I asked yesterday about the word venatu. There was a good answer and good comments, but I want to ask a broader related question more specifically — especially due to TKR's comment. I want to know how the supine (e.g. venatum and venatu) is related to the derived fourth declension noun (e.g. venatus).

More specifically:

  • Are the supine and the noun related historically? If so, how? If not, why so?1
  • Is there a reason not to consider the supine just as two forms of the noun?2
  • When did grammarians first make the distinction, if ever? That is, when where the supine and the noun considered as separate entities, assuming they weren't originally?3

The answer by fdb to this question about -us and -io implies that the supine and the passive perfect participle are unrelated (the similarity of their stems is coincidental), but there is no mention of the fourth declension noun. The question is related to this one, but the answers there do not seem to answer the question(s) asked here.

1 My guess is that some common uses of the noun developed into something that was later considered independent of the noun. But this is just a guess without any details.

2 I have no trouble reading difficile dictu (difficult to say) or te dictum misi (I sent you to speak) as if they had the noun dictus. I find the lack of preposition with the accusative a little odd in this reading, but only a little.

3 Any Roman remarks on the matter would be interesting. But if there are too many, I can split this into a separate question.


Remember than infinitives are “typically frozen case-forms” of verbal nouns (Fortson 2010: 107; see also Weiss 2009: 445). So, in several IE branches (Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian and Italic), there is a “specific infinitive formation often called the supine that is solely used with verbs of motion to indicate purpose” (Fortson 2010: 108).

In Latin, it’s also used with some other verbs and a rather limited group of adjectives; Kroon 1989 categories such adjectives into two groups, success-oriented and value-oriented.

Pinkster 2015 reminds that even though

“the so-called first and second supines, that from a historical point of view must be regarded as nominals, but have no nominal properties of the type mentioned: they cannot be modified by determiners or adjectives” (p. 64).

He later adds that Latin supines can have arguments and satellites (the latter in his terminology are basically adjuncts), e.g.

mihi dificile dictu est (from Kroon 1989).

Also, even though the communis opinio is that there are two supines in Latin, some researchers hypothesize we could distinguish three (e.g. Fruyt 2011).

It seems that Latin supines usually function as an adverbial modifier (or adjunct, depending on your theory of syntax). However, Pinkster 2015 writes that “the syntactic and semantic properties of the two supines are quite diverse” (we’ll have to wait for the second volume of The Oxford Latin Syntax for more details though – it hasn’t been published yet).

That being said, he provides two “typical” examples:

… nunc venis etiam ultro irrisum dominum (Pl. Am. 587), a purpose clause, the first supine has verbal properties

Bonam atque iustam rem oppido imperas et factu facilem (Ter. Hau. 704), the second supine and an evaluative adjective

Historically, the first supine (-um), as Weiss 2009 writes, is “the accusative of a u-stem verbal noun in –tum” whereas the second supine (-u) is “the old dative or ablative of the same u-stem verbal noun” (pp. 444-445). Of course, there are also –ui supine forms, e.g. aqua potui iucunda, Pl. N.H. 6.203, or divisui facilis, Liv. 45.30.2 (Tronskii 1960, p. 285).

Cf. Szantyr 1977 who calls the first supine “der Zielakkusativ auf –tum” (i.e. the accusative of purpose.

Tronskii 1960 adds that the supine in Latin has never been productive, esp. the second supine, and its use had gradually declined – see para 687 for further details.

Fruyt 2011 writes that the first supine is “obviously a diminishing category after the archaic period and its distribution is limited more and more to lexicalized and rigid sequences” (p. 770).

Kroon 1989 mentions two studies that meticulously examined and counted all (!) the uses of the second supine throughout Latin literature. Sjostrand 1891 recorded 621 second supine constructions whereas Richter 1856-60 records “a few hundred more.”

As for the origin of the grammatical term supinum, we can see it already in Priscian (6th century AD).

  • Thank you. So if I've understood correctly, the "ui" supines you mention are also derived from a dative of the u-stem verbal noun, using a later inflection pattern for the dative? – Asteroides May 20 '17 at 21:24
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    @sumelic yes, it used to be called dativus finalis. – Alex B. May 20 '17 at 21:31

The supine is, in fact, the remnant of a fourth-declension nominal form, a verbal noun which stood for the action itself. The Plautine comedies still record an intermediate stage of this syntactical use.

For example, we have accusative with ire, as in ire obsonatum "to go shopping" or ire venatum "to go hunting". On the other hand, redire takes the ablative, as in obsonatu redire "to return from hunting", while habere takes the dative, as in me... habes perditui et praedatui (here I confess my Latin isn't quite good enough to parse this pre-Classic prose).

In any case, it is clear that by Plautus's time, the Supine had several other uses which were mostly taken up by Classical times by the Infinitive and the Gerund.

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    The dative example appears to be a sort acc. + inf. (i.e., 'you hold that I destroy and plunder'), which might well make sense, since the inf. is in origin also a verbal noun in the dative. – Anonym May 19 '17 at 0:01
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    @Anonym: Possibly, although probably closer to "you hold ... me in order to despoil and plunder"... The full fragment is (Senex is talking to Gymnasium Meretrix): "Volo ex te scire quidquid est quid ego usquam male feci tibi aut meus quisquam, id edisserta, quam ob rem me meumque filium quom matre remque nostram habes perditui et praedatui?" Possibly something like, "tell me what I or my son have done to you that you try to ruin and plunder me and my son (something something mother)"... – Wtrmute May 19 '17 at 1:15
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    @Wtrmute, something along those lines seems right to me too. Quom = cum, so "me and my son with (his) mother and our property". – TKR May 19 '17 at 1:30
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    @Wtrmute That makes more sense - almost like a dative of purpose, lit. 'you hold me for [the sake of] ruining and plundering', rather like the English inf. as in I have some books to read. – Anonym May 19 '17 at 1:32
  • Dative of purpose. Plautus: Istaec lepida sunt memoratui. (These stones are for remembering.) (These stones are intended as a memorial.) – Kingshorsey May 17 at 20:51

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