Are there instances in known literature where sal, "salt", is neuter instead of masculine? If yes (as it now seems), can it be freely used as both masculine and neuter or is there a difference?

The reason I ask is something I heard years ago about the writings of viri obscuri. They interpreted vos estis sal terrae as "you eat the salt of the land". It is valid to read ēstis with a long E (alternative form of editis), but this only makes sense if sal is the object. I want to know if the interpretation "you eat salt" instead of "you are salt" makes sense grammatically, ignoring the context of the phrase.

My Finnish–Latin–Finnish dictionary (the only thing I had access to when I heard the story) lists sal as masculine, but I see that L&S includes both genders. I would like to get rid of this confusion of mine.

  • I assumed sal was neuter because sal volatile was used for first aid in some novel or other. If I met Salem, something else altogether. – Hugh Sep 11 '16 at 14:06
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    In case it needs to be said concerning Matt 5:13: "τὸ ἅλας" is neuter in Greek, but there is no ambiguity with the verb "ἐστὲ." The parallelism with the subsequent "vos estis lux mundi" also precludes this interpretation. – brianpck Sep 12 '16 at 14:28
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    @brianpck, it needs to be said. To be honest, comparing with the Greek never crossed my mind. That only confirms further my feeling that the interpretation is grammatically valid but the context rules it out for several reasons. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 12 '16 at 19:07
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    see note 1 in academia.edu/23859307/… – Alex B. Oct 31 '16 at 3:59
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    Yes, sal is usually masculinum and occasionally neutrum. And no, there seems to be no difference. – Alex B. Oct 31 '16 at 18:03

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1162

caesia Palladium, nervosa et lignea dorcas,
parvula, pumilio, chariton mia, tota merum sal,
magna atque inmanis cataplexis plenaque honoris.

If sāl were masculine here, it would be modified by merus.

Other citations are mentioned in L&S, but I have not been able to find copies of the texts.


In fact, in classic authors sal is often neuter, like in sal comune and sal populare (Cato); sal coctum (Col.); sal nitrum (Plin.) but also masculine, e.g. in sal fossilis, sal marinus, sal culinaris. Most important, it is masculine when used in the sense of wit, e.g. urbani sales (Cic.).


As other answers have said, there are examples of sal being used as a neuter noun "salt" in the singular.

The attested plural nominative/accusative form sales (which as Pietro Majer says was used in the sense of "wit") is always masculine.

There seem to be no attestations of a neuter plural nominative/accusative form: a PHI Latin Texts search for "salia" gave no results, and "sala" only showed up once, in the single phrase/term "sala cattabia", from Caelius Apicius' De Re Coquinaria, where it doesn't seem to be a form of the substantive sal (although it is probably derived in some way from the same root as sal).

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