The motto of my alma mater is sidere mens eadem mutato, which I gloss:

sidere         mens           eadem          mutato
star-SG.N.ABL  mind-SG.F.NOM  same-SG.F.NOM  change-SG.N.ABL

I have long wondered why, if the traditional translation is "(Though) the stars have changed, the mind (remains) the same", the structure of the motto emphasises the state of the stars (the concessive) rather than the mind (the consequent).1

I realise that the motto has the chiasmus structure ABBA. The Wikipedia article on chiasmus defines it as:

two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point

but does not elaborate on its stylistic effect.

Is the motto sidere mens eadem mutato an instance of a chiasmus?

If so, where is the focus understood to lie, or is parallelism the desired effect?

And if not, what is the desired stylistic effect?

1 I understand that the motto can only be parsed this way. My question is about the stylistic intent of its word order.

1 Answer 1


This may be considered chiasmus, as the endings do form a cross:

sidere   mens
 N/Abl  F/Nom
     ╲ ╱
     ╱ ╲
eadem   mutato
F/Nom    N/Abl

However, the hyperbaton is what makes this phrase striking (or even double hyperbaton). Part of speech normally trumps syntactic agreement when it comes to chiasmus; that is, if we have four words, of which one pair are the same part of speech, and the other pair another, then that is what one would look at to consider whether or not the construction was chiastic, i.e. then A would have to be a part of speech, not a number/sex/case, and the same for B.

"Normal" order:

mēns ĕădēm sīdĕrĕ mūtātō

A regular chiasmus, noun-adjective-adjective-noun:

mēns ĕădēm mūtātō sīdĕrĕ

To place mens eadem inside sidere mutato, as in motto of the University of Sydney, can be done in poetry; the reason will often be the metre:

sīdĕrĕ mēns ĕădēm mūtātō

This could be part of a dactylic hexameter, the noblest of Greek and Latin meters, where each metre/foot must be either ¯ ˘ ˘ (long-short-short) or ¯ ¯ (long-long), except the sixth foot (long-either). Notice how the normal word order would never fit the metre, while the motto could, depending on what came before and after. The regular chiasmus could fit as well. Normally, such an unusual word order as in the motto is only used in poetry, and then usually metri causa ("for the sake of metre"), but poets may also do it on a whim, or because it sounds better for some other reason. So your motto sounds poetic because of its word order.

In a regular chiasmus, the effect is often antithetical: you are right, and wrong am I. The non-parallel word order in a chiasmus makes one realise that the two phrase are parallel, which one might otherwise not have noticed so strongly. It can also be merely a local decorative (non-functional) effect.

However, as to the precise stylistic effect of your motto, I would say the effect is no more specific than a poetic tinge. Focus lies where it lies in the translation, but no thanks to the word order. It is possible that other classicists will disagree with me, but probably not a great deal.

  • 1
    I've often wondered what it must have been like to grow up speaking classical Latin so as to be able to hear the poetry in long and short syllables and experience poetic syntax like chiasmus. Medieval/Church Latin poetry is so much more poetic to an English speaker, with stress-timing and end-rhyming. I mean, "Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/ Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit/ litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto/ vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram, ..." just doesn't sound like poetry to me.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 18:32
  • 1
    To me, pronounced in full scansion, CL poetry evokes the storyteller more than the (modern conception of the) poet.
    – jogloran
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 0:49
  • @jlawler: So why does it not sound like poetry to you? Rhythm/metre is the essence of poetry, and it certainly has that, for us modern readers too. Most of us will only intuitively "feel" the quantity of about two-thirds or half of the syllables, but that is more than enough for me to appreciate the poetry, or so it seems. Even though the effect of some vowels is lost, we can read the lines in the correct metre without conscious action, the incidental all-too anomalous line excepted. Is that not enough? If anything, I am more aware of metre in Latin than in Dutch/English.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 2:21
  • Because English doesn't have long and short vowels and it's hard to feel a rhythm in syllable length when you can't tell which syllables are long. English is stress-timed and Latin is syllable-timed, and I'm used to stress meter. That's all.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 4:10
  • @jlawler: No doubt the experience will not be 100 % the same. But Latin does have ictus. And you can tell which syllables are long by reading it according to metre. Even if the experience is not identical, it is still poetic...
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 6:10

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