Bad Latin

Greetings from Cincinnati! I am here for a week grading Spanish AP tests, for the second time (read about the first time here). So far we’re off to a good start, though our team of hundreds of Spanish teachers from all over the country has to get through 190,000 exams. One test at a time…

I’m still thinking about my recent trip to Andalucía. Tonight I’ll share with you a linguistically interesting Latin mistake that I saw at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, in this charming 1640 painting by Juan del Castillo, San Juan niño servido por dos ángeles (‘John the Baptist, as a child, served by two angels’).

The fun part of the painting is the Latin inscription on the ribbon entwined around baby John’s cross:

Hopefully you can see that this inscription reads Ecce annus dei, which translates as ‘Here is the year of God’. This should be Ecce agnus dei, ‘Here is the lamb of God’, a reference to John’s statement Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi ‘Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is he who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

This Latin error is intriguing because agnus disappeared in Spanish as well as in del Castillo’s painting. Cordero, the modern Spanish word for ‘lamb’, comes from a different root: Vulgar Latin cordarius, from cordus ‘late’, i.e. a late-born lamb. In contrast, Portuguese, Catalan, French, and Italian all retained the Latin root — as anho, anyell, agneau, and agnello, respectively — although the primary words for ‘lamb’ in Portuguese and Catalan are cordeiro and xai. (I don’t know where xai came from, nor miel, the Romanian word for ‘lamb’.)

Why eliminate agnus in Spanish? The most likely explanation is that Latin gn and nn both became ñ in Spanish; for example, Latin canna became caña ‘cane’ and Latin ligna became leña ‘firewood’ (see this earlier blog entry for more examples). This means that annus and agnus would both have emerged as año in Spanish once final -us turned into -o, so something had to give. Turning to another root for a new word for ‘lamb’ was a reasonable solution. In contrast, annus emerged with a plain n sound in the other Romance languages, so there was no danger of the two words for ‘year’ and ‘ lamb’ sounding alike.

I wonder, in fact, whether Juan del Castillo’s Latin mistake was somehow related to this history. Would a speaker of a different Romance language been as likely to confuse agnus and annus?

5 thoughts on “Bad Latin

    1. jhochberg Post author

      The funny thing is that I always look down on tourists taking picture of paintings in museums, so I felt really sheepish doing it myself!

  1. Jon Aske

    Seemingly, this error was quite common. The exact same error can be seen in this other picture (engraving) from the previous century (1577), found in the British Museum:

    And in this pendant from the first half of the previous century!

    More than just a random mistake, this looks a lot like a case of assimilation. On the other hand, it is probably a confusion with the phrase annus domini (year of the lord).

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Jon, I always welcome your scholarly comments. Here you have just driven a truck through my suggestion that the Spanish conflation of gn and nn might have influenced del Castillo. Your comment inspired me to do a quick google search on “annus dei john the baptist”, and I found two other examples: in Chartres, the Rijksmuseum

      By the way, while researching this topic I learned a new word: the ribbon on John’s cross is a banderole (banderola in Spanish).

  2. Tony

    My understanding is that the -gn- was pronounced as -ngn-. The resulting sound of “angnus” does match that of “annus” pretty closely.


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