It seems that neuter nouns have vocative forms that are identical to their nominative/accusative forms.

Most neuter nouns don't have a meaning that seems to me to fit easily with the use of the vocative. My guess is that it would show up mostly with rhetorical personifications of inanimate objects.

I'm wondering what kinds of examples we have of neuter words being used as vocatives in Classical Latin. I'd be particularly interested in examples of vocative singular forms ending in -um, but any examples are fine.


Defining the vocative: something like "a form used for address"

I didn't give a definition of "vocative" in my original question, but it seems like it might be worthwhile, since there are a few constructions that look similar that we might want to distinguish.

It seems necessary to start with non-neuter -us nouns of the second declension like "Brutus" and "Marcus", because they are the only category of nouns (if we set aside borrowed nouns) that show a distinct form for what is called the "vocative case". So for an initial definition, we could say that in the context of Latin, "vocative" refers to a form that is used in the contexts where forms like "Brute" and "Marce" would be used.

What remains is to determine in which contexts forms like "Brute" and "Marce" are used. Although I don't have a full understanding of this, Ashdowne (2002) indicates that the factor connecting the different contexts in which the vocative case is used is the function of address. Alex B.'s answer to How do you address someone in a case other than the vocative?, which cites Pinkster 2016, also indicates that there is a connection between forms of address and the vocative (Alex B.: "forms of address are always in the vocative").

The particle O can be used with addresses, but also with exclamations, so its use doesn't seem to be a completely reliable diagnostic of the vocative case for neuter nouns. Ashdowne mentions O and says "it is reasonable to assume that a form which could be either nominative or vocative is in fact vocative when accompanied by o!" (p. 144) but also says in a footnote that "A neuter noun in such circumstances could also be accusative and accordingly could be a thing exclaimed over" (p. 145). I think that "o tempora, o mores" in the passage quoted in fdb's answer refers to "a thing exclaimed over" rather than acting as an address, and for this reason, I don't think it is a true example of a neuter noun in the vocative case.

At least one example of a neuter vocative does seem to exist


Bennett (1914) seems to have a long list of examples of the vocative. One in particular that seems to fit is limen in Plautus's Mercator 830 (Bennett p. 268). Bungard (2008) provides the following translation of the sentence with limen:

Limen superum inferumque, salve, simul autem vale. (830)
Doorway above and below, hello and at the same time moreover farewell.

(p. 167)

This is certainly an unusual situation, but it seems to be a quite literal case of addressing an inanimate object, so I think there is no reason to interpret the phrase at the start of the sentence as anything other than a vocative.

Other possible examples

O Pergamum

Ashdowne (2002) mentions another possible example. O Pergamum occurs in a list of vocative phrases that includes the unambiguous form "Priame":

5) o Troia, o patria, o Pergamum, o Priame ... senex (Plaut. Bacch. 933)

O Troy! O fatherland! O Pergamum! O old man, Priam!

(p. 145)

However, in a comment, Unbrutal_Russian suggested that it's not actually totally clear that the successive nouns preceded by "O" here all have the same function.

Whether or not this is actually a solid example, it seems plausible to me that a city name might be used in the vocative to address a city as a whole, and there are a number of cities or towns with neuter-gender names, so this seems like a situation where a neuter vocative might be used. The following quotation is not Classical Latin and doesn't involve a neuter noun, but it does seem to be an unambiguous example of a city name being put into the vocative case:

Et erit in die illa: in oblivione eris, o Tyre! septuaginta annis, sicut dies regis unius; post septuaginta autem annos erit Tyro quasi canticum meretricis

(Isaias 23:15, Vulgata)

Terms of endearment

A class of words that I had forgotten about when I posted my original question is neuter nouns used as terms of endearment, like mel.

In the section on "Expressions of Endearment", Bennett mentions meum cor, meum corculum, mel meum, meum savium, meum labellum (p. 273). But I'm not sure that this use characteristically requires a "vocative case" form since there are some masculine examples in the same section that look like nominatives: meus ocellus, meus molliculus caseus.

Maybe looking at the exact context would make the situation more certain: the answer by Alex B. that I linked to above indicates that the nominative case is used for appositive expressions specifically.

Works cited

Ashdowne, Richard. "The vocative’s calling? The syntax of address in Latin". Oxford University Working Papers in Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics, Volume 7, May 2002, pp. 143-162.

Bennett, Charles Edwin. 1914. Syntax of Early Latin: Vol II—The Cases

Bungard, Christopher William. 2008. "Playing with your role in Plautine Theater"

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  • That's an interesting example, but notice that the rest of the sentence continues: "o Priame periisti senex, qui misere male mulcabere quadringentis Philippis aureis." - thus only Priamus is unambiguously being addressed here. But yeah, it's much more likely that he's invoking the name of his fatherland in outrage than expressing outrage about it. – Unbrutal_Russian Mar 25 '19 at 13:23
  • @Unbrutal_Russian: Thanks for bringing that up! It's a bit difficult for me to understand how the phrases in that sentence all relate to one another, so I've edited to add another example that seems more straightforward. – Asteroides Mar 25 '19 at 19:18

Neuter plural in "o tempora, o mores" (Cicero, as classical as you can get).

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    +1 but couldn't it be read differently, like O [how bad] times and customs? – Rafael Mar 4 '19 at 13:12
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    Is this an unambiguous example of a vocative construction? Lewis and Short seem to say that O can be used as an "exclamation of joy, astonishment, desire, grief, indignation, etc." before a vocative, but also before an accusative or even a nominative noun. The translation that Wikipedia suggests, " Oh what times! Oh what customs! or alternatively, Alas the times, and the manners", doesn't seem to involve addressing the times and customs. – Asteroides Mar 4 '19 at 21:22
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    It most definitely isn't a vocative - he isn't addressing times and customs, which can't reply ("you there, times, and you, customs!"), but draws our attention to them in outrage. If we take nominals that differ in Acc. and Nom., we get "ō fortūnātam nātam mē consule Rōmam!", as the man himself once said. – Unbrutal_Russian Mar 5 '19 at 23:59
  • As @sumelic points out, "o" can be followed by vocative, nominative or accusative (good examples for all three in L&S). I am saying only that the vocative is one of several possibilities: "Oh ye times! Oh ye manners! Have ye done this to us?" – fdb Mar 10 '19 at 9:58
  • I understand; I'm saying that in my opinion it's an inconceivable interptetation, the phrase being a textbook example of a rhetorical exclamation instead. Unlike a vocative it expresses a value judgement instead of an invocation: "what times, what customs!", and I've yet to see it interpreted otherwise by any translation. This phrase is used 4 times by Cicero and quoted twice by other authors in PHI, and nowhere is a second-person verb present or implied. In fact Quintilian cites it as a rhetorical figure followed directly by a "miserum mē!", a parallel case. – Unbrutal_Russian Mar 25 '19 at 13:44

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