Penn motto

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Is there a mistake here?

Photograph courtesy of Ines Mair.  Taken yesterday in Pfaffenhofen, Tirol, Austria.  The glass was purchased in Philadelphia by her husband Gerald Mair when he was a visiting student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School decades ago.

The story of the Penn motto:

Penn's motto is based on a line from Horace's III.24 (Book 3, Ode 24), quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt? ("of what avail empty laws without [good] morals?"). From 1756 to 1898, the motto read Sine Moribus Vanae. When it was pointed out that the motto could be translated as "Loose women without morals", the university quickly changed the motto to literae sine moribus vanae ("Letters without morals [are] useless"). In 1932, all elements of the seal were revised. As part of the redesign, it was decided that the new motto "mutilated" Horace, and it was changed to its present wording, Leges Sine Moribus Vanae ("Laws without morals [are] useless").


I rather like what we have ended up with.


At least some early Latin texts have leces = leges (e. g., Eph. Ep. 19).


  1. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 3:38 am

    Does Latin allow omitting the verb like that? In the same way that "sine moribus vanae" means "evil women without morals" (I don't see a sense for "loose women" among those listed here), "leges sine moribus vanae" looks more like "useless laws without morals". But I'm out of practice.

    It's not surprising for early texts to have LECES instead of LEGES, since the letter G is a later innovation. Compare the abbreviation for the name Gaius, which is C.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 3:45 am

    In fact, on further inspection, "leges sine moribus vanae" is a complete noun phrase in Horace's original rhetorical question, and it means "useless laws without morals". It seems like the worst possible choice for an extract from the quote.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 3:52 am

    (Alternatively, "leges vanae" ("useless laws") is the complete noun phrase, and "sine moribus" ("without morals") attaches to the verb somehow — "without morals, what good do useless laws do?")

  4. Sean said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 4:41 am

    Michael: it is perfectly cromulent Latin to leave out the copula. Akkadian, which I read more often lately, does just fine without a verb =to be= at all!

  5. Noel Hunt said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 4:49 am

    The phrase is properly read as "leges sine moribus vanae [sunt]", that is, "vanae" is part of the predicate with the copula "sunt", "[they] are", omitted. So, the whole locution is actually a sentence, subject + predicate, not simply a noun phrase. It's not obvious to me where to attach the prepositional phrase, as part of an NP headed by "leges", or to the predicate.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 5:26 am

    Noel Hunt — As I said, I'm out of practice, but omitting the verb isn't something I expect from Latin. Can you cite some examples of sentences that don't bother with it?

    In the original line (where the verb is not sunt), it's very clear that vanae is just an adjective modifying leges.

    If you wanted to form a coherent sentence based on Horace, but phrased as a statement instead of a rhetorical question, I would have expected nihil leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt or some such.

  7. Noel Hunt said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 5:38 am

    Omission of the copula is quite common, especially in poetry. If you look up 'Zero copula' in google you will find a wealth of information. Zero copula is a feature of many languages. An example in Latin would be 'in vino veritas [est]'.

    The phrase in question, as it occurs in the motto, would be interpreted as I suggested. The original line from Horace has to be parsed differently.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 7:31 am

    As far as I can see, in vino veritas is cited back to Pliny the Elder, who said volgoque veritas iam attributa vino est. (Either "And truth is now attributed to wine by the people" or "and truth is now attributed to wine everywhere".)

    This is a terrible example of Latin permitting copula omission, as it clearly features est and the verb isn't even a copula, but is rather attributa est.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 7:33 am

    Correction: "truth has been attributed to wine".

  10. Gijs Doorenbos said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 8:07 am

    If "VNIVERSITAS" uses a "V" for "U" (classical Latin orthography), perhaps "MORIBUS" should be "MORIBVS".

  11. Chris said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 8:40 am

    Oh, I thought you meant "Pennsylvaniae".
    That's what sounds natural to me. I am born in a region which a) has a similar name, and b) has a latin native language. (Transylvania).
    *V*niversitas Pennsylvani*ensis* sounds to me like "Volkenswägenverein" for a VW-Fan-Club, which might be technically… not wrong; but it is a sure case of Heavy-Metal-Umlaut, and of "let's make it more Rammstein!".

    And "Lece" for "lege" looks today like a typo, and maybe it always was (based on the similar shape of C and G), like the many, many misunderstandings today, based on limited alphabets and lazy transliterations. Did you know the latin Wikipedia is named "Vicipaedia" with a "c" like in "vicious", right now? …and Pulišić is pronounced like "Pulisik" in the USA, today, in the age of the Internet? …so I would pardon some poor, hard-working stone-cutter 2000 years ago, for writing Cartaciniensis on somebody's columna rostrata – instead of Cartaginiensis, or Karthaginensis or whatever better alternative might have been available at that time.
    Oh, here is the "-iensis" again! So, hmm, fancy-pants "latinizing neologisms" have a long tradition, it seems.

  12. Tim Morris said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 9:41 am

    Latin “tags” used proverbially sometimes come without copula (in vino veritas being a good, or bad, example as noted). Sometimes the copula is omitted in the original, especially in poetry, as with “facilis descensus Averno” (Vergil, Aeneid 6.126): the descent to Hell [is] easy.

  13. Roger Lustig said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

    @Michael Watts: Mottos are a good place to find (?) the missing copula. Astra castra/numen lumen comes to mind. Or Dictum meum pactum.

  14. Jonathan said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

    An obvious misprint. Indeed, the entire glass is misprinted. It should have the Yale seal, Universitatis Yalensis, and Lux et Veritas. There… that looks much better.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

    Proverbs and mottos (in any language) frequently omit verbs: ‘e pluribus unum’, ‘per ardua ad astra’, ‘better X than Y’.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 5:10 pm

    From Jonathan Lundell:

    Your Penn story reminded me of a similar one from my own school, New College of Florida. Some fifty years after its founding, I saw this note in a newsletter.


    > NCF to fix crest and add Latin diploma
    > New College of Florida will be instating a fully Latin diploma, and will be fixing the grammatical error in the Latin on the school’s crest. No longer will the Latin in the crest read “NOVUM COLLEGIUM FLORIDAE,” instead being changed to the grammatically accurate, “NOVUM COLLEGIUM FLORIDENSE.”
    > “In Latin, the ending -ae on the word Floridae is similar to the English preposition ‘of,’” Associate Professor of Classics David Rohrbacher said. “Latin does not use “of” to express the relationship between ‘New College’ and ‘Florida,’ but rather uses an adjective.”
    > “So, for example, you wouldn’t say the equivalent of ‘the mayor of Sarasota’ in Lain, you’d say, ‘the Sarasotan mayor,’” Rohrbacher continued. “The new language literally says ‘Floridian New College.’”
    > “I assumed the new language would be on this year’s diploma,” Associate Professor of History Carrie Beneš said. “But I don’t know if that is the case.”
    > Regarding the implementation of the new NCF crest, Beneš expected an “incremental rollout,” and noted that the discovery of the creation of the crest’s text was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to Rohrbacher involving himself in fixing it.
    > “They found a bunch of stuff in the library about how I.M. Pei’s architecture firm created the logo with somebody’s crappy high school Latin,” Beneš said. “It wasn’t officially commissioned by people who actually knew Latin – it was just some guy in the architecture office who came up with it.”


    Pei was engaged back in the early 1960s to design the new campus. In the end, he only did dorms and a student center … and the seal. The dorms leaked; the seal was ungrammatical.

  17. Noel Hunt said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 5:48 pm

    The fact that 'in vino veritas' can be traced back to the writings of Pliny the Elder (as cited) is not relevant to its use as a motto, as is (often?) seen on bottles of wine. In that case it can only be interpreted as I pointed out. In this case, as is the case with the Pennsylvania University motto, there is an original source sentence where the phrases in question would be construed differently, but without all that extra context, as they appear as mottos, the natural construal is as zero copula constructions.

  18. Cuconnacht said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    I have seen "De gustibus non disputandum est" but not as often as I have seen "De gustibus non disputandum [full stop].”

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 8:12 pm

    From Don Ringe:

    No mistake. The spelling "leces" dates from the archaic period when the Romans had not yet invented the letter G; it has no further significance.

  20. TK Mait said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 10:51 pm

    I give the mononymous Chris' comment 1 upvote.

    It is as obscure as any other of the most excellent posts above, but has the added feature of eliciting multiple guffaws. As well the added feature of contemporary reference to the linguistic apparatus of the Internet.

    It is right up my kind of alley (not too wide, shaded by nice trees, and with the soft but sturdy reassurance of buildings erected by skilled constructors of the past, and by this late date has acquired the eccentric nature of its new residents.)

    Now for me, c preceding the invention of g makes plenty of sense, as one could easily contemplate the similarity of sound between the leading consonants of cat and gato. Go ahead say them… I just did, it feels nice.

    I am missing something here in my post… ah, I know now and remind myself to close out the post by cheerfully addressing the actual topic of the motto of U of Pa. Whether in Latin or whether understood in another language I believe it's the meaning of Penn's motto that is it's fantastic wonder. Truly, law is an artifice and morals are the good thing.

    A society divests morals from its laws at its own great peril!

  21. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 11:12 pm

    @Cuconnacht: The most common form seems to be "De gustibus non est disputandum" [link].

  22. TR said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 1:30 am

    With all due respect to Prof. Ringe, I think leces is a mistake. Why would anyone choose a little-known archaic spelling instead of the standard Classical form, especially when the quote is from Horace? I'm reminded of the notorious hanc pontem inscription at Berkeley (“Merrill defended the gender as written, having found feminine pons in some late ancient or early medieval writings").

  23. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    Chris : "the latin Wikipedia is named "Vicipaedia" with a "c" like in "vicious"".

    Not clear how serious you are being. Revised (or restored) pronunciation of Latin was used in schools in England over 60 years ago, and in "1066 and all That" published in 1930 one of the jokes depends on restored pronunciation: (veni, vidi, vici = weeny, weedy, weaky).

    So "Vicipaedia" would be pronounced pretty much like Wikipedia in Englsh.

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