In some nouns the genitive singular is the same as another case, such as:

  1. First declension: fīliī could also be nominative plural
  2. Second declension: fīliae could also nominative plural
  3. Some third declension nouns: canis could also be nominative singular
  4. Fifth declension: diēī could also be dative

So is the sentence "Fīliī fīliae dormiunt" ambiguous? Could it mean "the son's daughters sleep" as well as "the daughter's sons sleep"?

  • 1
    Hi Dan. Your question reminded me of the this question, and I think its answer works as well for your question. Have a look and see if it does, and if you still have questions, feel free to edit your post to further elaborate on what questions might still linger. Let me know (@cmw) if you have any questions or concerns about this.
    – cmw
    Jan 19, 2022 at 3:47
  • I would vote to reopen this because I would answer this question differently from the answer to the associated question. The associated question and answer dealt mostly with which semantics were more likely. This question can be answered with more specifics about pragmatics in Latin and about how they could be disambiguated. Jan 21, 2022 at 17:35
  • 1
    @Vegawatcher: I'd be interested in reading an answer concerning the pragmatics!
    – Cerberus
    Jan 22, 2022 at 15:53
  • 1
    "which semantics are more likely" is the question that pragmatics is concermed with, and the anwer given to the previous such question was in essence that the main pragmatic factor involved was idiomaticity. I believe that the questions are duplicate - if one wants to expland on the pragmatic factors influencing the interpretation of genitives, I think it can be done while answering the previous question just as well.—Here's another, even more clearly duplicate question. Jan 22, 2022 at 18:00
  • Here's another question about genitive ambiguity with filiae, which does not yet have an answer.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 27, 2022 at 7:12

1 Answer 1


So is the sentence "Fīliī fīliae dormiunt" ambiguous? Could it mean "the son's daughters sleep" as well as "the daughter's sons sleep"?

Absolutely, either meaning is syntactically possible. This discovery could make you feel that Latin is horribly ambiguous, especially because it almost never uses word order to resolve ambiguity. The reality is that all languages are horribly ambiguous all the time out of efficiency. Even the English in this case is ambiguous about whether the people are actually asleep or just in bed awake waiting to sleep. Orally, it is also not clear if it is "son's" or "daughter's" in the singular or "sons'" and "daughters'" in the plural, since the pronunciation is the same. Constant precision takes too many words that are usually not necessary for the context, and different languages take differnt strategies about what choices are required, optional, or easy to express. We monitor in real time how ambiguous our expressions are and add words or rearrange them to achieve our communication goals with minimal effort.

The sentence fílií fíliae dormiunt is very bear bones and would only occur if one or both sets of participants had already been mentioned. Hearing any of the following forms in a previous sentence would make the references clear: fílius, fílió, fílium, fíliós, fíliórum, fíliís, fília, fíliá, fíliás, or fíliábus, since they are unambiguously singular or plural. Even the forms fílií and fíliae could be unambiuguously clear in a previous context, such as "fília domum suum fíliis suis dedit et fílií fíliae dormiunt" (The daughter gave her house to her sons, and the daughter's sons are sleeping).

If for some odd reason the sentence was still unclear, you could add words, such as eí fílií fíliae (those sons of the daughter or eius fílií fíliae (the son's daughters) or even eae fílií fíliae (which, for discourse and gender reasons, could only be "the daughters of the son"). You could even just say quás fíliás habet fílius dormiunt (The daughters the son has are sleeping) or quós fíliós habet fília dormiunt (The sons the daughter has are sleeping. All these options have slightly different nuances to lead you along a slightly different information path, but are available to minimize unnecessary ambiguity.

By itself, "fílius" and "fília" are not very informative relationships and so tend to come second in genitive constructions, so that "the sons of the daughter" is probably the default reading of fílií fíliae if there is no other context forthcoming. Different words have different default positions because of their semantic salience or lack thereof.

Latin word order, compared to English word order, is much more guided by discourse factors. The words that will best lead you on the communication path or that will correct your navigation go first and the details of the inevitable destination go after. The specific rules are quite complex and can seem to conflict, but these are more examples.

Hostium clámóre territus vs. clámóre hostium territus

The first means being terrified by the enemy and the noise they are making. The second means being terrified by a noise that is being made by the enemy. Since the source of the terror is really the enemy and not the noise, the first sentence is generally a better guide to the normally intended meaning.

If, on the other hand, you were reading that the appearance of the enemy was unimpressive, but then they gave a bloodcurdling cry and rushed forward, the second option would be better, since the focus is actually on the noise itself.

As you get better at reading Latin, you may begin to pick up the discourse factors that help govern word order, and these will begin to help disambiguate meanings that the syntax seems to leave open.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.