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Reading Naufragium by Erasmus (1523), I came across this sentence. I include the whole sentence for context, but I'm only asking about the part in bold:

Circumspicienti tandem venit in mentem de ima mali parte: eam quoniam solus eximere non poteram, adscisco socium: huic ambo innixi committimus nos mari, sic ut ego dextrum cornu tenerem, ille laevum.

I take this to mean:

Looking around, it finally came into my mind—the lower part of the mast: since I couldn't wrest it out myself, I enlist a partner: both of us supported by it, we commit ourselves to the sea like so: I would hold the right horn, he the left.

I got to wondering, what explains circumspicienti? Why not circumspiciens?

Ah, I see, because the speaker is not the subject of the sentence. He has put himself into an ablative absolute as a present participle. But then what is the subject of this sentence? Not the lower part of the mast: it's the object of de, hence ablative. Venit appears to be an impersonal verb here. Can you do that?

In four other places in the same story, Erasmus uses the expression in mentem venit, always with the thing or person coming to mind made explicitly the subject of venit.

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  • 3
    "He has put himself into an ablative absolute as a present participle" -- immo dativus est. Oct 5 at 7:12
  • @SebastianKoppehel Is it as if he had written mihi circumspicienti? Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen mihi with an adjective.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 5 at 19:24
  • Yes, unless he's Caesar 😉 I do remember "mihi consuli designato, Catilina, insidiatus es" (Cic. In Catilinam 1,11), so there is that, at least. (Also mihi ipsi here and there, but I guess that doesn't count.) Oct 5 at 20:29
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    @BenKovitz, consider this: Cogitanti mihi saepenumero et memoria vetera repetenti perbeati fuisse (latin.stackexchange.com/questions/16212/…)
    – d_e
    Oct 5 at 21:30
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    @SebastianKoppehel Gratias respondenti ago! Legenti tandem in mentem venit de caso recto. (I am still surprised by both the flexibility and ambiguity of Latin grammar.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 7 at 11:37
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Indeed, Cicero himself uses in mentem venire impersonally, though with the genitive rather than de:

cum hoc vereor et cupio tibi aliqua ex parte quod salva fide possim parcere, rursus immuto voluntatem meam; venit enim mihi in mentem oris tui.

And as I am afraid of this, and as I wish to spare you in some degree, as far as I can, saving my duty to my client, I will again change my purpose. For the thoughts on your countenance present here occur to my mind. (trans C. D. Yonge)

Pro S. Roscio Amerino 95

I cannot offer any firm answer as to what licenses the use of this particular verb in this way. My best guess is that this construction, impersonal verb with a genitive complement, is employed with mental events that de-emphasize agent and emphasize experience. E.g., pudet, piget, taedet, paenitet. Of course, those verbs are all transitive, whereas venire here uses the dative to specify the experiencer.

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    Can you add anything about why it makes sense to use venire impersonally? Can you do this with any verb at all?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 5 at 19:24
  • @BenKovitz I cannot offer any firm answer as to what licenses the use of this particular verb in this way. My best guess is that this construction, impersonal verb with a genitive complement, is employed with mental events that de-emphasize agent and emphasize experience. E.g., pudet, piget, taedet, paenitet. Of course, those verbs are all transitive, whereas venire here uses the dative to specify the experiencer. Oct 5 at 23:09
  • That sounds to me like a very good educated guess, at the very least. I took the liberty of copying it into your answer. It sheds some valuable light on why a fluent Latin speaker would find it reasonable to use venit impersonally even if he hadn't encountered this construction before—exactly what I was hoping for in an answer. (Feel free to revert, of course.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 7 at 11:46
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According to Pinkster (2015: 117): "The expression mihi venit in mentem is used either as an impersonal expression, with the entity remembered or forgotten expressed in the genitive, or as a personal one. The latter construction is normal if that entity is a neuter pronoun or adjective, but nouns can be used as well. The verbs memini and recordor are used occasionally with the preposition de".

Ecquidnam meminit Mnesilochi? ‘Does she remember Mnesilochus at all?’ (Pl. Bac. 206)

Venit enim mihi Platonis in mentem. ‘I am reminded of Plato.’ (Cic. Fin. 5.2)

Some authors (e.g. Baños (2019: 10)) analyze the impersonal construction mihi in mentem venire as a sort of "lexical passive" of meminisse, which lacks a morphological passive. According to this Spanish latinist, "in mentem (mihi) venire (...) tiene, de nuevo, una justificación funcional evidente: ante la imposibilidad de una pasiva morfológica con memini (como tampoco la tenía odi, o los verbos deponentes biargumentales), (...) mentem mihi venire se acaba convirtiendo en su pasiva léxica, como ilustran los ejemplos paralelos [siguientes]":

memini ego istuc (Plaut. Capt. 317)

idem istuc mihi venit in mentem (Ter. Heaut. 889)

Finally, as for the OP's interesting example from Erasmus (Circumspicienti tandem venit in mentem de ima mali parte), it could be the case that the (generalized) use of the prepositional phrase headed by de is an influence of Late Latin. For example, this impersonal construction with this Prepositional Phrase is quite frequent in Old Spanish:

Non te viene en miente en valençia del Leon (Cid, 66v)

non me viene en miente desos malos recabdos (LBA, 742c)

The Latin impersonal construction alicui in mentem venire de aliquo is even still preserved in contemporary Italian (although the personal construction is more typical):

Mi venne in mente di te (source). Cf. Lat. {tui/de te} mihi in mentem venit.

My hunch is that the genitive in this particular example/construction could not sound natural to Erasmus and he preferred using the Prep. Phrase "de+abl." instead. Similarly, it seems that this construction did not sound natural to Petrarch either, whereby he conjectured the insertion of (nominative) imago to account for the genitive in the following example from Cicero, Pro Sulla, VI, 18-19: sed cum mihi patriae, cum vestrorum periculorum, cum huius urbis, cum illorum delubrorum atque templorum, cum puerorum infantium, cum matronarum ac virginum veniebat in mentem,....

Linguistically speaking, what I think is interesting is that from this non-agentive collocation (alicui in mentem venire) there is no way to obtain an impersonal passive. Note that the impersonal passive of venire would only be possible if and only if the verb is agentive (e.g. ubi eo ventum est ('when they arrived there', Caes. BG. 1.43.4)).

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  • I'm glad this construction has received scholarly attention and isn't just my usual language learner's confusion! I took de to invoke the notion of a topic (like "about" in English), i.e. Erasmus wasn't using de as a generic or genitive preposition. Plausible?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 7 at 17:29
  • @BenKovitz My hunch is that the genitive in this particular example/construction could not sound natural to Erasmus and he preferred using the PP "de+abl." In this sense it is also interesting that, as you can see in the link below, Petrarch has been said to conjecture insertion of (nominative) imago to account for the genitive in this example from Cicero, Pro Sulla, VI, 19 : cum vestrorum periculorum, cum huius urbis, cum illorum delubrorum atque templorum, cum puerorum infantium, cum matronarum ac virginum veniebat in mentem.
    – Mitomino
    Oct 7 at 20:05
  • @BenKovitz See the comment in this link: books.google.es/…
    – Mitomino
    Oct 7 at 20:07
  • An implied imago is certainly an interesting idea. It would even explain Erasmus's de. Here, though, is a deep theoretical question: couldn't each impersonal in mentem venit result not from a rule or implied subject, but each person making an analogy with other impersonal verbs anew?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 7 at 21:50
  • @BenKovitz Perhaps Petrarch did not consider the genitive in this construction as grammatically motivated, hence his conjecture of inserting imago to justify this case. Linguistically speaking, what I think is interesting is that from this non-agentive collocation (in mentem venire) there is no way to obtain an impersonal passive. Note that the impersonal passive of venire would only be possible if and only if the verb is agentive (e.g. ubi eo ventum est ('when they arrived there', Caes. BG. 1.43.4)). See the Latin section in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impersonal_passive_voice
    – Mitomino
    Oct 11 at 17:34

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