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This question is a beginner's confusion about sentences of the form:

[subject_noun] [object_noun] est.
E.g. Bob agricola est.

From my understanding, both the subject and object are declined in the nominative. Hence I am wondering how the ambiguity is resolved with a sentence such as:

Crimen mater necessitatis est.

which I understand to mean "crime is the mother of necessity", although I believe it can equally be parsed as "[a] mother is [a] crime of necessity".

Could someone explain how to differentiate the two?

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    Good question! One small thing: esse is a copula, which takes a subject and a subject complement, not an object. It is the same in most other languages I know. In English, too, the subject complement is traditionally in the nominative: It is I, Cerberus. Other copulae are verbs like seem, become, remain, etc. – Cerberus Apr 3 '16 at 12:08
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Spevak 2010 writes that the most frequent pattern is Subject Predicative.Noun sum (in Cicero, it's 57%), as opposed to Predicative.Noun Subject sum (3%).

However, since other orderings are possible (see the table below), and

there is no special way to mark the difference between the subject and predicative noun in Latin (both are in Nominativus), context helps us parse such sentences correctly.

Spivak2010

NB: A1 stands for "subject."

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    What does attribut signify in the last structure listed? – sumelic Apr 4 '16 at 4:07
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    Is it just me or is this sample size woefully inadequate? Since many readers don't have access to the linked subscription site, can you provide more context for this table? Your comments suggest it is taken from (parts of?) Cicero. – brianpck Apr 4 '16 at 13:42
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    @brianpck Spevak 2010 used a tagged corpus that contained around 21,000 words - not bad for Latin. Tagged Latin corpora are very limited in size, between 53,000 and 120,000 tokens (McGillivray and Kilgarriff 2013). I checked her results using another partially tagged Latin corpus, LatinISE (around 11 million tokens). Even though there was a lot of noise, it seems (preliminary) n.NOM n.NOM est is the most frequent word order (7380 occurrences) whereas n.NOM est n.NOM gave me 5649. – Alex B. Apr 5 '16 at 2:48
  • Spevak 2010 writes: Corpus 1 includes: Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (books 1 and 3) speeches “On His House” and “Philippics” (1 and 4) correspondence (Letters to Atticus, 13.50-16); Caesar, The Civil War (1-3.30); Sallust, the Jugurthine War. Obviously, she analyzed and (manually tagged??) texts in Latin. – Alex B. Apr 5 '16 at 2:57
  • Thanks, that is useful. I suppose I would just advocate an explicit caveat that the percentages in the table apply to a small sub-corpus of one author. Even your own preliminary results from another corpus (7380:5649 ~ 4:3) is appreciably different from these results (4:1). – brianpck Apr 5 '16 at 14:52
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The direct object of an active sentence is typically in accusative, an indirect one in dative. An object in an active sentence is never nominative.

The verb esse (to be) is active but does not take an object. When you say that something is something, aliquid aliquid est, both nouns are in nominative. For example:

  • Marcus dux est. (Marcus is the leader.)
  • Giraffa alta est. (The giraffe is tall.)

The word order is relatively free, so such sentences could be interpreted the other way as well. However, context tells which way it goes, and this is especially clear with adjectives. It makes sense to say "The leader is Marcus." but "The tall is giraffe." (or however you would phrase this weird statement in English) does not mean much.

The word "necessity" in your sentence is declined in genitive: necessitatis. The words crimen and mater are in nominative (although the accusative of crimen looks the same). This leaves two possible translations as you suggest:

  • Crime is the mother of necessity.
  • Mother is the crime of necessity.

The word order suggests the first translation, and so does context. The ambiguity between these two remains, but it is not a serious source of confusion.

It is typical — although not at all necessary — that the word in genitive is next to the word it describes. Therefore it is more likely that necessitatis describes mater (mother of necessity) than crimen (crime of necessity). But the ultimate reason to pick one translation is context.

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    I think the central point is that inflected language removes much, but certainly not all, ambiguity. Unless you write your thoughts in symbolic logic (or Lojban), you will never escape ambiguity that must be resolved by context. – brianpck Apr 5 '16 at 14:57

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