In the 16th century, Robert et Antoine Lechevallier d'Aigneaux made a famous translation of Virgil's Aeneid which was seemingly praised in the French world; they also translated the Georgics including this segment:

At nebulæ magis ima petunt, campoque recumbunt;
Solis et occasum servans de culmine summo
Nequidquam seros exercet noctua cantus.

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[ Et observant le temps que panche vers sa couche
Le soleil abaissé, son nocturne hou, hou
Du haut d'un toit chaumeux n'entonne le Hibou. ]

[ Virgil, Georgics, Latin (Wikisource), translation from d'Aigneaux (1582) and my quick transcription and use of bold. I, 401-403 ]

Actually one attributes to this very translation the first onomatopoeic use of houhou (similar to the oo sound in hoot in English, twice) in French to represent the owl's hoot (more on hou, pronounced [u] in Fr.). Needless to say, noctua cantus, the owl's chant I guess, doesn't contain any onomatopoeia.

  • In Latin, what is, and how would you write, the sequence of onomatopoeia used to represent the cry a type of bird such as the owl makes? Do we have a well-known example from the classics or from that era?
  • Could you please briefly analyze (cases, tenses, syntax) and explain the nequidquam seros exercet noctua cantus segment; in particular, what word is seros and what's its function; is exercet a passive verb 3SG; word for word is that something like: uselessly [seros] is done the owl's chant?

1 Answer 1


The Romans didn't write out onomatopoeia very often, at least not in works which have survived. I'm not aware of any source which actually writes out the sound of an owl's call directly. We do, however, have records of onomatopoeic verbs for some of these sounds. (The equivalent of "howl" instead of "awooooooo" in English.)

The most descriptive verbs I've found for an owl's cry are

Greek also includes the more descriptive hūhūzō, but nothing of the sort is recorded in Latin sources.

For your second question, I'd give

Nequidquam seros exercet noctua cantus
uselessly-ADV late-M-PL-ACC strive-3-SG-PRES-ACT-IND owl-F-SG-NOM songs-M-PL-ACC
"the owl toils fruitlessly at her nighttime songs"

  • Serus is an adjective meaning "late", here in the masculine plural accusative to modify cantūs. In this case, probably better translated as "evening" or "night-time".
  • Cantus itself is fourth-declension, not second, so -ūs is the accusative plural. (The perils of omitting macrons.)
  • Exercet is active, with noctua as subject.

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