I have the following sentence:

Clara est insula Sicilia

What I initially thought:

Sicily is a famous island

(This doesn't seem to make sense considering how the sentence is set up, but who knows... that's the best I got.)

But to my surprise, this is the real answer:

The island of Sicily is famous.

As far as I know, the only time where I can express "of" is by using a genitive. What is going on here?

up vote 14 down vote accepted

A genitive would indicate a relationship of dependency or subordination between the genitive noun and the other noun. But the island is Sicily. There's no dependency; the two nouns are just different terms for the same thing. Latin doesn't typically use a genitive for expressions such as 'the island of Sicily' or 'the city of Rome.' Instead, it tends to treat the two nouns as noun + appositive, much as it would for phrases such as 'the consul Cicero', where 'the consul' and 'Cicero' refer to the same person. To say insula Siciliae would, in general, be as strange in Latin as to say 'the consul of Cicero' in English.

(Note: I've added all the qualifiers in the above, because I have occasionally seen the genitive used; but I think it has mostly been in poetry, or maybe in Tacitus or Pliny the Younger.)

  • So, the genitive infers a literal relationship. To further expand the depth of your answer, I would also provide some extra perspective. In Latin, if you literally say "the island of Sicily," is it the island which Sicily owns? Sicily's island? This was a great question with a great answer. It's something I've never thought about as a native English speaker, prone to saying things like "how come" and "I am saying," and having to "convert" them to actual logic, which can be expressed more easily in Latin, or any other language that doesn't share the oddities of modern English. – Middle School Historian Mar 13 '17 at 14:29

Based on the Latin text provided, Sicilia (“Sicily”) would be in apposition with insula (“island”), and both would be declined in the same case—in this case, nominative. Clara (“famous”) would be the predicate adjective (or subject complement) of the subject insula.

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The translation would be, “The island Sicily is famous.”

This idea could also be expressed by means of a genitive (a.k.a. “appositive genitive”), viz., Clara est insula Siciliae. One such example of this “appositive genitive” is found in Jerome’s Latin translation of Acts 8:5:

Philippus autem descendens in civitatem Samariae praedicabat illis Christum

Edit: @fdb does raise a plausible objection regarding “the city of Samaria.” However, the appositive genitive does occur elsewhere in classical Latin. For example, in Aeneid of P. Vergilius Maro:1

Hic tamen ille urbem Patavi sedesque locavit Teucrorum...
Nevertheless, here he settled the city of Patavium2 and the seats of the Teucrians3...

(Patavi is the genitive declension of Patavium. If urbem were in simple apposition, we would expect Patavium, which is also declined in the accusative declension like urbem, rather than the genitive Patavi.)

Admittedly, such a construction is rare, and as others have stated, it is more common to encounter the city and the name of the city in simple apposition (rather than in a genitive of apposition).


References

Virgil. The Bucolics, Georgics, and Aeneid of Virgil: with English Notes. Ed. Moore, Edward. Boston: Sanborn, 1857.

Footnotes

1 Book 1, Line 247 (p. 87)
2 or “Padua”
3 or “Trojans”

You are correct. In this case, the "of" is simply an English idiom. "The island of Sicily" and "the island Sicily" and even "Sicily the island" are all different ways to get the same meaning; the first just sounds more natural.

Of can have quite a few different meanings in English, some of which don't align well with the Latin genitive. One good test is to see whether one object is actually possessed by another: "the island of Sicily" would use a genitive insula Siciliæ if, say, some wealthy person named Sicily had purchased an island, making it "Sicily's island". But if that's not your intended meaning, then you would put insula and Sicilia in "apposition", using the same case for both of them (like how clara is in the same case as well).

  • 2
    While useful in this case, I don't think your test works as a general rule. Consider the objective (timor domini) or partitive (unus vestrum) genitives, where there is no possession. – brianpck Jan 4 '17 at 17:57

Different languages (even closely related ones) have different ways of saying “the town/island/country by the name of NN.” Some use a straightforward apposition between the two nouns (“urbs Roma”, “die Stadt Berlin”); some use a quasi-possessive phrase (“the city of London”, “la ville de Paris”); some actually put the place name in the genitive case (Arabic “madīnatu Baghdāda”).

Simpliciter has called our attention to the Vulgate of Acts 8:5 with the rather non-Latin looking “Philippus autem descendens in civitatem Samariae”, which in fact is a literal translation of Φίλιππος δὲ κατελθὼν εἰς πόλιν τῆς Σαμαρείας. Samaria is at least originally the name of a region, not a city, so εἰς πόλιν τῆς Σαμαρείας could be taken to mean “to the (principal) town of the (land) Samaria”. It seems that the Greek text was understood thus by the translator of the Syriac Bible: ܦ݂ܺܝܠܺܝܦ݁ܳܘܣ ܕ݁ܶܝܢ ܢܚܶܬ݂ ܠܶܗ ܠܰܡܕ݂ܺܝܢ݈ܬ݁ܳܐ ܕ݁ܫܳܡܪܳܝܶܐ “Phillip descended to the town of the Samaritans (plural ethnonym)”. If the author intended to say “to the town (called) Samaria” he would not be saying it in very good Greek.

  • 2
    You certainly raise a plausible objection re: Samaria. However, see Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities (13.10.2): “So he made an expedition against Samaria, which was a very strong city; of whose present name Sebaste, and its rebuilding by Herod, we shall speak at a proper time” («Καὶ στρατεύει μὲν ἐπὶ Σαμάρειαν πόλιν ὀχυρωτάτην, περὶ ἧς, ὅτι καλεῖται νῦν Σεβαστὴ κτισθεῖσα ὑπὸ Ἡρώδου, κατὰ χώραν δηλώσομεν.»). – Der Übermensch Jan 4 '17 at 14:43
  • 1
    Acts 8:1 mentions “the lands of Judaea and Samaria” (κατὰ τὰς χώρας τῆς Ἰουδαίας καὶ Σαμαρείας; per regiones Iudææ et Samariæ). Here too the genitive is unexpected. – fdb Jan 4 '17 at 14:45
  • 1
    @fdb A few NT grammars talk about the "epexegetic / appositional genitive," e.g. semeion peritomes – brianpck Jan 4 '17 at 15:07

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