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I have read that the modern tendency is to translate a modern person's personal name into Latin but not his surname. So John Doe would be translated as Ioannes Doe. This seems sensible at face value, for people to understand who you are talking about, but it seems very complicated when you actually generalize this for every person mentioned and then try to talk about said persons interacting. So if Ioannes Doe decided to hit Ioannes Smith, how could we possibly make sense of who hits who? Smith Doe pulsat doesn't make any sense. You could contour that by always using their first name, so Ioannem Smith Ioannes Doe pulsat reveals that it is Smith who is getting beaten. You can even simplify this by only naming one of them, so Ioannem Smith Doe pulsat, which by context has Doe be the perpetrator. But are there any other strategies used by good Latinists to deal with the proliferation of indeclinables? Are there any authoritative sources that deal with this issue and any prescribed standards?

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    If I heard Smith Doe pulsat I would assume the first is the subject and the second is the object, which is the default word order in Latin even if other options are possible.
    – Draconis
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:31
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    That is the more likely word order, yes, so I would also probably go that route if I ever saw that in the wild, but it seems like horrible Latin, because it forces the reader to assume a rigid order that is far from universal as "the" order for undeclinables. Any nuance of emphasis that you might wish to convey then is not accessible in these situations.
    – Victor BC
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:33
  • Very true. Indeclinables are unfortunate like that. In Greek you can use articles to disambiguate but in Latin you can't.
    – Draconis
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:40
  • Given their proliferation in modern topics (because of the standard of Indeclinable surnames), I was wondering if there are any modern standards of style and strategies used and agreed upon to deal with this situation.
    – Victor BC
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:44
  • Related: Nominative-accusative ambiguity. Also, note that Russian speakers seem to get by with the increased number of indeclinable nouns that have apparently come to be in the language, and German has fairly free word order compared to English even though it only has distinct nominative and accusative forms for masculine words.
    – Asteroides
    Jun 16, 2023 at 5:57

4 Answers 4

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As cmw says, the most common solution was to simply…ignore the problem. In many cases, the ambiguity isn't particularly bad; there's a default of putting the subject before the object, and the context will often make it clear who's doing the action to whom. That's how it's done all through the Vulgate for example.

But some authors found other ways. The easiest is just to force the names into some Latin declension; now they're no longer indeclinable. Another is to put them in apposition to something which declines; in Classical usage, for example, names of alphabet letters are indeclinable, but you can talk about littera A versus litteram A. While Smith and Doe are indeclinable, Joannes is not.

For names, instead of apposition, you can use a demonstrative like hic or ille—or you can stick an article onto it. Even though Classical Latin doesn't have articles, some later authors back-ported the Romance article li for this purpose, or borrowed the article from Greek. This answer gives some fun examples:

... ne fortè ... per technas Imperium à se τῷ Aly destinatum præriperent.
…lest perhaps…through their artifices, they would snatch away the Empire destined by him for Ali.

In the end, though, simply ignoring the ambiguity (and relying on context or word order to disambiguate it) was the most common solution by far. This is also what Romance ended up doing when sound changes eroded the distinctions between the cases: sacrificing the free word order and relying entirely on the syntax for clarity.

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    Does that also explain partially why prepositions exploded in later periods of Latin? The Vulgate being full of undeclinable names kinda forcing the use of prepositions where otherwise mere declensions would have done the job?
    – Victor BC
    Jun 14, 2023 at 22:44
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    @VictorBC Very much so! Sound changes eroded the case distinctions away, and word order can take care of nom vs acc, but not so much for the others. So de and ad started taking over genitive and dative.
    – Draconis
    Jun 14, 2023 at 23:15
  • I marked yours as correct because your response was more detailed
    – Victor BC
    Jun 23, 2023 at 0:29
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You may not like it, but word order is necessary, and in fact is what was done with the Vulgate:

Matthew 1.2:

Abraham genuit Isaac Isaac autem genuit Iacob Iacob autem genuit Iudam et fratres eius

There's no way someone will read this and think "Isaac begat Abraham".

For most of the antiquity, it wasn't an issue, so Neo-Latinists have largely fallen in line with that precedent.

That said, context is key. In what non-textbook, real-world example would Smith Doe pulsat not make sense from context? Anything unclear could be made clear in the same way ambiguities in actual Latin could be clarified (hic/ille, putting one into passive, etc.).

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    I used a very simple example just to showcase the idea of ambiguity caused by not having declensions. I didn't mean it as a puzzle that in itself had to be found a solution. My question was specifically regarding standards, as in, what is the agreed upon or prescribed way of dealing with ambiguities when indeclinables are very common in a text. I am aware that in the Bible they deal with it mostly with a rigid word order and context, but I wanted to know if that was still the current strategy or if others were devised and currently employed. If not, then I'll mark your answer as the right one.
    – Victor BC
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:57
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    I'm sure you can find someone doing something, but word order tends to be default. Feel free to wait days, weeks, or months for others to chime in before marking it solved, though, to encourage other ideas.
    – cmw
    Jun 14, 2023 at 22:01
  • Yeah, I know there were some people who were, shall we say, creative, like for example the weird custom of using Greek articles to fix the ambiguity (in the Latin text!). Those sort of monstrosities don't interest me though, of course. I was more hoping that some prose composition manual might be showed to give clear instructions on how this ought to he delt with. But that might not exist :/ either way, I'll leave this up for a week or so just in case.
    – Victor BC
    Jun 14, 2023 at 22:05
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There is a long tradition of translating personal names into Latin or Greek, especially in the Renaissance. One of my favourites is the German humanist Osiander, né Hosemann (“trouser man”, half done into Greek and half left in German). So John Smith could become Ioannes Faber. And John Doe could become Ioannes Cerva, or why not Cervus. Both parts are then declinable.

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    My go-to example for this is Regiomontanus for Königsberg, which was coined by Philippus Melanchthon, aka Philipp Schwartzerdt.
    – cmw
    Jun 15, 2023 at 17:41
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    I know, and I find that the best way of doing things, frankly. I am extremely perplexed by the modern tendency of leaving indeclinable surnames. It reeks of decadence, taking on the custom of a period in which Latinity was losing space for the vernacular. There are few arguments to be made in favor of it, none of them convincing. It attacks the virility of the language and I hope one day this unfortunate tendency is completely reversed. But given that it is so, the question was not related to changing the paradigm, but what authoritative sources say are good strategies to navigate the paradigm
    – Victor BC
    Jun 15, 2023 at 17:46
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I won't claim to be a "good Latinist", but my typical strategy is to switch to passive voice where the agent is marked by a preposition.

Smith pulsatur a Doe.

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    That's an elegant solution in case you want to change the usual order of the phrase for the purpose of emphasis!
    – Victor BC
    Jun 15, 2023 at 19:11

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