January 18, 2007

Optimus magister bonus liber

In English: The best teacher is a good book.

I thought this would be a very good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, Libri muti magistri sunt, "Books are mute teachers. Today's proverb emphasizes that books are, in fact, really great teachers, "optimal" teachers, we might say in English.

The elegance of the proverb depends on the play between the words optimus and bonus, "best" and "good." The word optimus is the superlative form of bonus. Notice how the proverb uses a parallel structure in order to call attention to this word play: Optimus magister || bonus liber, A-B || A-B. Parallelism is one of the most powerful structural features of Latin word order. We use parallelisms in English, too, but the freedom of Latin word order allows Latin speakers and writers to create parallelisms that might be impossible within the rules of English grammar.

There's another very similar saying in Latin: Bonus liber amicus optimus, "a good book is the best friend." Notice that this one has a different word order pattern than the first proverb. Here the pattern relies a very typical Latin pattern where the strongest emphasis in the sentence belongs to the first position and the final position. Here the first position is occupied by bonus, "good," while the final position is occupied by optimus, reinforcing the play on words that is at the heart of this proverb. This is definitely an effect that would not be possible in English, since we need adjectives to come before the noun (as in bonus liber), while Latin is perfectly content to also let the adjective follow the noun (as in amicus optimus).

As you can see, then, both proverbs achieve a play on bonus-optimus, either by means of a parallelism, or by means of the first-last position emphases.

See if you can pay attention to these structural features as you listen to the proverbs!

46. Optimus magister bonus liber.

47. Bonus liber amicus optimus.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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2 comments:

mail@townhouse51.freeserve.co.uk said...

This blog is a great resource.
My 13-year-old daughter is learning Latin, but is wavering about whether or not to keep it going.
My own Latin is more than rusty and I was looking for a Latin tag as a dedication for a book she will receive for Christmas - one of Carolin Lawrence's Roman Mysteries. these are really for yonger children, but she has read them for a few years.
Bonus liber amicus optimus!
Derek

Laura Gibbs said...

Caroline Lawrence is such a great writer! Have you been following her newest adventures with writing about the American West? That's an exciting new turn in her work! :-)