Reading the United States Great Seal

The Great Seal of the United States has become an object of mystifying speculation. Charles Thomson, the designer, never left a direct translation of the Seal mottos Latin text.

Without the author, we cannot have the one and only translation. Synonyms are, have been, and are going to be. The word sense of the Great Seal yet could make a rhyme also a child might remember, letting the people generally identify with the meaning.

I have never come across an interpretation as mine, but I think it is definitely not impossible that such was the Seal design, and guesswork always has been part linguistic research. Sometimes, there is nothing better than good guesswork.

Charles Thomson
Charles Thomson


E pluribus unum

Annuit coeptis

Novus ordo seclorum


Out of many, one

With favor to the endeavor

A new people come.


The report by Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and designer of the Seal, tells,

The Date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra which commences from that Date.

The verb to signify is close in meaning to connoting or invoking. Saying that something signifies is not the same as saying, "this is the direct meaning". People have differed, interpreting the Seal Latin sense, and they have done guesswork, too. Wikipedia says,

The phrase is a reference to the fourth Eclogue of Virgil.[1] Thus the motto Novus ordo seclorum can be translated as "A new order of the ages."

The problem with Virgil

I have three problems with accepting the Eclogue for the explanation. First, Charles Thomson was a Presbyterian. Virgil refers to ancient Cumae, where Sibyls produced narcotic visions, inhaling smoke from burnt offerings. In short, Sibyls were a pagan rite, and Charles Thomson was a Christian to design State insignia in a place on Earth where people believed a degree of separation between politics and faith was good. Charles Thomson approved of that.

Second, a "new order of ages" would imply some new ordering in time, and worse still, without reference to place. I have never met anybody to believe in time without place on this planet, and this is where the USA is. I have never met anybody even to believe they can have Friday on a Monday, and re-arrangement of time spans suggestive of centuries would require proportionately bigger faith. Ancient Romans were definitely territorial.

Third, Charles Thomson acknowledged Latin digraphs. His report says Æra, and the Seal says cœptis. The Seal yet does not say sæclorum, as in Virgil. It says seclorum.

Obviously, Charles Thomson was able to read Latin from resources other than Virgil. As we can get word sense from word use in context, let us compare the Latin word ordo in Cicero, first.

The path with Cicero

Accuse the senate; accuse the equestrian body, which at that time was united with the senate; accuse every order or society, and all the citizens; (…) at all events you would never have continued in this order, or rather in this city; (…) when I have been pronounced by this order to be the savior of my country; (…) when you, one single young man, forbade the whole order to pass decrees concerning the safety of the republic (…)

The Latin usus, that is, word use in context, would point at ordo as a distinct group or class of people, a union.

We might ask, why did Charles Thomson not use the Latin word populus, if he meant people? Ancients associated populus with laying waste or degrading. The Latin perpopulor meant to devastate, to pillage. Populabilis meant destructible.

Ancient Rome was a militarist culture oriented to status. There hardly was a notion as present-day nationality. It was the civitas, belonging with the city of Rome, to matter. Aerarium was a separate place in the temple of Saturn for offerings from the public. Elites had a different storage. An aerarius was a degraded citizen, who could not vote. Finally, the Senatus populusque was part the decision-making in persecution of early Christians.

A new people has become

The present-day sense of the word people did not work in ancient Latin. Let us continue the guesswork on the Latin usus. We can try a phrase as these people, with Cicero as above.

... accuse every order ≈ accuse every of these people

you would never have continued in this order ≈ you would never have continued among these people

I have been pronounced by this order ≈ I have been pronounced by these people

forbade the whole order ≈ forbade all these people

For seclorum, we can compare sequor and secludo. Secludo had the sense of standing apart. With a cause implied, sequor could mean to result, ensue, occur, to come.

The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar by Alexander Adam, of about 1786, presents seclor as a consequent of sequor, on page 141.

Alexander Adam, The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar
Alexander Adam, The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar | Source

Charles Thomson's own formations

We are used to approach Latin as a dead language, in terms of citations. There are no native speakers of Latin living. Does this yet mean we cannot speak Latin nowadays, that we can only memorize and repeat quotes?

The phrase Annuit coeptis has been interpreted as an invocation to Providence, and derived from Virgil’s Georgics. However, it was reportedly Augustus Caesar to whom Virgil appealed for support.

Caesars were ancient Roman rulers, adversely famed for ad hoc death verdicts. Marcus Tullius Cicero’s writings influenced the Founding Fathers favorably. Cicero was executed upon an order by Gaius Octavius, known as Octavian, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar.

We can doubt if Charles Thomson would have meant a Caesar for supernatural providence, and imperial divine titles remain titles. A "master of arts" has never meant a "boss to craft", either. More, the Great Seal mottos are not citations. They would have to be exact same as the Latin texts, and the Latin is,

... ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo (the Eclogue),

Da facilem cursum, atque audacibus annue cœptis (Georgics).

It is highly probable that Charles Thomson formed the mottos himself. Annuit was also a Perfective Latin form, hence, with favor to the endeavor. With Latin syntax, Perfective forms were capable of functions we would present as adverbial, in modern languages.

Reading the Seal

Features and patterns of Latin continue to live in modern languages. For example, we say circle [sirkl], but we say cat [kæ:t].

Ancient Latin had the sound [ts], in the phonetic script for English, and [c] in the script for Slavic languages. We may try making the sound, producing [s] and closing on the hard palate as for [t].

Vowel chart, simplified
Vowel chart, simplified

In ancient Latin, the letter c stood for [ts] before front vowels. Back vowels or non-vowels always resulted in [k].

We read seclorum as [se:klorum], but ptis as [tse:ptis]. Πis a digraph to represent the same speech sound as e.

We may still wonder why we say circle as [sirkl]. Saying [ts] is not anything outside linguistic abilities of English-speaking people.

Please mind that vowel charts reflect on the tongue muscle. [u] is not a front vowel, though we might even protrude our lips to say it. We can talk about the letter shape u in the context of the Amber Road.

The Amber Road

The Amber Road brought primarily spoken Latin influence, on Polish, Russian, as well as German or French. Polish and Russian have the [ts] or [c] in words cent, ценT [tsent], English cent. German language has the sound in its word for number ten, zehn [tsein]. Latin centesimus denoted a hundredth, and cententionalis meant a small coin.

Back with circles and cats

The letter shape C preserves the Latin difference between back and front vowels also for English, yet it sounds [s], according to the French influence after the Norman conquest. The French would not have the speech sound [ts] at all.

Roman square capitals

Arch of Titus
Arch of Titus | Source

This is what the Great Seal mottos would look in Roman square capitals. Ancient Romans used the style for official and ceremonial presentation of written matter, as in stone inscriptions. For documents, the style is known as Latin book hand.

E PLVRIBVS VNVM

ANNVIT COEPTIS

NOVVS ORDO SECLROVM

Reading of Latin letters depended on adjacent speech sounds. In square as well as handwritten styles, telling [u] from [v] required reader's knowledge. For example, we have the letter "u" in the word language. The Latin name was lingua, and the way to say it was [liηgva], as there was [g] followed by a low vowel. The nominative decided on the entire declension. We may compare cuius [kuius].

Vowel chart, simplified
Vowel chart, simplified

The letter shape q always was followed by u, moreover, the u was to be pronounced as [v].

Returning to the Amber Road, we can compare quota, to be kwota [kvota] in Polish, квота [kvota] in Russian, and Quote [kvote] in German. French has [ko:ta:]. French native phonology generally avoids [v] within syllables, [svelte] and [svastika] to be much later exceptions having come from foreign tongues.

Importantly, the [ko:ta:] does not have the [w] we can hear in oui, the French word for yes. Further, the language has the sound [w] internally in syllables, if we bring up forms as "je crois" [krwa:], in English "I think".

We can speculate the French would have said *[kwo:ta:], had the sound [w] been there in the first place. The same applies to Polish and Russian, which also have [w] within syllables, kłos, kłoni [kwos, kwoni] to support the guesswork in Polish.

Italians were more familiar with written Latin. They have [kwota]. English assimilated mostly written Latin patterns, too.

Nobody having to take just my word it, the Seal does not have the sound context to read u as [v] or [w]. The square capitals were what we call today a font style. Here we go, minding that ancients doubled non-vowels, up to the classic Latin standard:

[ε: p l u: r i b u s] [u: n u m]

[a: n n u i t] [ts ε: p t i s]

[n o: v u s] [o: r d o] [s ε: k l o r u m]

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