July 06, 2005

E pluribus unum: a Latin quiz

Recently The Economist, in the course of an editorial arguing that the EC is too diverse a collection of nations to be politically unified, used a waggish subhead created by switching around the USA's motto E pluribus unum ("out of many, one"). The switched-around version said E unum pluribus. If that's grammatical at all in Latin, it has the same meaning as the original; it doesn't mean "out of one, many", though it was intended to suggest that thought to the English-speaking reader.

Several pedantic readers wrote in to say "Gotcha!" in various rather pompous terms ("As one of the few remaining undergraduates studying Latin, I fell compelled..."; "It might be a good idea for The Economist to stick to English..." "Didn't anybody in your office do classics?"). But the funny thing was that the four snooty classics experts whose letters were published all proposed different corrections! A couple of weeks later another reader wrote in to correct all of them with a fifth version. All of which makes for a nice little naturally-occurring Latin quiz. Here are twelve possible translations of "out of one, many" into Latin. Six use e for "from or out of", and six choose the variant form ex. Five of these twelve were suggested in the published letters; the other seven are just decoys. At least one is correct (possibly two are).

1.e unibus plura 7.ex unibus plura
2.e unibus plures 8.ex unibus plures
3.e unibus pluria   9.ex unibus pluria
4.e uno plura 10.ex uno plura
5.e uno plures 11.ex uno plures
6.e uno pluria 12.ex uno pluria

So which is correct? I was going to have a prize for the first correct entry received on a postcard at Language Log Plaza: first prize, a Dan Brown novel; second prize, two Dan Brown novels... But I dropped the idea when I read that the percentage of Americans who cheated at least once in high school has now reached 75% and is fast rising. I'm pretty sure lots of people would cheat (not you, of course, but other less scrupulous people): they would look up The Economist or fetch out a Latin grammar or seek out a classics librarian or get a medium to channel a dead Roman or something. So no prizes. The only reward is the satisfaction of an intellectual accomplishment. Watch this space later in the week for the answer.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 6, 2005 12:45 AM