I've taken a great interest in linguistics lately and want to learn more about the basic principles but also advanced topics we built into different languages.


As I was browsing through Wikipedia, I tripped over an article about the so called distributive case (link to article). Instantly I tried to find out more about it, but alas this concept seems to be quasi non-existent in English and German (my 2nd and 1st language), so I tried to go with the Latin example in the German Wikipedia article.


The example: bis bina sunt quattuor (in numbers: 2 x 2 = 4)


My analsysis so far:

  • bis relates to the word bi, which simply means two. The suffix -s changes the meaning to twice
  • bina means pairwise
  • sunt is basically third-person plural of to be (sum in Latin)
  • quattuor simply means four


What I don't really understand now is why this sentence is like this. Basically the information for two times is doubly present in the example. Once in bis and once bina.
Why isn't the sentence "bis bi sunt quattuor", which would roughly translate to "Two times two is four". Or maybe "bina bi sunt quattor", which would be something like "A pair of twos is four"?
The meaning of the example translates to "Two times a pair of twos is four", which sounds quite odd to me.


  • Why is the sentence like the exapmle and not like one of my conceptions?
  • Does anyone have more material about the distributive case itself?


Question 1: Due to a wrong interpretation of the word bina, I mistranslated the sentence.
Question 2: Thanks to a hint by Yellow Sky, I'm now collecting useful ressources about collective numerals, which are kind of a prestage for distributive numerals.

  • Latin has no distributive case; it has distributive numerals, which is somewhat different.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 17:37
  • Interessting. The German Wiki article talks about the numerals but (at least) the English and French ones about the case. Would you mind explaining the difference to me?
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 18:46
  • 1
    Case is an inflectional category of nominals. In languages with a distributive case, nominals can be inflected in that case just as they can in nominative, accusative, etc.: e.g. "man-DISTRIBUTIVE" means something like "per man". You can't do this with Latin nominals; instead Latin has a series of numerals meaning e.g. "three each / in sets of three" (and these can take any case, depending on their function in the clause). Basically, the difference is whether you mark "distributiveness" on the noun or on the numeral.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 20:11
  • Thanks a lot for that short and clear explanation! I was rather confused by the Wiki articles but now I think I understand how these two constructs work.
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 21:14

2 Answers 2


First, bi is not used in Latin as a separate word, the Latin for "two" is duo.

Next, I cannot see why that sentence surprises you. It really means "twice pairwise", "twice in pair", but isn't that the same as "two pairs", ::?

Bina is plural of the word bini (pair), so the verb sunt is plural. I would translate the Latin sentence as "Two pairs make four."

  • Thanks to your answer I can explain my confusion: I looked up the word "bina", found the translation "pairwise" and wrongly connected it with the word "bi", which I mistook for "two" and this led me to the assumption that "bina" means "a pair of twos". And since "bis" means "twice" I translated the sentence to "Two times a pair of two" and that would make up 8 and not 4. So the confusion is basically caused by misinterpreting "bi" for "two".
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 11:30
  • Do you have an suggestions for why in Latin one sais "Two pairs make four." instead of "Two times two makes four." as we normally do it in English or German?
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 11:35
  • 1
    Actually, you weren't that much wrong as you think, the morpheme bi means "2", but it's not used as it is, only as a root together with suffixes, or as a prefix. Still, there's no word "bi". The phrase "bis bina" was used by Marcus Tullius Cicero in his book "De natura deorum" (45 BC), that's probably the case it became a typical Latin way to say "two times two".
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 12:28
  • Ah. Thanks for clarification about "bi". So it's not something that came up with the development of the language itself, but with Cicero.
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 12:46
  • 1
    Thanks for the collective numerals hint. Searching for it immediately brought up some useful ressources and comprehensible explanations.
    – McDonnough
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 14:16

No, bina is not “the plural of bini”. This word exists only in the plural. In the nominative case you have masculine bini, feminine binae, neuter bina.

  • 1
    +1. You are absolutely right. Thank you for the correction. I'll console myself by the fact that "bini" is quite a rare word. :)
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 13:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.