There’s far too little linguistics on this blog, so in an attempt to rectify this:

Late last week on the bus I was having a conversation with a friend that, after a while, broke off on a tangent about the Roman Empire’s acronym SPQR.

It’s the sort of thing that young Roman men have tattooed on their arms, as if they were imperial Roman Gladiators, or Russell Crowe or something. Mussolini was similarly patriotic about it, as is my understanding, and put it on government buildings and manhole covers across the city.

My friend and I ended up discussing exactly what it meant, and as my friend is of that generation of people who were taught Latin all through high school, I was quite happy to accept that I was utterly wrong.

I had always heard the English gloss as The Senate and the People of Rome, and I thought the original Latin was Senatus Populusque Roma. Apart from that, I knew in the back of my mind that there was something funky going on with that clitic -que.

From these facts I more or less subconsciously concluded that it would parse as:

    [Senatus Populus]-que Roma
    [The Senate and the People] of Rome

which would very easily lend itself to the analysis (from someone who never did any Latin, if I might defend myself here) that the clitic -que was a genitive/possessive morpheme and was bound on the possessed entity, which in this case would have been the entire conjunctive noun phrase the Senate and the People.

However, I was wrong in my basic knowledge of the phrase. I learned that it was actually Senatus Populusque Romanus, and not merely Roma. So clearly then, the three noun roots, senat-, popul- and Roman- all take the same declension -us, meaning that they would be in the same noun phrase, or at least have the same semantic role, in which case a genitive construction would be unlikely.

My friend also told me that the clitic -que was not a possessive morpheme, but a conjunction ‘and’. It could then easily parse as a flat structure, a list of entities, The Senate, the People, and Rome, but this wouldn’t be congruous with the common translation into English, The Senate and the People of Rome.

Defeated, I looked up Wikipedia in the hope that it would have a morpheme-by-morpheme gloss and, while there was no such gloss to be found, there was another piece of the puzzle, an alternative translation. This time it was glossed as The Senate and the Roman People.

If this gloss is more accurate, then Roman People is one half of a conjunction, and The Senate is the other half. If that‘s the case, then why on Earth would the conjunctive -que (which I don’t even know whether to call a clitic anymore) be embedded inside the phrase Populus Romanus, since presumably it conjoins it with Senatus, rather than conjoining Populus with Romanus.

So at the end of the day, I’m not yet entirely sure how SPQR should be analysed, or even how it is best translated, but I’m sure some of my erudite and knowledgeable readers have studied Latin in their time and could shed some light on this…