July 31, 2007

Manus digiti coaequales non sunt, omnes tamen usui

In English: The fingers of the hand are not equal, but all are useful.

I thought this would make a good follow-up to yesterday's saying, which was also about hands and fingers.

Today's proverb is actually one of my favorite sayings in Latin. It combines two things I really value in proverbs: the use of everyday, concrete objects to create a highly suggestive metaphor (I'm not a big fan of proverbs that rely on abstract vocabulary), and it also conveys a truly positive message that focuses on the good in the world (okay, I do enjoy cynical, world-weary sayings too... but positive sayings are even better!).

I found this proverb in the delightful and eccentric book by Augusto Arthaber, Dizionario comparato di proverbi e modi proverbiali. The book is in print and widely available for sale in Italy, so only a partial preview of the book is available at Google Books, but you can see part of the book there.

I should also say something about the nice Latin grammar features of this proverb, since it provides a great object lesson in the tricky ins-and-outs of the fourth declension. The word manus that comes in first position might look like a nominative singular, but it is not: it is a genitive singular, manus digiti, the fingers of the hand. When you look at the word manus without any context, there are four morphological possibilities: nominative singular, genitive singular, nominative plural, and accusative plural. Argh! Not to mention the fact that you might mistake it for the nominative singular of a second declension noun or adjective, which also ends in -us.

In addition to the tricky manus, there is also the word usui, a dative singular form of the fourth declension. It's very useful to associate the ending i with the dative singular, since you will find that in the third and fourth and fifth declensions. Admittedly, the i ending has still other functions in the second declension, but given the superabundance of third declension nouns in Latin, associating i with the dative in your mind is a very good idea.

Given that there are these five declensions in Latin, I was thinking we might even apply the proverb to the five declensions: just as the five fingers of the hand are not equal but all are useful, the same is true of the five declensions of Latin!

So, with due respect to each and every finger and each and every declension, here is today's proverb read out loud:

558. Manus digiti coaequales non sunt, omnes tamen usui.

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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