How natural would you judge the translation of the following English sentence into Latin?

He still wandered on, out of the little high valley, over its edge, and down the slopes beyond.

'Ulterius etiam errabat, e parva valle alta, super limen eius, et deorsum declivia ultra'.

(Latin translation by Mark Walker: Hobbitus Ille, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), Harper Collins Publishers, London, p. 103, 2012)

When dealing with descriptions of motion in Classical Latin, some authors have recently concluded from their corpus study that this language, unlike English, typically dislikes an accumulation of long series of directional/path segments in a complex motion event (see Iacobini & Corona 2016). However, a Spanish colleague of mine, who is also investigating this topic, told me that examples like the following one from Livy, which contains three path segments, are relatively frequent in Classical Latin prose:

Fulvius Flacus … media urbe per Carinas Esquilias contendit. (Liv. 26, 10, 1).

If the former authors are correct, Latin is quite different from English in that examples like the previous one from Tolkien’s Hobbit are not expected to be frequent in Classical Latin. In striking contrast to English, Romance languages have been shown to favor “separate clauses [i.e., with different verbs] for each segment of a complex motion event" (Slobin 1996; reference mentioned by Iacobini & Corona 2016). E.g., here you have some Romance translations of the English sentence above, which interestingly show how differently from English these languages express motion events:

Catalan (transl. by J. Pujolar):

I seguí vagant, sortí de l’alta i petiteta vall, traspassà la seva vora i descendí per les rampes que venien a darrere.

Spanish (transl. by M. Figueroa):

Continuó caminando, fuera del pequeño y elevado valle, por el borde, y bajando luego las pendientes.

French (transl. by F. Ledoux):

Il continua d'avancer au hasard, sortit du haut vallon, en franchit le bord et descendit la pente au-delà....

Portuguese (transl. by ?).

Continou avançando, saiu do vale alto e estreito, e desceu as ladeiras além.

In striking contrast to Romance languages, languages like Dutch are expected to behave like English:

Hij zwierf verder, het kleine hoge dal uit, over de rand en daaarachter gelegen hellingen af. (Lit. ‘He wandered further, out of the little high valley, down over the edge and the slopes lying beyond.’).

As for the possibility of accumulating directional/path segments in a complex motion event, my impression is that Classical Latin is to be put somewhere in the middle of the continuum: it is not like Germanic languages but it does not behave like Romance languages either. What is your opinion/personal experience from reading Latin texts?

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    Welcome to the site! You've posted some very interesting questions! I have one small suggestion: it's easier to read a text when the point it is making is mentioned explicitly and sooner rather than later. Hence I think this question could benefit from three small changes: 1. put the actual question in the title, however general/vague you need to make it; 2. put the actual question in the first paragraph as well: it only needs a short introduction; its actual explanation can come after; 3. make explicit the purpose and source of the Latin that is now in the title (and move it elsewhere).
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 0:34
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    Many thanks for your kind welcome and your very useful advice! I must say that I'm really impressed by the high quality of the questions, answers, and comments in this site. Regards from Barcelona!
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 3:06

1 Answer 1


(More a collection of random thoughts than a real answer, but maybe something here will be useful. Also, any statements below which rely on my Latin Sprachgefühl should be taken with a large grano salis.)

The translation of the Tolkien sentence sounds unnatural to me in a couple of ways, but I'm not sure it's because of the way the motion events are expressed.

A couple of things strike me as off that are definitely unrelated to the motion events. First, that eius: I don't think a Latin writer would have used it. It's not needed, and it sounds like it's referring to a person. Second is the coordination of the three motion phrases: in multi-item lists like this, I believe both Latin and Greek go for either polysyndeton (e.g. et X et Y et Z) or asyndeton (X Y Z), but not the English pattern of having one conjunction before the last element.

A more general reason why this doesn't really look like a Classical Latin sentence to me is that Latin prose narrative doesn't generally go in for this level of novelistic detail. We have very few novels from antiquity, but their narration tends to be a lot more bare-bones than a modern novel; in this case I think a narrator would just say "He wandered out of the valley", taking it for granted that that involves climbing over the edge and down the slopes. (This is something I've noticed before in translations of modern literary passages into Latin and Greek: even if grammatically perfect, they feel unnatural because the genre conventions are so different.)

None of this goes to your question, though, and FWIW your friend's example from Livy seems quite normal to me. But if it is true that Latin mostly avoids such complex motion clauses, a possible reason comes to mind which has to do with the satellite-framing we discussed in a recent thread. (You're quite right that Latin is satellite-framed when one considers verbal prefixes as satellites, of course; I hadn't been thinking of them in that way.) The point is that Latin is fond of prefixing motion verbs with a directional or locational prefix: ingredior, egredior etc. But these prefixes can only code one type of Path. So if you're moving both out of something and into something else, which prefix do you choose? Unless you want to give specific prominence to one Path over the others, you can't use a Path prefix. (English, though satellite-framed, doesn't have this problem because its satellites are separable from the verb so can be multiplied.) Of course, a Latin writer is never obliged to use such a prefix -- Livy doesn't in your friend's example -- but it is a pretty strong stylistic tendency and might be one reason to avoid this type of complex motion clause.

  • I agree with you in all you have said (and you've said many interesting things!). In particular, I'm glad to see that we have the same intuition: "in this case I think a narrator would just say "He wandered out of the valley"". That's right! My intuition is that, probably, the verb would also be prefixed. At most one Goal PP could also be added to this sentence if the information structure would require it (e.g., for rhematic reasons). Excellent and very useful answer, TKR!
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 20:11
  • Even my limited Latin Sprachgefühl rejects limen eius. I'm wondering: do you also find the closing ultra poor Latinitas? Placing a direction particle or "adverb" at the end seems like the Germanic style. And I've read that Latin word-order flexibility tends to shut down with adverbs, which should immediately precede what they modify, though I've also seen plenty of exceptions.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 19:05
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    @BenKovitz Yes, thinking about it I tend to agree there's something off about that final ultra.
    – TKR
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 23:44

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