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This is a speculative question that (I hope) has a good answer from historical linguistics.

My starting observation was that all nouns appear to have a plural genitive ending in -um: -arum, -orum, -(i)um, -uum, erum. Just as I began thinking of this as a kind of ironclad rule, it occurred to me that certain plural personal pronouns end in -i, e.g.:

  • sui
  • nostri
  • vestri

It's interesting, though, that two of these examples are only used in a specific case: the -um ending (vestrum/nostrum) is still used for the partitive genitive.

By all accounts, these words look like they are singular: in fact, the reflexive pronoun is the exact same in the singular and plural. Am I right to see this -i ending in the genitive plural as a bit of an anomaly? If so, do we have a reasonable explanation for why it is there?

  • Can you cite some sentences where sui etc. are grammatically genitive plural? – fdb Jan 10 '18 at 14:16
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    Sure: Cic In Verrem 2.3: "quod illi semper sui causa fecerant, cum eos nemo rogaret, quam diu intellegebant sese sibi et populo Romano, non Verri et Apronio serere, impendere, laborare." – brianpck Jan 10 '18 at 14:41
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    Thanks, I see what you mean. I think this is not about morphology, but about syntax. se, sibi and sui are morphologically singular, but they can all be used with a plural referent. – fdb Jan 10 '18 at 15:04
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    Sihler's New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin isn't much help at all. It merely notes (section 369.B) that nostrum/vestrum 'are in origin gen.pl. forms of the possessives noster, vester,' and that nostri/vestri 'are the gen.sg. forms of the same' – an explanation that raises more questions than it answers, I think. Still, at least it confirms that you're correct in thinking that the forms that end in i look singular. – cnread Jan 10 '18 at 20:12
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    Some pronouns (ego, tu, nos, vos, se) have an associated possessive pronoun (meus, tuus, noster, vester, suus) that takes some of the functions of the genitive. Therefore the role of the genitive is not directly comparable to nouns and most pronouns. My intuition has always been that sui, nostri, vestri and the like are singular genitives of the substantivized neuter adjective suum/nostrum/vestrum and therefore forms of the related possessive pronoun, not the personal pronoun itself. I have nothing substantial to back this up with, but I can write it up as an answer if you want. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 12 '18 at 12:09
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This answer is based on the intuition I have long held: genitives like nostrum and vestri are not forms of the personal pronouns nos and vos, but of the substantivized possessive adjectives. I have no sources to back this up, but I am posting these thoughts here for scrutiny.

Some pronouns (ego, tu, nos, vos, se) have an associated possessive pronoun (meus, tuus, noster, vester, suus) that takes some of the functions of the genitive. Therefore the role of the genitive is not directly comparable to nouns and most pronouns. These special pronouns do not have a genitive form in the completely usual sense.

My intuition has always been that sui, nostri, vestri and the like are singular genitives of the substantivized neuter adjective suum/nostrum/vestrum. Thus, sui/nostri/vestri/mei/tui are not forms of the personal pronouns themselves, but rather of the related possessive pronoun. The putative noun nostrum is almost synonymous with res nostra, so you could read nostri as rei nostrae. Notice that it is irrelevant that nos is plural; the possessive adjective noster is only used in the singular here. Therefore the -i you see is a singular genitive ending, and the connection to plural comes from the meaning of the word noster.

This reasoning does not extend to all uses of the genitive as such, but the same principle applies. For partitive genitive, you always have nostrum/vestrum — at least I have never seen nostri/vestri partitively. For example, "one of us" would be unus nostrum, which I read roughly as unus virorum nostrorum. Again, noster is substantivized, and here means "a man from our group". The shorter genitive plural ending -um instead of -orum is possible for many words, and nostrum and vestrum sound just like the kind of thing that I expect to wind up having the shorter variant.

Of course, these genitives of the possessive pronouns can start a life of their own and obtain new uses by analogy. See this question, for example. Most instances of nostrum/vestrum used a possessive genitive actually make sense when parsed as plural genitives of a substantivized possessive pronoun.

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    This is also how I have always analysed it. Fdb conveyed the same thought succinctly in his comment above. I would consider it an instance of suppletion. Normal substantive nouns have a genitive, but nos does not have a genitive; the reason is that it already has a possessive adjective noster, so you normally don't need a genitive of nos, for you can say the father of us as "pater noster" (indeed, the reason why the father of us sounds odd in English is exactly the same: because we already have *our father available, we don't normally use of us in this way). ... – Cerberus Jan 13 '18 at 3:18
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    ... Even so, the need for a genitive still arises now and then, such as when we wish to distinguish between possessive "our" (amor noster: the love that we feel) and 'objective' "our" (amor nostri: the love someone feels for us). In the latter case, we supply the neuter adjective for the lacking substantive noun. – Cerberus Jan 13 '18 at 3:19
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It's all too easy to confound the reflexive pronoun (which only exists in the oblique cases) with the possessive adjective suus, sua, suum (declined like bonus). The genitive plural suorum , etc, of the latter is found widely in classical literature, which I personally find more readily acceptable than the singular usage of the reflexive pronoun.

I'm not altogether sure about describing this -i ending as if for a genitive plural of pronouns. Although the usage certainly seems to exist, I wouldn't resort to it myself — but I think that you're right to suggest an anomaly, or at least an aberration. Maybe someone familiar with these backwaters of grammar will give chapter and verse from a modern analysis, such as Harm Pinkster's 'Oxford Latin Syntax' (OUP 2015).

(As an aside, I believe that the passage you quote, quod illi semper sui causa fecerant, cum eos nemo rogaret, . . . . is much disputed, with many commentators preferring the reading sua causa.)

  • An interesting aside. Is "sua causa" a variant reading or is it an emendation? – fdb Jan 15 '18 at 13:44
  • @fdb The earliest authority I can find for sua is Ernesti's edition of 1819-30. The Loeb has it too. As you presumably know, a good many of the 19/20th century editors offer variant readings or emendations to suit their own ideas of the best grammar in the various available editions — such as Teubner and OCT, as well as university publications — which can be both confusing and convincing. Pinkster (to whom I refer, but do not have available) apparently writes 'On this much disputed passage, see Heyworth (2007: 22). 11.30 Third person possessive adjectives functioning as attribute.' – Tom Cotton Jan 15 '18 at 15:29

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