Which prior meaning of pars does pars orationis draw from?

I'm wondering if just as the notion of grammatical "person" makes (I think) an analogy with roles in drama (the roles of the speaker, the one spoken to, and the one spoken about), maybe pars orationis in Latin means some prior sense of pars more specific than just "any ol' part". Lewis & Short's entry for pars doesn't mention pars orationis.

If pars is merely a calque of Greek μέρος, as in Aristotle's Poetics 1456b20, then my same question applies. Aristotle there seems to use the word much more broadly, dividing λέξις ("diction as a whole") into "letter, syllable, conjunction, joint, noun, verb, case, phrase"—a lot more than the usual "two parts of speech" usually attributed to him.

I'm especially wondering if pars would tend to make such matters of debate as "What is the true number of parts of speech?" seem meaningful or meaningless. If pars just means any ol' division of a whole, then "How many parts of speech are there?" would seem as nonsensical as "How many parts of a sphere are there?" "Uh, as many as you divide it into." But if pars suggests something more like a fundamental element, as in chemistry the "periodic table of the elements", this would suggest that the Ancient Latin grammarians were thinking that there was a single, true categorization of fundamental "parts" to be found.

So, does pars orationis evoke a meaning like what we would in English typically call an "element", or merely any "division" of a whole, or does it evoke something else?

1 Answer 1


Here's the relevant quote from The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics:

"The expression ‘parts of speech’ is a literal translation of the Greek term mérē toû lógou, which was calqued by Latin authors as partes orationis. While it initially referred to the components of the sentence (lógos; oratio), the term acquired, within technical grammaticography, a morphological-paradigmatic sense, referring to word classes"

[emphasis mine - Alex B.].

Wouters and Swigger 2013 emphasize that Plato and Aristotle understood logos as a proposition and its truth/falsity could be studied through its components (mérē [toû] lógou).

It was only with the Alexandrian school that parts of speech came to denote word classes.

see Wouters and Swiggers 2013, Word Classes (mérē toû lógou), Ancient Theories of, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics, with extensive bibliography, for more details

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    Fantastic source!! And to think I held back on asking this because I thought the answer would probably be Partes est partes! I'm still digesting the article, but would you say that calling these things partes suggests the Principle of Compositionality (at least implicitly) and hence that Partes orationis quot sunt? is a meaningful, substantive question—not just a matter of convention? (Well, I just googled found that exact sentence in Donatus.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 25, 2017 at 2:29

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