Posted by Chris at 2:21 AM
I'm reading Ad Infinitum, a biography of Latin (in a history sense, more than a linguistic sense), and it includes a bit of an eleventh century erotic "Cambridge song" (the full poem is available in Latin here). The following lines struck me:
Quid iuvat differre, electa,"What good is it to put off, O my chosen one, what will have to be done later!" That's more or less a typical gloss. But that "que" threw me for a second -- that's a relative pronoun ("quae" in Classical Latin), and because of its placement it first seems to refer to the "electa", the chosen one, but it turns out it's referring to the things that need to be done.
que sunt tamen post facienda!
Latin has a quirk where singular feminine nouns and adjectives can sometimes look like plural neuters. This (to oversimplify things) is why Romance languages only have masculine and feminine nouns, even though Latin also had neuter ones -- the neuter nouns were either eventually read as masculine (a typical neuter -um ending is not too far from a typical masculine -us ending, especially once you start leaving off that last syllable) or, if they were usually plural, then they were read as feminine (a typical neuter plural -a ending looks very much like a typical feminine ending -a!). And, as I mentioned, the relative pronouns are the same. So this allows for some occasional ambiguity.
The "que sunt ... facienda", "what must be done", can't be feminine singular, however, because "sunt" is plural. If it were "que est ... facienda", it would be "O my chosen one, who must be done". (I'm pretty sure that naughty sense of "doing" someone translates, but I don't own a copy of The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, alas. Not yet.) Still, that misreading echoed for me.
And it made me rethink "electa". Earlier in the poem the narrator refers to the woman he's wooing as "soror electa", "chosen sister", and so of course when "electa" recurs a few lines later, it first seems as thought it's being used the same way. And of course it's set off by commas, to indicate that speaker is addressing the person he's speaking to. You, dear Reader, understand how that works. Except I suspect there weren't commas in the original manuscript! They are usually added by later editors trying to make a more readable version. So, perhaps the "electa" is not the singular feminine chosen woman, but the neuter plural things that must be done, that it doesn't help to delay! Something like this:
Quid iuvat differre electa"What good is it to put off the things which have been chosen which will have to be done later!" There is some grammatical slippage here between the woman that the narrator has chosen and the deeds that they "have to" do together; has he chosen the woman, or the acts? There is no clear way to decide (although the contemporary use of commas forced the editor to decide, to disambiguate the text); it's not even clear that, ultimately, it matters to the narrator. She is being grammatically objectified.
que sunt tamen post facienda!
This sort of play, which takes advantage of the multiple meanings available through use of certain grammatical features of a language, is something that occurs far less frequently than I'd expect in Latin poetry. It seems to happen more the further you get away from the "pinnacles" of poetry -- Vergil seems to avoid ambiguity on principle rather than embrace what it can express. And I'm not sure whether the ambiguity here is intentional or not (I haven't looked at the rest of the poem that closely, to see if the poet makes a habit of it). But I sure do get excited when I find an example of productive ambiguity!