In English, we can say "one must do this" or "one should do that", as a way of referring to any person, not just one person in specific. Can homo be used in a similar fashion in Latin (particularly in Classical Latin). Some example sentences:

One should drink in moderation.

One must not eat the yellow snow.

There was an answer to a translation question where the lack of an impersonal pronoun was mentioned, so I'm curious if this usage of homo would work.


3 Answers 3


The use of homo as a genuine indefinite pronoun is definitely not good Classical Latin, but homo did have indefinite meaning from the very beginning, and by the Christian era Vulgar Latin was clearly well on its way to developing it into a true pronoun (cf. the Vulgate's non in solo pane vivit homo, often translated as "one does not live on bread alone"). Clear lines can be hard to draw, however; it's difficult to find a use of homo that can only be pronominal.

It's probably not the case that homo became a true pronoun before the separation of the Romance languages, but it was certainly close enough already that it only needed a gentle push to become one later on.
Probably the most famous surviving reflex is French on (from the nominative; compare that to the noun homme, from the accusative); for a while it was commonly believed to be the only one, but actually Catalan has hom (with or without the indefinite article un), and apparently a few Italian dialects still use uomo. The heyday of Italian pronominal uomo was the 13th century to the 15th, with only one attestation prior to that, in the 12th. Old Spanish also used omne/hombre (formally unambiguously from the accusative) as an indefinite pronoun, but stopped in the 16th century; it also doesn't seem to have done it before the 12th. The Eastern Romance does not preserve it, if it ever had it.

(Because of the prominence of French on, Germanic influence was often cited as the origin of the pronominal use of homo (cf. Dutch men, German man, Middle English man/men, all 3sg indefinite pronouns originating in the unstressed version of a word meaning 'man'), but given its original indefinite meaning, it's really not necessary.)

Classical Latin typically uses passive constructions (like the gerundives of the other answer) or 3rd person plurals without expressed pronouns (e.g. dicent often becomes "on dit" in French and "men zegt" in Dutch, though English does also render it as "they say") where other languages might use their impersonal or indefinite pronouns.

  • Great answer +1. My only comment is that I don't see anything particularly different about the usage of homo in the Vulgate. Isn't this just a so-called "gnomic present" about humans as a kind? It's not clear to me what the boundary between that and a quasi-pronoun is. See, for instance, Seneca: "Magna scilicet laus est si homo mansuetus homini est." (Many of the results for "homo" in Seneca--with his tendency for aphorisms--are similar.)
    – brianpck
    Jul 14, 2021 at 13:31
  • The Vulgate of Matt. 4,4 is a literal translation of Οὐκ ἐπ’ ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος. Hence, I do not think it is a very good example for impersonal homo.
    – fdb
    Jul 17, 2021 at 12:01

I'd express this as bibendum est cum temperantia and nives albicerae edendae non sunt without any need for an impersonal pronoun.

  • Ahh! Thanks. I always forget that you can have subjectless sentences in Latin.
    – Adam
    Jul 12, 2021 at 14:19
  • 2
    @Adam You could consider the gerund(ive) the subject of the first sentence, and nives of the second. In constructions like these the grammatical subject might have nothing to do with the "semantic subject".
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 12, 2021 at 18:31

I can't find any evidence of Latin using homo as an impersonal pronoun. It might be interesting to note that the nominative case of Old French hom becomes on, which is used as an impersonal pronoun in French, while the oblique home became homme, meaning man.

As for Latin, the passive voice was used instead of any impersonal pronoun. This meant that for intransitive verbs, they really did become impersonal. The verb ire was used in the third person passively, itur, to basically mean "one goes".

Allen and Greenough's Latin Grammar states in a footnote:

With impersonal verbs the word it is used in English, having usually no representative in Latin, though id, hōc, and illud are often used nearly in the same way.

Overall, a solid translation of "One must not eat yellow snow" is "Nix flava edenda non est", using the future passive participle (gerund) to show necessity.

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