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Consider the following minimal pair:

edere panem 'to eat (the) bread'

comedere panem 'to eat up the bread'

When a resultative prefix is present (e.g. com- in comedere), panem is necessarily understood as definite (or at least it is understood as specific. See the comments below). In contrast, when this prefix is absent (e.g. in edere), panem can be understood as non-specific/partitive (e.g. '(some) bread') but also as definite/specific (e.g. 'the bread'). If so, edere panem is ambiguous (see the parentheses in 'to eat (the) bread') but comedere panem is not: in the latter case only a definite/specific reading of panem is possible. Is this contrast in ambiguity correct? A similar pair would be: bibere vinum vs. ebibere vinum. Furthermore, note that there appears to be a well-known parallelism between Latin prefixes and English particles in these contrasts: e.g. cf. the well-formedness of 'to eat up {the bread/the apples}' vs. the ill-formedness of '*to eat up {bread/apples}'.

Aspectually speaking, it seems clear that in comedere panem we get a telic reading, whereby an appropriate modifier could be 'in X time', whereas in edere panem we (typically?) get an atelic reading, whereby an appropriate modifier could be 'for X time'. However, given the ambiguity above of edere panem, I'd also expect that this unprefixed predicate edere panem could be interpreted as a telic predicate. Is my expectation correct? Cf. also Eng. 'to eat bread for hours' (only atelic reading), 'to eat the bread {for/in} five minutes' ({atelic/telic} reading), and 'to eat the bread up in five minutes' (only telic reading). Note also the aspectual ambiguity of the second case (like in Latin?).

Concerning contrasts like the one given in the title, I was also wondering to what extent Latin can be said to behave like languages without articles like Russian and other Slavic languages, which have a very rich/complex system of prefixation. Any comments on similarities and differences between Latin and Russian regarding contrasts like the one exemplified in the title would also be welcome.

NB I: my present question only holds for Early Latin and Classical Latin. As is well-known, Late Latin is very different in this respect since prefixed verbs like comedere can also be interpreted as atelic/unbounded predicates (i.e., the contrast between edere and comedere is blurred in Late Latin). In Late Latin many subtle (but very important!) distinctions of the prefixation system found in Early and Classical Latin are blurred: for example, erubescere can only be interpreted as a telic change of state verb in Early & Classical Latin ('to become/turn red'). In contrast, erubescere can be interpreted as a stative verb 'to be ashamed' in Late Latin, a reading which is fully impossible in previous stages. Rubere would be used instead (for related discussion, see aret = aridus est? ).

NB II: in Romance languages like Spanish or Catalan the translation of the Latin examples above would be: edere panem Sp. 'comer (el) pan' & comedere panem Sp. 'comerse el pan'. Note the ungrammaticaliy of Sp. *comerse pan. The so-called "completive/aspectual se" requires its direct object be definite/specific.

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  • Interesting question. "When a resultative prefix is present (e.g. com- in comedere), panem is necessarily understood as definite": I would like to read more about this, as unfortunately it is not intuitive for me. If we take this example: "senex etiam, antequam salutatores venirent, panem siccum comedit ad sustentandas vires" does this adheres to this law (since I read this as a bread)?
    – d_e
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 18:59
  • @d_e Thanks for your comment. Cf. your example with the following one: panem nisi siccum numquam comedit eundemque sale atque aliis rebus conditum. First, as emphasized in my NB I above, we should be cautious when dealing with examples of late stages. Second, in Classical Latin the prefixed verb comedit requires a definite/specific reading of panem: cf. 'He eats up {the/a} bread'. NB: panem with the prefixed verb comedere can be understood as 'a bread' if it is specific (definite Nominal Phrases are specific but it's not the case that all specific NPs are definite). –
    – Mitomino
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 1:04
  • Note also that Spanish, unlike English, allows to mantain the topicalized nature of panem in my Latin example above: Sp. 'El pan, si no es seco, no se lo come nunca y este (se lo come) aliñado con sal y otras cosas'. Here the topicalized direct object is naturally seen as definite (el pan 'the bread'). Cf. the ungrammaticality of Sp. Pan, si no es seco, no se lo come nunca with the grammaticality of Pan no come nunca. Cf. the parallelism above between Spanish completive se and English up (cf. the resultative prefix com- in comedere).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 1:07
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    I have no definite answer, but my intuition would agree with your expectations. On a side-note, one thing to consider may be Aktionsart and 'Objeksart': in some cases, those might resolve ambiguity or even force an otherwise impossible reading, especially in poetry.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 18:53
  • I think Ilse Depratere’s analysis (based on English data) is very informative and I also distinguish between boundedness and telicity. link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00984959
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 19, 2021 at 3:47

1 Answer 1

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I am not sure you can draw this conclusion. There do seem to be cases where comedo is used indefinitely. For example, in Juvenal's second satire, he write comedunt colyphia paucae (few women consume meaty things). I see no reason to assume a definite subject if com-edo is used.

I see the com- as simply indicating completion of the activity or an activity taken in conjunction with others. For example, imagine we have a sentence like:

edebat et edebat et edebat usque comederat (he ate and ate and ate until he had eaten it all)

Another example of comedo being used indefinitely from the account of Pertinax in the Historia Augusta:

Phasianum numquam privato convivio comedit. (He never ate pheasant at his own banquets.)

Note that it is indefinite: pheasant in general, not the pheasant.

Latin generally indicates whether something is definite or indefinite by the various inflections and structure of the expression rather than by using single articles the way Romance languages do.

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  • Thanks for your answer. The first example you give from Juvenal is interesting (cf. this similar example from Martialis: Cum coloephia sedecim comedit (M. VII, 67, 12)). You say: "I see no reason to assume a definite subject if comedo is used". As pointed out in my question above, note that it is the nature of the direct object what is relevant (rather than the type of subject). This said, your example is interesting. As for the second example from HA, note that it is from Late Latin, when the aspectual difference between pairs like edere and comedere becomes blurred (see my NB I above).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 15:33
  • @Mitomino Well, I think you will find it easy to find many examples of indefinite uses of comedo in the classical period. For example, in a letter of Seneca he writes "Multi bona comedunt" (Many men consume their goods = waste their inheritance). And we have from Quintilian: Plane immanis belua [qui] ... comederit hominem. (Plainly it is an inhuman beast ... [who] has eaten human flesh). Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 15:50
  • Note that your example from Seneca does not contain an indefinite/non-specific object: your correct translation/interpretation ('their goods') is clearly definite and specific. Your second example from Quintilian is more interesting but is not clear for a different reason: Declamationes have often been attributed to Pseudo-Quintilian, perhaps collected by the time of Late Latin. So, as I emphasized in NB I in my question above, I think it would be better for us to find/discuss examples that clearly come from Early & Classical Latin.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 18:04

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