LINGUIST List 5.172

Wed 16 Feb 1994

Sum: Roman calves

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  1. bert peeters, Roman calves (summary)

Message 1: Roman calves (summary)

Date: Mon, 14 Feb 1994 10:52:33 Roman calves (summary)
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: Roman calves (summary)

I received quite a few replies to my query on the source of the bilingual
line "I Uitelli, dei romani sono belli / I vitelli dei Romani sono belli".
My vague impression that I got it out of Tullio de Mauro's critical
edition to Saussure's Cours de linguistique generale was confirmed: see p.
XI in the French and p. XV in the Italian version. Below are some of the
more substantial replies. I must however reconstruct Renato Piva's reply,
which I deleted inadvertently. Piva points out the obvious - that this is
a constructed example, and that neither of the translations I provided
makes really sense. He notes quite interestingly that SONUS BELLI appears
in Propertius 4,10,25, and also that the genitives DEI ROMANI BELLI could
be combined in various ways.

My thanks go to all of the following:
 Guy Aston
 Christopher Bader
 Leo Connolly
 Jean-Marc Dewaele
 Barbara Di Eugenio
 Anna Morpurgo Davies
 Renato Piva
 Vieri Samek-Lodovici
 David Wigtil

I am Italian and I learned at school the joke about I VITELLI DEI ROMANI
SONO BELLI. I do not know where it comes from but note that the Latin is
meant to translate: Go, o Vitellius, at the war sound of the Roman God.
It is also interesting that this is obviously an example of written
ambiguity; it would not work in speech with quantity etc. intervening.

If you could invent this one, you're a lot better than I am. But even
so, the Latin is, shall we say, extraordinary. How would a bare
ablative _sono_ fit in the Latin sentence? My dictionary says there are
expressions such as _ire pedibus_ 'go on foot', but this seems too
different. And then there's the unusual position of the apparent
appositive _dei romani_ before the _belli_ to which it is apposed. And
the very unLatin name _uitellius_. And vaguely I remember my first-year
Latin teacher saying that the imperative _i_ wasn't used because it was
too short (vaguely remember, I'm afraid; no more than that).

Still, if we overlook these quibbles, I get a reading: 'Go with (on) the
sound of War, that Roman god.' 'Roman god of war' sounds wrong, though
I can't put my finger on why; I rather expect we should have an
adjectival form of 'war' in the latter meaning.

i vitelli dei romani sono belli, according to my colleagues here (the
University of Bologna Interpreters' school) is a hoary grammar school
joke in Italy which goes back at least 50 years. (It also contains a
spelling mistake in the Latin - so presumably it's a translating into Latin
from Italian joke.

By the merest coincidence, I found a reference yesterday to _i_ as the
imperative of _ire_. The author -- it may have been Sapir; I don't
remember at the momemt -- seemed to regard it as a normal form. Well, I
guess I'd trust Sapir over dim memories of my first-year Latin teacher,
even though Sapir was hardly a Latinist. Still, the form hasn't
survived in Romance. Make of it what you will. (The "future
imperative" _ito_, which I think my teacher may have recommended, didn't
survive either.)
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