Tuesday 10 March 2009

habeas corpus

I keep noticing the spelling mistake habeus corpus (instead of habeas corpus). The explanation is straightforward: the final syllable of habeas is usually pronounced in English just like the final syllable of corpus, namely as əs. If it’s pronounced the same, there is an obvious temptation to spell it in the same way.
The word habeas is the second person singular present subjunctive active (‘thou mayst have’) of habeō, habēre, to have. Its final vowel was long, habeās, so when I was taught Latin at school we pronounced it ˈhæbeɪɑːs (or ˈhæbiɑːs). English legal Latin gets both the initial and final quantities wrong, producing ˈheɪbiəs. But then legal Latin is something of a law unto itself, or lēx in sē as we might say.
The reason our Latin and Greek teachers were so insistent on our “getting the quantity right”, i.e. distinguishing between long and short vowels, is that classical versification is based on the idea of heavy (‘long’) vs light (‘short’) syllables. This is important in the appreciation of Latin poetry (see my blog for 18 Aug 2006), but was even more important for us schoolchildren who were expected to compose Latin verse every week, usually in the form of translating a passage of English poetry.
We had a useful book called a gradus, short for Gradus ad Parnassum, ‘a step towards Parnassus (the mountain sacred to the muses)’— Ainger A.C. and Wintle H.G., An English-Latin Gradus, London: John Murray, 1890. The gradus was a dictionary with a difference. It specialized in providing sets of homonyms or near-homonyms, all with the vowel quantities clearly marked, so that we could select a particular translation that would fit the scansion we wanted. Poetry translation became a kind of jigsaw puzzle, finding words that would fit the metre. A hexameter line consisted of six feet, each of which was either a dactyl (ˉ ˘ ˘) or a spondee (ˉ ˉ). So if you wanted to put ‘money’ at the beginning of a line of verse, you could choose argentum, aurum, nummus, res, or divitiae; but not the commonest equivalent, pecunia, and not opes, bona or moneta.

I don’t suppose many schoolchildren have to do that sort of thing nowadays.


  1. Things would be so much easier if the Latin spelling reformers who advocated spellings such as "habeaas" (with doubled vowels indicating length) had had their way.

  2. Only a tiny rectification:
    If you look at the lemma properly, you see that the gradus don't indicate vowel lenght ("all with the vowel quantities clearly marked") but syllable length.
    For example the u in nummus is short, but the first syllable of the word, num, is closed, i.d. heavy or long in meter. The same goes for ar-gen-tum, the e in gen is short, but the syllable heavy.

    By the way, is there a systematic way to guess the pronunciation of Latin legal terms in English or is it quite arbitary?

  3. I think the 'gradus' in 'Gradus ad Parnassum' is plural ("steps"), and the final vowel would therefore be long.

  4. You are all three perfectly right. Peter's point is particularly interesting: at school we said ˈgrædəs, with a short vowel in the final syllable. But gradus is a fourth-declension noun, so the nom. plural is gradūs. And steps, or a staircase, is much more positive than just calling the book a single step. Thanks, everyone.

  5. The traditional English pronunciation of Latin didn't come out of nowhere: it reflects the Great Vowel Shift. As Quine says colorfully, the spoken Latin of the monasteries changed at the same time and the same way as the spoken English outside the walls. (Oddly, although Scots also underwent the GVS, Scottish Latin was unaffected.) So we must ask: what was the pronunciation of Latin used in England before the GVS?

    I'm not in a position to reconstruct the full answer, but surely the phonemic distinction between Latin /a/ and /a:/ had been levelled completely, as in all the Romance languages and in every known national pronunciation of Latin). So the post-GVS pronunciation ['heɪbiəs] must reflect an earlier ['ha:be:as ~ 'ha:be:əs], where doubtless the initial stress induced lengthening of /a/. If it had not, we would have ['hæbiəs] today.

    Fräulein: The English pronunciation is indeed predictable, provided you know enough English and French historical phonology. Consider another writ, that of fieri facias, which commands the sheriff to seize the property of someone against whom a judgment has been given in civil court. Originally this surely was [fi:eri: fa:sjas], with [i:] for [I] because English does not tolerate [I] either before another vowel or finally, and with [s] for original Latin [k] under French influence. The usual sound changes, including the GVS and [sj] > [S], have made this [faIəri: feISəs], with a traditional pun on "fiery face", i.e. the ruddy face of a habitual drunkard.


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