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Reading the United States Great Seal

Updated on March 4, 2017
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Linguist, specialized in American English and psycholinguistics; inventor of Language Mapping, a generative grammar; author and translator.

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 Latin text.

Guesswork always has been part linguistic research. Sometimes, there is nothing better than good guesswork.

Charles Thomson
Charles Thomson

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, says Charles Thomson's report on his design for the Seal.

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". Wikipedia does some guesswork, too:

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."

Three problems with Virgil

Pagan reference. Charles Thomson was a Presbyterian. Virgil refers to ancient Cumae, where Sibyls produced narcotic visions, inhaling smoke from burnt offerings. Sibyls were a pagan faith and rite, in recognition by Charles Thomson as a Christian, more, one to be designing State insignia for a place on Earth where people believed a degree of separation between politics and faith was good. Many people, me included, would not have Sibyls even for an association with authority.

Altered attitude to time. A "new order of ages" would imply some new ordering in time, without reference to place: an idea maybe worth an intoxicated Sybil, yet absolutely unattractive about State authorities. You cannot have Friday on a Monday, some place nowhere on Earth, to keep a contract.

Lost specificity in the spelling. The Seal and the report show that Charles Thomson acknowledged Latin digraphs. His report says Æra, and the Seal says cœptis. The Seal yet says seclorum and not sæclorum, as in Virgil:

ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo
(Virgil's Eclogue);

Novus Ordo Seclorum
(Charles Thomson's design and Seal actual text).

The new American Æra

We can refer for the phrase "the new American Æra" to another resource, however. There was a man of outstanding talent for persuasion, and his thought influenced the Framers. The man was Thomas Paine. His work can be viewed over Project Gutenberg. A literary translation into Polish is also available from the public domain.

Thomas Paine's æra

If we search Thomas Paine's work for the word and speeling “æra”, we get:

“By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new æra for politics is struck…”

“…the independancy of America, should have been considered, as dating its æra from, and published by, the first musket that was fired against her…”

Thomas Paine's order

If we search Thomas Paine's work for the word “order”:

“Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation…

“It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages" …

“England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature…

“he who can calmly hear, and digest such doctrine, hath forfeited his claim to rationality—an apostate from the order of manhood…

“Do they take within their view, all the various orders of men whose situation and circumstances…"

Thomas Paine invoked examples from former ages, but he did not consider putting ages into an alternate order. Well, it probably would not have been common sense, and to talk about ages without any association to time would have been one of those "ideas much too refined for common understanding," that is, nonsense, to read Thomas Paine in context.

Importantly, we could paraphrase the word “order” in Thomas Paine's uses as a “pattern” or … “people”. "Ordo” as in the Seal can translate into "order". For this originally Latin, we can compare Cicero's Second Philippic. In linguistics, we can call it learning from the usus.

Cicero's order

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 (…)

Paraphrase can help comprehend word use in context.

... accuse every order ≈ accuse every of those 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 the people

In every context, if we tried to picture the notion ordo/order, we would think about people.

Without an indication by Charles Thomson, we are unable to tell the exact source for his usus. Mr. Thomson might have been influenced by Cicero, as well as relied on the usus as he had worked it out himself from Latin resources: we expect citation sources for Latin because it is a dead language; yet the language continues to be used by live people, capable of own formations. The certain thing is that Cicero was a considerable inspiration to the Framers.

Why "ordo" and not "populus"?

We might ask, why did Charles Thomson not use the Latin word populus, if he meant people?

Ancient Rome was a militarist culture oriented to status. Nationality was not a concern. All that mattered was the civitas, belonging with the city of Rome. 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 had to pay tax, but could not vote. Finally, the Senatus populusque was part in persecution of early Christians.

Ancients associated populus with laying waste or degrading. The Latin perpopulor meant to devastate, to pillage. Populabilis meant destructible.

We derive the present-day word form "people" from the Latin "populus", but the word sense does not translate back into ancient Latin. The sense did not translate also in Charles Thomson's time.

Seclum: the separate

Resources vary, presenting ancient Latin. 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

We can compare the Latin secludere. It meant to stand apart. The Latin seclusus meant separate. The form seclorum would be the plural genitive of seclum. Perseus word study tool translates the word broadly, as “a race, generation, age, the people of any time”.

Apparently, the Latin verb secludere had a Perfect participle seclusus; it became used as an adjective, and that adjective in turn originated a noun, seclum.

If we think about the Latin seclusum, it was an adjective: seclusus est: he is separate; seclusa est: she is separate; seclusum est it is separate. Seclum would have denoted “people who are separate / different with a regard”: features, chronological age, or even decisions.

A New People Come

Let us include the Latin ordo as a group, arrangement, or class, into our picture. Novus Ordo Seclorum would mean a new formation by people to have separated from others, word-for-word, "new form/order of/by the separate/those to have separated themselves".

We have the form how come, in English ― it shows the verb-participle-adjective-or-noun form interplay. Accordingly, the Seal says, “A new people come”.

A new people declares independence

„WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.”

Public domain free posters of the Declaration of Independence, John Dunlap layout.
Public domain free posters of the Declaration of Independence, John Dunlap layout. | Source

Interestingly enough, the Seal could make a rhyme the citizens generally might identify with, and also a child might remember.

E pluribus unum

Annuit coeptis

Novus ordo seclorum

Out of many, one;

Favor to the endeavor,

A new people come.

Thomas Paine: "As parents..."

We can be back with Thomas Paine:

“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.”

“As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully.”

It is possible the mottos were designed to convey a comprehensible, if not even simple, message.

Annuit cœptis

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, ill famed for their ad hoc death verdicts. Marcus Tullius 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 providence. Let us read Thomas Paine:

"The present state of America is truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflexion. Without law, without government, without any other mode of power than what is founded on, and granted by courtesy. Held together by an unexampled concurrence of sentiment..."

Generally as well as in history, persons have happened to talk about providence when there would be many people to be thankful to. The War of Independence was such an event. And as discussed above, Charles Thomson might have formed the Latin mottos on his own.

Annuit was also a Perfective Latin form, hence, (with) favor to the endeavor. Latin syntax allowed Perfective forms to function a way we would present as adverbial, in modern languages.

Saying the Seal mottos

We obviously do not have recordings of ancient Latin, to tell how the ancients spoke. We yet can use a comparative method: we can analyze phonological patterns, in relation to sematics, in languages to have been influenced by Latin. And well, why say circle [sIrkl], if we say cat [kæ:t]?

Ancient Latin had a sound that modern English would have only very scarce, [ts] in phonetic scripts. Russian and Polish have the sound in the words ценT, cent. German has it in the numeral zehn, ten. The Latin centesimus meant one hundredth, and cententionalis was a small coin, all words here to belong with decimal gumption.

It was the Amber Road to bring the Latin influence to the Middle and East Europe. We can compare kwota [kvota] in Polish, квота [kvota] in Russian, and Quote [kvote] in German.

Ancient trade communication was mostly spoken. Italians, who adopted Latin patterns primarily via written resources, have developed [kwota], let us yet remember than the Italian language is not some „modern Latin”, however it has [ts] in the word cena, and [k] in costo.

Regarding the north of Europe, assimilation of Latin patterns also proceeded mainly with written developments, and further, English came under a west European influence: the language of the Francs, after the Norman Conquest.

French native phonology generally rejects [v] within syllables, therefore it has shaped quota as [ko:ta:]. The French people also did not find [ts] really palatable. English today has the words [kwota] and [sent].

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].

Please mind that vowel charts reflect on the position of the tongue muscle. [u] is not a front vowel, though we might even protrude our lips to say it.

We have the explanation for circles and cats. English words have the sound [s] for the letter c before front vowels, and [k] before back vowels and non-vowels.

It is owing to the combined, Latin and French influence that we say Cicero as [sis∂ro], in English today.

Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares, Letters to the Conversant.
Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares, Letters to the Conversant. | Source

As for Latin digraphs, we can see one in the word cœptis. In speech, it sounded [e], therefore the letter c sounded [ts] before it.

Roman square capitals

Ancient Romans had a style for official and ceremonial presentations of written matter, as in the stone inscription below. The style is known as Roman square capitals. For documents, the style has the name Latin book hand.

This is how the Great Seal mottos would look in the maiuscule.




Arch of Titus
Arch of Titus | Source

Ancient Latin had a peculiarity, about the letter shape u. In square capitals, telling it from v required reader's knowledge. Handwritten, we have the letter u in the word language. The Latin name was lingua, and the way to say it was [liηgva], as the speech sound environment was [g] and a low vowel, [a]. We may compare cuius [kuius].

Comparison among Russian, Polish, and German can help tell that the nominative decided on the entire declension, and we owe the [w] in linguistic, [lingwistik], to the French.

Vowel chart, simplified
Vowel chart, simplified

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

Nobody having to take just my word it, the Seal does not have the speech sound context to read u as [v]. Here we go, minding that ancients doubled non-vowels; we say the n twice, in annuit:

[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]

Exploring language, maybe you could get interested in bilingual posters of the Constitution. They are free.



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