researching this. If there is a problem between "non" & "quam", what about "neque" & "quam"?
    – tony
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 12:02
  • @Mitomino: Caeser: Gallic Wars 1. 53: "...neque prius fugere destiterunt quam ad flumen Rhenum," = "...they did not abandon to flight until they had reached the Rhine,". Years ago, before LSE., I had tried to translate "prius" & "quam" as separate words?!
    – tony
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 12:09
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    @Mitomino It is quite peculiar if the omission of the adverb depends on whether it comes from plus or magis, but so far we do indeed have a strong correlation. If we really want to test this, I think a larger sample of Romance languages is needed and the histories, if known, of these expressions should be checked. (And there is also the possibility of later parallelisms between Romance languages, adding or removing adverbs and thus obfuscating data.) I am interested, but it seems to go way beyond what is reasonable to expect from an answer here, let alone a comment.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 16:27
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Yes, I agree with you. It is also the case that I only consulted Moignet's (1973) work. Probably, there are more recent works that could be (more) useful in disentangling this conundrum. In case I have new info, I'll let you know.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 16:45

The closest Latin equivalent seems to be:

Non habeo plus quam unum amicum.

What seems to have happened is that in Italian and French you can drop the plus. But you cannot drop the word in Spanish; you have to say yo no tengo más que un amigo. It is not a global Romance phenomenon, and need not go all the way to Latin. My guess is therefore that the construction mentioned in the question eroded from the Latin construction with plus.

The other options seem to go in a somewhat different directions. If you have nothing at all apart from that one friend, you can say:

Nihil habeo nisi unum amicum.

I think the most natural way to express the thought in Latin is to use a different approach, simply using solus to emphasize that there is only one:

Unum solum amicum habeo.

(This answer is based on the comments so far. Feel free to post other thoughts as separate answers!)


Researching on tony's answer, I searched for plus unum in Perseus. Here's what I found:

etiam quia plus [p. 33] quam unum ex patriciis creari non licebat (Liv 39 32) / Only one consul could be a patrician (Roberts, 1912)

nec umquam plus unum patiuntur melioremque pugna quaerunt (Sen. Cl. 1.19) / they never endure to have more than one king at a time, and find out which is the better by making them fight with one another (Stewart, 1900)

non potest habere plus uno, de quo pronuntietur [...] si mihi plus quam unum dicere non liceret (Quint. Inst. 3 6) / cannot have more than one point on which a decision has to be given [...] if I were confined to one single line of argument (Butler, c. 1920)

There were two more results by Seneca and Columella, but I think the point is made that, as tony said, quam may be omitted, but it was actually used as well. (Both alternatives were even used by the same author in the same paragraph).

So, a possible translation of the requested sentence, following a word order that kind of makes more sense to me now, would be:

plus unum amicum non habeo

  • It's quite interesting that Latin can drop quam but Italian and French can drop plus.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 15:14
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    @Rafael: Your third example has "plus" & "quam" together, so the use of these two is valid. I'll have a think about "one more".
    – tony
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 15:41

A debate, in comments (with Joonas) on the possible tautological use of "solum" = "only", when "unum" = "the one-and-only", already; and, points raised with Mitomino concerning the (i) inappropriate use of adverb "quam" = "than" (for comparing nouns in the same case); (ii) "plus" & "quam" or "plusquam"--a word which does not appear to exist; (iii) the inappropriate use of "non...quam".

It may be that both "solum" & "quam" may be excluded in order to produce the correct answer.

Firstly, Oxford gives "plus satis" = "more than enough".

Note: "than" is understood; adverb "quam" = "than" is not required. A parallel "plus unum" = "more than one".

Secondly: Allen & Greenough p.407 Note 2(c):

"After the comparatives plus, minus, amplius, longius, without "quam", a word of measure or number, is often used with no change in its case:-

"plus septingenti capti" (Liv. xii. 12) = "more than seven hundred were taken" (nominative).

Note: the noun takes the case required by the context, without reference to the comparative, which is in a sort of apposition: "seven hundred were taken (and) more".

"plus tertia parte interfecta" (B. G. iii. 6) = "more than a third-part being slain" (ablative absolute).

"aditus in latitudinem non amplius ducentorum pedum relinquebatur" (id. ii. 29) = "an approach of not more than two hundred feet was left" (Genitive of Measure p.345[b]).

Concluding: "non habeo plus unum amicum." = " I do not have more than one friend."

Simplifying: "I have but one friend."

  • Thanks (+1)! I took the liberty to edit and emphasize the final suggestion at the end.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 13:48
  • Makes a lot of sense, but then how do you say one more (honest question!)?
    – Rafael
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 14:07
  • @Rafael You should ask that as a separate question!
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 15:36
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    @Rafael: Remember Pyrrhus of Epirus? After the Battle of Heraclea, 280BC., he is reported to have said: "si talem victoriam iterum habuero, sine exercitu domum iter faciam" = "If I win one more (another) such victory, I shall make the journey home without an army". What about "two, or three, more? The cardinal numbers would have to be deployed e.g. "tres plus quam heri" = "three more than yestersay". Unattested things on the net: "hodie te amo magis quam heri" = "Today, I love you more than yesterday.". "anno 2008 plus quam 4,500,000 exemplares vendiderant in quadraginta tres linguis" =
    – tony
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 10:38
  • @Rafael: "In 2008 the sales topped 4M., in more than forty languages." (Glosbe).
    – tony
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 10:40

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