Lesson on Latinate English word usage from a linguist in Germany

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SOME attributes of particular words or phrases do get lost or mutated in translation, as in the case of “symphony,” an English word that—in the absence of a citation for gender in my dictionary—I presumed to be neuter. I therefore concluded that in the sentence “The New World Symphony is the magnum opus of Antonín Dvořák,” the word “symphony” is neuter, so the default “magnum opus”should correctly describe it rather than the masculine “magnus opus.” My conclusion was right, but my thought process in arriving at it was flawed. It turns out that figuring out the right gender for “symphony” is more complicated than that, as the following letter from a linguist and musician in Germany has clarified for me:

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Mannheim, Germany
June 28, 2015

Dear Mr. Carillo,
I was in the midst of writing an article in German when I came across the “magnum opus/magnus opus” problem that you took up in your English Forum some time ago (“Difference between ‘magnum opus’ and ‘magnus opus,’”http://tinyurl.com/q4yyaov). The German MS Word spell-check wouldn’t accept “magnum” and prescribed “magnus” instead. So I looked up this issue at Google and found your Forum article. Of course, whatever the Word spell-check says, you’re right (and I was right, too).

But there’s one little thing that I think need to be discussed further. In a follow-up question, Justine [Agustines, a Forum member] asked whether “it is more appropriate to use the expression ‘magnum opus’ as in ‘The New World Symphony is the magnum opus of Antonin Dvorak.” “Yes, absolutely,” you replied. “This is because ‘symphony’ is neuter in English.”

I don’t think that’s the correct reason. In my opinion, the reason is that “opus” is neuter in Latin. And this is the reason for the whole problem concerning “-us/-um” in this case. Most (almost all) Latin nouns ending with “-us” are masculine (like “dominus,” which means “man,”“Sir”*), and nouns ending with “-um” (like “forum”) are neuter. That “opus” ends with “-us” but is neuter is a grammatical exception; it’s an “irregular noun” in Latin.

If (let’s assume this for a moment) “opus” is masculine, “magnus opus” would be right, as the flexion of adjectives follows the flexion of the corresponding nouns. As “opus” is actually neuter, however, the neuter form of the adjective “magnus” is required; hence, “magnum opus.” But because even educated people over here in Europe (and in the US) have rather little knowledge of Latin (they just know the tiny little bit that often causes errors), they think “Hey, ‘opus’ ends with ‘-us,” so it’s masculine, and so the adjective has to take the masculine form as well; hence, ‘magnus opus.’” This is the reason for the (actually wrong) default usage “magnus” that you mentioned in your reply to Justine’s original question.

As I’m not living in the Philippines, I will not register for membership in your Forum and will not post my opinion there, but rather just send you this personal note. And, by the way, the main reason for this e-mail of mine is not the “-us/-um” topic, but to tell you that you’re read all over the world, and that I really enjoy browsing your Forum and your blog and reading your articles about “loopholes” and “wormholes” in Philippine Supreme Court decisions (http://tinyurl.com/nk4sfzl), the use of “causative verbs” in English (http://tinyurl.com/qzoo8k9), and, most of all, “The World in 854 Words” (http://tinyurl.com/kuh4t55). Your articles like this one that generally hold up the virtues of the Enlightenment—virtues that, I fear, are seemingly disappearing over here in Europe these days—are much appreciated.

Accept my respect and compliments for your great work. Have a great weekend and all the very best,

Frank Gingeleit

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*My Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary translates the Latin “dominus” into English as “the Lord be with you.”
Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

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3 Comments

  1. i agree opus belongs to the third declension in latin but there are irregular nouns in the third declension in latin such as: vos, (force, power), sus, suis (pig), bos, bovis (cow) & iuppiter, Iovis (Jupiter)

    • Justaskingseriously on

      Power or force in Latin is vis. If you notice, the genitive of all these “irregular” nouns all follow the pattern for the genitive in the third declension, namely, “-is.” These may be unusual in their genitive form, but the “-is” for the genitive regardless of the unusual “jump” from the nominative still follow the genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, and ablative cases. The irregular verbs on the other hand do not follow the regular conjugation. That is what makes the verbs irregular.

  2. Justaskingseriously on

    The Latin words used as examples in the german email are nouns. Nouns do not qualify as regular or irregular; verbs qualify as regular or irregular in Latin or in Spanish. In Latin there are declensions for nouns: “dominus” belongs to the second declension whereas “opus” belongs to the third declension. If “opus” ends with “-us” just like “dominus” ends in “-us”, those are just in the nominative case. The genitive case will reveal different endings. “Dominus” ends with “-i” or “domini” whereas “opus” ends with “-eris” or “operis”. The difference in the genetive case shows the difference in the declensions.