Language, It’s Always Changing

People often think of Latin as a highly regular, rules-based language. They rarely consider that the language was widely spoken as a native tongue for 1,500 years and in diverse regions with plenty of regional dialects—not to mention all the changes in the medieval period when people had ceased to learn it at the hearthside as small children. In his blog, Languagehat identifies a famous example of Latin shifting under the feet of one of its greatest writers.

The case in question is from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II, line 49, in a reference to the wooden horse that caused the fall of Troy:

timeo Danaos et dona ferentis
(I fear the Greeks, even when bearing gifts.)

The problem is that according to the classical rules, ferentis, a plural present active participle modifying Danaos (Greeks), is genitive. It should be ferentes, which is the accusative form. And many modern versions of the epic change the the text to ferentes. Now Virgil was hardly an incompetent writer. He certainly knew his genitives from his accusatives. So what is going on?

Evan, one of Languagehat’s readers, nails it. Ferentis is an older accusative form, and Virgil wrote the Aeneid using an older, more conservative style. Checking with Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar, I can confirm that Evan has it right. This is an example of change in Latin. Modern editors change the spelling to ferentes in the same way they give Shakespeare modern spelling. The same processes that are driving change in English today were driving change in Latin two thousand years ago.

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