Sunday, October 28, 2007

Back to School: Omnia Vanitas or Omnis Vanitas?


Your Asterix and Obelix comic was right of course, the quote from the Vulgate bible (Ecclesiastes) is: "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas," famously translated in the King James Bible as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

Lots of people don't like that translation anymore because the Elizabethan (okay, Jamesean) era language has drifted away from modern usage.


The word translated senseless, הבל (hevel), literally means vapor, breath. Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) uses it metaphorically, and its precise meaning is extensively debated. Older English translations often render it 'vanity'. Because in modern usage this word has often come to mean "self-pride," losing its Latinate connotation of emptiness, some translators have abandoned it. Other translations include empty, futile, meaningless, absurd, fleeting or senseless. Some translations use the literal rendering 'vapor of vapors' and so claim to leave the interpretation to the reader.

I actually like the King James version.
But leave it to a pretentious punk like me to challenge the vulgate Latin!

*Flashback to school*

(Monty Python: Romani ite domum!)

I learned a little Latin (little Latin, less Greek) in college, and as the saying goes, 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'

Latin is leaving out the verbs, which should be "Vanitas vanitatum (est), omnia vanitas (sunt)."

I've got no quarrel with the first part, 'Vanity is made up of vanities.'

But focus in on the second phrase, "Omnia vanitas (sunt)."

For "omnia" _ "all things" _ to be the subject, it has to be neuter plural (see table at the very bottom of the post if you're interested). But if that's true, and it's the subject, shouldn't the last word ("vanitas") also be neuter plural? Because it ain't.

Here's some Latin grammar page I pulled up:

The verb “to be” (“sum”) is such a verb. It merely couples the subject with some other noun, or an adjective. For example, “Catherine is the queen (noun)” or, “Catherine is old (adjective).” Hence “sum” is called a COPULATIVE VERB. The nouns and adjectives that are coupled to the subject are called PREDICATE NOMINATIVES, to distinguish them from the typical nominative, the subject of the sentence. When you translate, make sure that the adjective on one side of the copulative verb “sum” is the same gender, number, and case as the noun on the other side. For instance, “Femina est antiqua”; “vir est antiquus; “feminae sunt antiquae.”

So if Omnia is the subject it should "agree" in number and gender with the form of "vanity" that you use.

If it were Omnis Vanitas, as I put it, no problem: "All is Vanity."

But Omnia Vanitas seems to say "All things (plural) IS Vanity (singular)."

Where I come from, you have to say "All thing ARE Vanity."

To make them both plural, it would need to be "Omnia Vanitatia"
or at least "Omnes Vanitates"??

In sum, I don't get it.

This is why I was never that good in Latin.

Latinists out there? Have I discovered a huge error in the Vulgate bible that millions of people have overlooked all these years?

I have the sneaking suspicion the answer is: no.

Maybe "all things" can be considered to be some kind of group single. Like: The United States IS big.

Or maybe it's some "Church Latin" thing. I hate church Latin.

At any rate, I'm damn well not going to change it on my web page until somebody explains to me why I'm wrong.

I will be once again amazed at the power of the Internet if that actually happens.


As a footnote, I came across a nice Disraeli quote while trying to figure this out.

"There is a great mistake in the Vulgate. . .the Latin
translation of the Holy Scriptures, and that is that instead
of saying “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” – Vanitas
vanitatum, omnia vanitas, the wise and witty king (Solomon)
really said, Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas. Gentlemen,
it is impossible to overrate the importance of the
subject. After all, the first consideration of a
Minister should be the health of the people."

-Benjamin Disraeli, 1872.

(Here are the tables, sorry if they're not displaying correctly. I tried)

Declension of omnis, omnis, omne

masculine feminine neuter


nominative omnis omnis omne
genitive omnis omnis omnis
dative omni omni omni
accusative omnem omnem omne
ablative omni omni omni


nominative omnes omnes omnia
genitive omnium omnium omnium
dative omnibus omnibus omnibus
accusative omnes omnes omnia
ablative omnibus omnibus omnibus

Unfortunately, I had to do the declension of Vanitas (-atis 3f., a regular noun). myself, since I can't find it on the web. The masculine/feminine nominative plural is Vanitates, and the neuter is Vanitatia.

Masculine/Feminine Neuter

Nominative: Vanitas Vanitas
Genitive: Vanitatis Vanitatis
Dative: Vanitati Vanitati
Accusative: Vanitatem Vanitatem
Ablative: Vanitati Vanitati
Nominative: Vanitates Vanitatia
Genitive: Vanitatium Vanitatium
Dative: Vanitatibus Vanitatibus
Accusative: Vanitates Vanitatia
Ablative: Vanitatibus Vanitatibus


Anonymous said...

Yeah, latin classes were a long time ago for me too, but "all things" (are) isn't that synonymous with "everything" (is) which takes singular in English... or am I completely lost?

Toby Sterling said...

I think that taking "all things" as equivalent to "everything," a singular, has to be our leading explanation.
But I want someone to state it with AUTHORITY. Are there other examples of grammatical plurals coupled with singular adjectives of a different gender in Latin?
"Terrae Depressae madidum est."
It just looks wrong, though you can get away with saying "The Netherlands is soggy."

Toby Sterling said...

Updating: here are responses from two reputable sources _ neither resolves the question for me, but profound thanks anyway:

1) I don't know what the explanation is, but here is what I see: The Latin is a translation of a Hebrew book. In Greek, a plural neuter takes a singular verb, but this is irrelevant. Omnia is not being used as an adjective, or, as you point out, it would be omnes. Instead, omnia is a plural neuter, a substantive. In omnia vanitas, the copulative is left out, but a singular noun is being equated with a plural. I hope this helps.
-N.S. Gill, Guide to Ancient/Classical History

2) Yes, Toby, I think you're on the right track.It's not terribly frequent, but it does happen:e.g., 'the wages of sin is death';e.g., 'the quarrels of lovers are the renewal of love'.
Gildersleeve & Lodge write: 'The violations of the rules of agreement is due chiefly to one of two causes; either the natural relation is preferred to the artificial...or the nearer is preferred to the more remote.'
Hope this helps. Best wishes,
-John Thorburn, Chair, Baylor Classics

I'm not sure what a natural vs. artificial relationship is, but focusing on the second reason, that the nearer is preferred to the more remote: that's a mistake frequently and easily made in English, as in:
"neither of the two lights work."

But it's still bad grammar.

I'm starting to lean more toward the idea that this is just bad Latin.

I've posted about all this on the Latin forum, we'll see if we can get some Swinburne to pop up and drop science.

Anonymous said...

I realize my comment is a little late, but I must stress that "Omnia Vanitas (sunt)" is not at all bad Latin. It is no more wrong than saying "All things are vanity" in English.

Omnia here is a neuter adjective in the nominative plural being used as a substantive--that is, as a noun. Omnia = all (things)

It is not always possible for the subject and the predicate nominative to agree in gender and number. In those situations, the two MUST ONLY AGREE IN CASE. "Omnia" and "Vanitas" are both nominative and thus the rules of agreement are satisfied. In short, while adjectives must always agree with nouns in gender, number, and case, nouns or adjectives functioning as nouns are only required to agree in case.

The verb must always agree with the subject--here, "omnia"--in person and number. The predicate nominative--in this case, "vanitas"--has no effect on the verb.

Your "omnis vanitas" means "every vanity" and does not make much sense here.

I hope this helps.

Toby Sterling said...

@Omnia - Anonymous

I'm glad you came along. In fact, I had made my peace with this matter last year but never updated the post.

Your central point: it's not necessary for subject and predicate nominative to agree in gender and number, just in their case.

I guess it's a tautology they must agree in case, otherwise we wouldn't be talking about the predicate NOMINATIVE at all.

But: Hallelujah!

I also found this point somewhere in a Latin grammar. It was a funny example involving Lupus that I've now lost of course.

You sound like someone who's well-read in Latin, which is just what I needed from the start.

I'm hoping you can expand on your remark that my Omnis Vanitas would mean "every vanity."

This may be a matter of how Omnis is commonly used in Latin _ you would be in a better position to say than I.

But by looking at the dictionary definition of the word, Omnis Vanitas could just as well mean All is Vanity or Vanity is All (with EST understood).

I think the reason Jerome didn't choose "Omnis Vanitas" or even "Omnia Vanitatia," which would both work gramatically as far as I can see, is due to the exact meaning he's trying to convey.

Here's the expanded thought, with special attention to singulars and plurals:

Vanity is made up of little vanities, and all things sum up to vanity.


So yes, Omnia absolutely must be the subject, because to say Vanity is All (Omnis Vanitas) loses the meaning.

Even if it is more graceful!

Unknown said...

Is this whole discussion an exercise in vanity? I only received half a high school education but I think the translation should be expressed as "nothing matters". In the final essence, no single thing on this earth matters. This I lay lightly before all.

Nevertheless, What an enjoyable discussion

Unknown said...

Is this whole discussion an exercise in vanity? I only received half a high school education but I think the translation should be expressed as "nothing matters". In the final essence, no single thing on this earth matters. This I lay lightly before all.

Nevertheless, What an enjoyable discussion