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The Latin word "in" is conventionally given in vocabularies as meaning "in or on" but it seems mean more like "associated with" because it mean attached to or bunch of other things. Its a lot more vague than the English words in or on.

My question is how the Latins expressed the English ideas of in or on. For example, "the rabbit is in the hat" means something different than "the rabbit is on the hat". How would these ideas be expressed in Latin? Obviously you can't say "in petase" because that could mean either in or on.

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  • You can say something is in the hat like that, although it should be petaso since in takes an ablative when you're saying something is in or on something else.
    – Adam
    Apr 21 at 20:45
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The basic meaning of Latin "in" is "in". The meaning "on" concerns some place. Latin understands a "place" morelike a delimited space, so "in", while in English, it's understood more as a ground lying under something, so "on". In wiktionary, the example from Virgil explains it quite well (emphasis mine):

omne adeo genvs in terris hominvmqve ferarvmqve et genvs æqvorevm pecvdes pictæqve volvcres in fvrias ignemqve rvvnt

So far does every species on earth of man and beast, whether the aquatic species, livestock, or painted-winged, collapse into the frenzies and the fire.

In (almost? there might be other exceptions) all other cases where "on" is used in English, I would use "super" in Latin.

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in petasō can't mean "on", only "inside". The "on" in the dictionaries is an artifact of the English usage where the distinction between various prepositions is often vague or associated with particular semantic fields, or even individual words.

That's what a Latin speaker would say, any way, because in Latin there's absolutely no overlap between the word for "inside" in and "on top of" super, although there is an overlap between the latter and "above" suprā. You're always in viā, forō, aedibus, lūdīs, scholā, īnsulā, terrā, while in English you're "on the island, mainland, Earth" but "in the building, some country, in school", and either "on the street, forum" or "in the street, forum"... but "at the lesson". Just google for "English on vs in" to find scores upon scores of confused learners.

'Dī bonī!' - exclaims a confused Latin speaker - 'how can in terrā be both "in some country" and "on mainland/Earth" (not to mention "in/on the soil"), and in scholā both "in school", "in the school" and "at the lesson"? And how in Earth is in spectāculō, lūdīs both "at the concert, games" and "in the concert, games"?? And what's that business with "street" and "forum"??' What can one say but shrug? :-]

You could of course try explaining to them that the choice of preposition depends on how the space in question is conceived of by the speakers, and whether it's actually a space or a time referred to metonymically with a word for a space, but that would be like explaining to an English speaker that the choice of perfective vs. imperfective verbs in Russian depends on whether one conceives of the action as a point or a stretch on the timescale. 'But what if I just want to say in scholā???'

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  • +1 but "in the country" is more commonly ruri.
    – C Monsour
    Apr 23 at 23:59
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    @CMonsour See, another translation artifact! That's not the sense of "in the country" that in terrā has; the latter means "in the geographic (political) entity", while rūrī means "in the countryside, not in town". One is in terrā whether they're rūrī or in urbe (typically replaced by the locative of whatever city, eg. Rōmae, Parīsiōs [yes it's weird like that]). Like those prepositions, they aren't interchangeable. Apr 24 at 0:03
  • English has its own idiomatic requirements. To translate in terra into English, English requires a demonstrative rather than "the" (unless you supply the country's name). Without a name, the English "in the country" invariably means ruri.
    – C Monsour
    Apr 24 at 0:13
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    @CMonsour Do you mean that "I'm not in the country right now" cannot mean "I'm abroad"? Apr 24 at 0:17
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    "In this country" would be much clearer. If you utter what you wrote (1st sentence...the others appeared later) in a non-urbanized area and mean in terra you are likely to be misunderstood.
    – C Monsour
    Apr 24 at 0:23

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