Archives for March 16th, 2009


Latin Hexameter Pangrams

I’m sure most of us remember the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which we saw over and over again as children learning to write or to type. But if you’re like me you didn’t know that it’s called a pangram, a name which makes perfect sense once you know it.

I intend to focus on proper pronunciation this week in Latin II and had the novel idea of finding such a sentence in Latin, to have my students memorize it, and to have them recite it back to me individually for a grade.

My search turned up little at first, until I stumbled upon the following by Pedro Madariaga (published as an illustration for handwriting in 1565):

gaza frequens Libycum duxit Karthago triumphum

This has caused those who’ve discussed it online no end of difficulty, and I think I know why. Others want to take Libycum as an accusative singular with triumphum, which leads them to read gaza as an ablative, or to make other unnecessary changes that destroy the meter as well as the sense.

But gaza must be nominative singular, and the progression of thought leads one to read Libycum as a poetic genitive plural (for Libyc(or)um). Read it like this:

gaza frequens Libycum: duxit Karthago triumphum!

At once the ellipsis of est is clear, as is the sense: “The treasury of the Libyans is full: Carthage has led a triumphal procession.”

(Incidentally, variants appear with the forms “libycos … triumphos“, a sort of hyper-correction following the common misreading.)

Following upon this I devised my own, though I’ve omitted K and Y:

heu Zama, quam Scipio celeber dux frangit inique!

“Alas (poor) Zama, whom the famed general Scipio is shattering unequally!”

Here our make-believe poet apostrophizes Zama in his sympathy at the heavy losses on the Carthaginian side. With inique I was aiming at the imbalance in losses between the two sides.

I think I’ll offer both lines to the students, teach them in meter and with proper pronunciation, and give them a choice as to which they recite for credit.