Thursday, 22 July 2010


When, speaking English, we often ask questions which are looking for a simple, answer 'Yes' or 'No', and the manner in which we pose the question sometimes signals clearly to the respondent which answer we are expecting to receive, often indicating thereby the attitude or viewpoint of the questioner. Set out below is an analysis of the three types of such questions. Each example in English is translated into Latin and Greek. You will note that English has different forms of asking these questions, depending on the degree of emphasis the questioner wishes to inject. Readers with no previous knowledge of Latin, but who have heard references to 'Nonne' or 'Num' questions, will now be able to decipher what this distinction means.

(1) Simple question expecting either answer.

English: Do you wish to go home? OR Are you wishing to go home?

Latin: Visne ire domum?

Greek: ἆρ' ἐθελεις ἰέναι οἴκαδε;

(2) A question to which the expected answer is 'Yes'.

English: Don't you wish to go home? OR Surely you wish to go home? OR You do wish to go home, don't you?

Latin: Nonne vis ire domum?

Greek: ἆρ' οὐκ ἐθελεις ἰέναι οἴκαδε;

(3) A question to which the expected answer is 'No'.

English: Surely you don't wish to go home? OR You don't wish to go home, do you?

Latin: Num vis ire domum?

Greek: ἆρα μὴ ἐθελεις ἰέναι οἴκαδε;

N.B. The third type of the above questions does not always require an answer, since it is already felt to be 'No'.

P.S. 'Nonne' and 'Num' questions are sometimes called 'Negative Questions', and, indeed, when they are translated, most of them will contain the word 'Non' or another negative word. However, a 'Nonne' question, although it has a very negative look, can be translated without a negative, as the second example in the relevant section above indicates; on the other hand, if one's translation of a 'Num' question does not contain a negative, then an error will have been made, that is, if a literal translation is being attempted. A negative could, however, be avoided if the translator offered a free translation, such as "Surely you do wish to stay here?" Such free translations may of course then confuse the student reader, who, seeing 'Num' in the Latin text may then expect to find a negative in the English version. On the whole, therefore, it is probably better not to describe "Num" and "Nonne" questions as negative ones. Hence the title of this article!  

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