Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

8 Responses to “He Conquers Who Endures”

  1. James said

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_His_Blindness

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the literary example here; for those who don’t care to follow the link, it’s a poem by Milton that’s the source of “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

      As I thought about my post later, probably at about the same time as you and Ran were making your comments, it occurred to me that the only criteria I was listing were syntactic, and that I was not properly respecting semantics and pragmatics. For example, the fact that “he” is appearing without an antecedent, and in a written context where a speaker is not standing right next to you and pointing to some guy in the vicinity, should immediately force the reader/hearer to explore the less common options for getting at a meaning, which would bring them to this somewhat literary construction.

  2. Ran said

    What James said. Many more examples can be found by Googling “he lives who”, “he is forgiven who”, “he laughs who” (or “he laughs best who”), etc.

    Given the lack of an antecedent for “he”, I don’t think the reading that you suggest would ever have occurred to me. (You say that your interpretation has “only one unusual thing going on”, but I think it has two!)

    • Ran said

      (Granted, many of these meet your “the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up” criterion, including perhaps James’ example. But I think a fair number do not.) Another “classical” example I thought of later was “they stumble that run fast”, from Romeo and Juliet.

  3. Aron said

    my latin isn’t really up tp date, but wouldn’t it be ‘quem’ if it was a direct object?

    • dainichi said

      It would, but it’s not. It’s a subject, the subject of patitur.

    • Neal said

      What Dainichi said. That’s the confusing thing about free relatives. When you look closer at them, it’s easy to go astray with exactly the line of reasoning that you’re following. I know I certainly did when we learned them in class. But the key is that the entire clause, not just “qui/quem”, is the subject.

  4. Ben said

    He dealt it who smelt it.

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