Pope Francis tweeted on September 21st,

Sermonem confero cum aliquo sincerum tunc tantum agnosco illum esse donum Dei mihique aliquid pretiosum dicturum.

Here is my translation. (Credits to Keith Massey for his help.)

I engage in a sincere dialogue with someone only after I recognize that person is a gift of God and about to say something precious to me.

My confusion is with the phrase tunc tantum. I recognize tantum as an adverb meaning "only", but I'm unsure of how to translate tunc alongside of it. I am accustomed to tunc meaning "then", but in this case could it possibly mean "when"?

I checked the Lewis and Short dictionary, and couldn't find this sense of tunc. But it seems to be the most appropriate translation. Is going from "then" to "when" not such a big stretch after all — am I merely nitpicking? Or are there dictionaries that document this sense of tunc after all?

  • How often in Petrarca or Boccaccio do we see these “odd” uses that may be of era or locale?
    – Antoni
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


This usage strikes me as strange, so I will make the case for that. I would be happy if another answer corrects me!

There are 12 matches in the Packhum corpus database for tunc tantum: there are no cases of it being a temporal/conditional conjunction. The vast majority are coordinated with temporal conjuctions (tunc...cum / ubi / dum), one is used alone to mean "only at this time," and a final one is used with quanto + comparative adjective to mean "this only occurs the more X something is."

The Lewis and Short entry does list some conditional meanings of tunc, but it is always used as an adverb. An example:

cuperem tecum communicare tam subitam mutationem mei: tunc amicitiae nostrae certiorem fiduciam habere coepissem. (Sen. Ep. 6, 2)

I would like to discuss with you such a sudden change in me: then I would begin to have stronger confidence in our friendship.

Conclusion: tunc can only be used as an adverb

The current usage is different though: it essentially functions as a restrictive particle like dummodo, dumtaxat, or quatenus.

A simplified sentence that illustrates this use would be:

Bonus sum tunc tantum fidelis sum.

I am good only when (?) I am faithful.

Another points that makes me question this usage is that I expect the subjunctive for this kind of qualification, whereas agnosco is indicative. The other restrictive conjunctions mentioned above take the subjunctive as well, which seems to confirm this gut feeling.

Again, I am happy to be proven wrong.

  • For the record: Fr. Daniel Gallagher is generally responsible for these translations and is (otherwise...?) an excellent Latinist.
    – brianpck
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:28
  • I guess that this is medieval Latin, which so often ignores classical syntax, just so long as the meaning is clear. Indicative "agnosco" then would not be unexpected, but I don't think we can demand the same standards here as we would do of Cicero or Caesar !
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:42
  • Great points — it does make sense that tunc is not being used as an adverb (as it is joining two clauses) in which case it is peculiar.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:52
  • I'm not too familiar with restrictive particles, but to me the part of speech for tunc seems to be a conjunction. Can a particle be a conjunction? Is that the case here?
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:55
  • 1
    @TomCotton I've read a lot of medieval Latin and this still strikes me as off: Medieval Latin has idiosyncracies that are well-studied, but it isn't a catch-all umbrella for solecisms. Also, since Erasmus the growing trend of Latinists of this kind is to consciously emulate classical patterns wherever possible: the acc. + inf. construction (instead of quia) seems to confirm that.
    – brianpck
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:57

As it is virtually impossible to draw up a complete list of every adverbial phrase, the rarer ones are often omitted from dictionaries, this perhaps being justified as hapax legomenon. It's sometimes necessary to use a bit of imagination, as many scholiasts or commentators seem to have done quite often in such circumstances.

I think here that tunc tantum simply means "only then", but with a little licence you might express it as, say, "at which point" - or construe into something else which might fit the case. Provided that it agrees with its context, you could even translate as "It is only when I'm engaged in serious dialogue with anyone that I can see that he is a gift, etc."

  • I don't think it's terribly meaningful to talk about a grammatical hapax legomenon in the context of something that was just written on Twitter... :)
    – brianpck
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 20:51
  • I think you have misunderstood. I wasn't referring to the tweet but wished to suggest that the compilers of dictionaries, for reasons of space, are liable to exclude a hapax legomenon that they consider of little significance.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 21:22
  • Got it. I still think you are extending a little too much latitude to a Latin tweet by suggesting that he is using a construction that has never been recorded before.
    – brianpck
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:08
  • Cringes and backs into corner slowly I think this might be a duplicate ...*closes eyes* Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 14:22

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