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When I first looked into Latin, I saw in a textbook that the dative and ablative singular are the same in the second declension:

nom. servus
acc. servum
gen. servi
dat. servo
abl. servo
voc. serve

And in the plural, the dative and ablative are the same in all declensions.

I thought, "Oh no! These have nearly opposite meanings! I need to keep this ambiguity in mind while hearing/reading a sentence until something resolves it? What if nothing does? How do people live with an ambiguity like that?" Of course I know that English has similar kinds of ambiguity that must be kept in mind, but I still wondered about this. Eventually I learned that a dative noun is never the object of a preposition, which helps.

When reading, I've often been tripped up by the dative–ablative ambiguity, but in nearly every case (no pun intended), I've found that only one interpretation was reasonable. Amazing!

So here's my question:

(a) Why is dative–ablative ambiguity not a problem in practice? Or am I mistaken about that: are there actually common, barely noticeable conventions for preventing it?

(b) How do people deal with the ambiguity when it's real? For example, if a ship is named "Deo Data", does that mean "Given by God" or "Given to God"? How do you tell?

  • Nice! In Medieval Latin the same problem (if it is a problem) arises in most 3rd declension nouns: dative, -i; ablative -i. – Hugh May 31 '17 at 10:41
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You are right that there will be the occasional ambiguity. But there are several ways in which the ambiguity is normally resolved.

The ablative without a preposition is not normally used with a person.

A deo data = given by a god

In deo inventum = found in a god

Cum deo perire = to perish with a god

Deo data = given to a god (in all likelihood)

So, when the word is a person, and you have no other information, chances are that it is a dative. In poetry, though, there is more freedom in this respect, and hence you will encounter more serious ambiguity. Conversely, when the word is not a person, it's less likely to be a dative, for the dative usually conveys a thematic role fit for a person, like recipient or beneficiary.

Certain verbs or prepositions or adjectives always take a dative, others always an ablative:

Deo uti = to use a god (ablative)

Parcere deo = to spare a god (dative)

Plenus deo = full of a god (ablative*)

Occasionally, a word can be used with either ablative or dative without a change in meaning, like misceo. Then you just don't know—but the meaning is the same either way.


*) Plenus can be used with either genitive or ablative.

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