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So I see "vel", "aut", and "-ve" being used (mostly) interchangeably in the Latin I read. Is there any idiomatic difference, or can they be used interchangeably?

For example, is it valid Latin (and does it have the right meaning) if I use "-ve" for either/or, like I would with "aut"?

Licet tibi habere aut vim aut laetitia

Licet tibi habere vimve laetitiave

And does using "vel" instead of "aut" change the meaning in any way?

Licet tibi habere vel vim vel laetitia

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    When I read the title I kept thinking that there is a big difference between aut, vel, and -ve versus et cetera.
    – tox123
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 1:21

2 Answers 2

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There are some differences. Generally speaking, vel is variably inclusive or subjectively exclusive; aut is objectively exclusive.

and aut is exclusive. As Lewis and Short put it:

In general aut puts in the place of a previous assertion another, objectively and absolutely antithetical to it, while vel indicates that the contrast rests upon subjective opinion or choice; i. e. aut is objective, vel subjective, or aut excludes one term, vel makes the two indifferent.

&

[Vel] As disjunctive conjunction, to introduce an alternative as a matter of choice or preference, or as not affecting the principal assertion (while aut introduces an absolute or essential opposition...

Glare in the Oxford Latin Dictionary puts it succinctly:

[It introduces] alternatives, in which mutual exclusiveness is not normally emphasized [emphasis mine], nor other possibilities excluded.

Going off your examples:

Licet tibi habere aut vim aut laetitiam.

This means, "You are allowed to have either power or happiness but definitely not both, and this is a matter of fact."

This conflicts with the idea of other possibilities, though (introduced through the use of licet), so while probably possible, it isn't recommended.

Licet tibi habere vel vim vel laetitiam.

"You are allowed to have power, or perhaps happiness, or perhaps both, or neither, whatever you should wish."

This is better since a choice beyond the two is allowed. (Obviously, context can change this.)

Sometimes the choices provided means it's impossible to have both, but if it's still up to subjective opinions as to which choice is better, then you would still use vel, as in Plautus' adest vel non or optumus vel pessumus.

The enclitic -ve is the same as vel.

Bennett's example I think is more illustrative:

quī aethēr vel caelum nōminātur, which is called aether or heaven

That is, both aether and caelum are names for the sky, and you can choose whichever you'd like to use.

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I'll just add that there's another word for "or," sive (or seu). It's used to mean "also known as" or to indicate that the speaker is indifferent as to which option is chosen.

Si media nox est sive est prima vespera . . .
Tamen est eundum quo imperant.

Whether it's the middle of the night or early evening . . .
Still, you have to go where they order you.

Plautus Curculio 1.1

I always feel kind of bad for sive, as if it were the redheaded stepchild of disjunctions.

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    sive, a contraction of si and vi, means "or if". It's not really synonymous with vel.
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 21:20
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    I'm confused—isn't that exactly what this answer says? Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 21:37
  • "media nox" isn't another word for "prima vespera". I don't see how you could use "vel" in your example.
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 22:03
  • @Geremia Sive often means simply "or" in Late Latin texts, especially to indicate a subtitle of a book or another name for something. See section C under Lewis and Short.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 23:40
  • @cmw Yes, L&S §C of "sive" says it's disjunctive, but interestingly it says vel was sometimes used in a "purely disjunctive sense," so there is some evolution in these "or" words.
    – Geremia
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 15:04

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