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stressed monstrátus. However, if the vowel is short, things are a bit
different. If a short vowel is followed by no more than one conson-
ant, as in civitas, then the syllable is also short, and the stress falls on
the preceding syllable: cívitas. But if the short vowel is followed by
two or more consonants, the syllable is still long (in most cases). In
perfectus the vowel in the penultimate syllable is short, but since

About the Grammar

it is followed by two consonants, the syllable is long and receives the
stress: perf©ctus. There is a quite complex interconnection between
the length of the vowels and the stress of the words. It is for this rea-
son that I have chosen not to show vowel length in the word list at
the back of this book but to indicate the position of the stress instead.
The other context where it is useful to know the length of the
syllable is poetry. Ancient Latin poetry followed very strict metrical
rules, but the rhythm is created not, as in English poetry, through an
alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables but through
an alternation between long and short syllables. In order to under-
stand and appreciate the metre in a classical Latin poem, you have to
learn which syllables are long and which are short in all words and in
all positions, not just in the penultimate syllable. As we have seen,
this means both knowing the length of the vowels and being able to
apply the rules which determine syllable length. This, however, is
a topic which lies outside the scope of this book.
In teaching children to read”and, believe it or not, up until the
mid-twentieth century in some British schools also to write”Latin
verse, a technique called ˜scansion™ was used. This involves stressing
the syllables which are long and which also are considered to have
a so-called ˜strong™ position in the line. This can lead to words being
stressed differently in poetry and in prose. Here, for example, is the
¬rst line of Virgil™s Aeneid with its scansion indicated by the accent
Árma virúmque canó, Troiáe qui prímus ab óris . . .

The words cano and Troiae are stressed here on the last syllable,
which does not accord with the normal rules for word stress in Latin.
How poetry really sounded in antiquity when the Romans read
it aloud we do not know, but we do know that they could perceive
differences between long and short vowels both in stressed and
unstressed syllables. English speakers on the other hand often have
dif¬culty maintaining differences in vowel quality in unstressed
syllables, where vowels tend to be reduced to a short indiscriminate
sound often called schwa.

A natural history of Latin

Note that in this book I have not made any changes to re¬‚ect the
practice of scansion. Even in the poetic passages which occur in the
word list I have indicated the normal prose stress of a word.

Sentences, verbs, and nouns

Here is a simple Latin sentence:

F©mina amícum videt.
The woman sees the friend.

In Latin, as in English and other languages, a sentence usually
contains a verb form and one or more nouns, with the nouns having
different roles in relation to the verb. In this sentence it is the woman
who sees, and her role is said to be that of subject, the one who carries
out the activity indicated by the verb. The friend is called the object,
the one who is the goal of the verb™s activity. All sentences can be
described in this way, and such descriptions make up the core of the
grammar. One way of putting it is to say that each sentence consti-
tutes a mini-drama, and grammar is the analysis of what happens in
the play and how the roles are shared out amongst the actors.
When it is our own language, we mostly do not need to pay
attention to the grammar, since we know what the sentences mean.
However, when it comes to learning another language, where the
means of showing the action and the actors are different from those
we are used to, it is often very useful to learn the grammatical rules,
at least to the extent that they differ from those we are familiar with.
The Latin sentence we have been considering differs from its English
translation in the order of the words. In the English the expected word
order is ˜subject-verb-object™, but in Latin it is ˜subject-object-verb™.
This is part of a larger structural difference between the two languages.
Although the subject comes ¬rst in both”contrast a language like
Welsh, where the subject comes second”in Latin the verb follows

About the Grammar

everything else such as the object, the indirect object, and any expres-
sions like today and through the window. In English, on the other
hand, all these follow the verb. Compare:

Femina amicum per fenestram bene videt.
The woman sees the friend through the window well.

By the same principle, auxiliary verbs precede the main verb in
English, so we say The woman can see her friend, but follow it in
Latin, where the equivalent sentence would be Femina amicum
videre potest. Of course both in Latin and in English there is quite a
bit of freedom to move words around, usually in order to emphasize
them, but in most cases things work according to this basic rule.
Another difference between Latin and English is that the roles and
the action of the sentence in Latin are indicated by the endings of the
words to a much greater extent than in English. Each noun consists
of a stem and an ending, and the ending shows the role of the word
in the sentence. Each verb also consists of a stem and an ending, with
the ending, among other things, telling us who the subject is and the
time of the action. In order properly to understand the meaning of a
Latin sentence, therefore, it is essential to learn a large number of
endings for nouns and verbs, and indeed for other classes of words
such as adjectives and pronouns. It takes time, systematic training,
and practice to handle these endings speedily and with con¬dence. In
the remainder of this chapter I have given a synopsis of all the most
common, regular forms. With the aid of this information and the
word list at the back, the reader who wants to do so should be able to
identify all the forms that occur in this book.

Words and word classes
Usually most of the words in a language are nouns, that is to say
words for living creatures, things, or ideas like homo ˜man™, mensa

A natural history of Latin

˜table™, or amor ˜love™. The second biggest group is verbs, like
monstrare ˜to show™ or esse ˜to be™.The third main group is adjectives,
which express properties like bonus ˜good™ or brevis ˜short™. An
adjective usually goes together with a noun. Nouns, verbs, and adject-
ives are the three most important word classes, and they are often
called ˜open™ classes because there is no real limit to how many words
there can be in each class. It is always possible to create new members
of these classes if the need arises and if speakers show the required
imagination. If you leaf through a word list or dictionary of any lan-
guage, the majority of entries will be for words that belong to one of
these classes. This means that any time you want to do anything
with a Latin word, such as look it up in a dictionary or compare it to
a modern word, you have to know something about how these word
classes differ. In order to understand the meanings, you have to be
able to recognize the forms. For this reason, I shall need to go into a
bit of detail about the endings or in¬‚ections of these word classes in
Not that they are the only ones. Other word classes include prepo-
sitions (ad ˜to™, cum ˜with™, etc.), pronouns (ego ˜I™, qui ˜who, which™,
etc.) and adverbs, this last being a very mixed bag of words which
mostly do not seem to ¬t into any of the other classes. These word
classes contain relatively few members, apart that is from the kind of
adverb which can be formed freely from almost any adjective (think
of English free, freely, happy, happily, etc.). On the other hand, and
not by chance, they are all very common words, for which you have
to learn special rules if you are to be able to use them properly. Only
a small selection of these rules are to be found in this book.


In English nouns have different forms in the singular and the plural,
for example friend in the singular and friends in the plural. In Latin
it is the same, hence the singular amicus ˜friend™ beside the plural

About the Grammar

amici ˜friends™. These grammatical terms in fact almost always come
from Latin. The English words ˜singular™ and ˜plural™ come from the
Latin terms singuláris and plurális. The former is connected with
síngulus ˜alone™, which is also the origin of the word single.The word
pluralis is related to plus, which means ˜more™.
For singular and plural, then, both English and Latin use the same
basic device to distinguish between the forms, namely endings, or suf-
¬xes, attached to the stem of the word. However, the English system is
much less complex than the Latin one. In the ¬rst place, there are only
endings in the plural, while the singular form consists just of the stem.
In the second place, the plural ending is almost always -s or -es, as in
friend-s, ax-es. The few exceptions, such as ox-en, are actually rem-
nants of an earlier system, which was rather more like the Latin one.
In Latin there is not just one plural ending, but a number of different
ones. Moreover, there are endings in the singular too, so that a Latin
noun almost always consists of a stem and an ending, and there are as
many different endings for the singular as there are for the plural.
However, a given noun can only take one set of endings. There are
¬ve different sets of endings, also called declensions. One set is the
group of words which behave like femin-a˜woman™,femin-ae˜women™
or serv-a ˜female slave™, serv-ae ˜female slaves™. Latin has a number
of such words which end in -a in the singular and -ae in the plural.
This in¬‚ection class is called the ¬rst declension.
There are also a great many words which end in -us in the singu-
lar and -i in the plural: words like amic-us ˜friend™, amic-i ˜friends™ or
serv-us ˜slave™, serv-i ˜slaves™, a pattern which is called the second
So far the system bears some similarity to what we ¬nd in
English. However, in Latin there are several more forms for each
noun, which certainly creates dif¬culties when it comes to learning
the language.The reason is that Latin nouns have different forms for
the different roles in the sentence which we mentioned above. They
are usually called ˜cases™, and English only has this sort of system to
a very limited degree. The nearest we come to a separate case for
every noun in English is in the expression of possession, where in

A natural history of Latin

principle each noun has a corresponding form with an -s attached.
The spelling requires an apostrophe between the noun and the ending,
girl™s, but in the pronunciation the [s] sound is attached directly to
the word stem, and the form of the noun thus created could be called
the ˜genitive™ case as in the girl™s bicycle, although the situation is
complicated by examples like the bishop of London™s bicycle, where
the ™s attaches to London and not bishop.
In Latin the ending always attaches directly to the noun it
relates to, but things are complicated in a different way in that there
are different genitive endings for each declension and number:
femina ˜woman™, feminae ˜woman™s™, feminae ˜women™, feminarum
˜women™s™ and amicus ˜friend™, amici ˜friend™s™, amici ˜friends™,
amicorum ˜friends™™. There is no particular reason why the forms
which mean ˜woman™s™ and ˜women™ are exactly the same; it just
happens to be that way, just as sheep in English is both singular and
plural. This apart, you can see that there is a certain symmetry
between the forms of femina and those of amicus, although unfor-
tunately it is not perfect. If you want to know the forms, there is no
alternative to learning the declension.
The genitive is generally used as in English to show that one noun
quali¬es another, for example amicus feminae ˜the woman™s friend™
or vita feminarum ˜the life of women™.
We have now seen so many forms for each word that it is possible
to make a table for each declension, as we have done in Table 1
(below). In the table the stem is in plain type and the ending in bold.
You can see that in fact there are not just forms for two cases but for
¬ve different ones. Since there is a singular and a plural form for each
case, that in turn means ten different forms for each noun.
The case form which I have indicated as the basic form of the
nouns, for example femina and amicus, is called the nominative.
This is used for the subject of the sentence, which is normally the
doer or agent of the action, so femina videt means ˜the woman sees™
and amicus videt ˜the friend sees™.
A third case is called the accusative, and the endings are most often
-m in the singular and -s in the plural (see Table 1). The accusative

About the Grammar

indicates the object of the verb, that is the person or thing which
receives or is the goal of the action. An example is femina amicum
videt ˜the woman sees the friend™. In this sentence femina is the
nominative and amicum the accusative.To say the opposite you have
to change the cases, for example, amicus feminam videt means ˜the
friend sees the woman™.
The difference between the nominative (the case of the subject)
and the accusative (the case of the object) also exists in English, but
not for ordinary nouns, only for a small group of words called per-
sonal pronouns, such as I and we. Forms like the woman and the friend
can be both subject and object, but I and we can only be the subject.
The object form of I is me and of we, us, precisely as the object
form of amicus is amicum. One says I see the friend but The friend
sees me.
In Latin there are even more cases. The dative is used for what
is called the indirect object. An example is: femina amico viam
monstrat ˜the woman shows the friend the way™. The form amico is
in the dative. In the translation I have just given, the corresponding
English is simply the expression the friend, but it is also possible to
say ˜the woman shows the way to the friend™, where the dative is
translated by the preposition to. Elsewhere the best English transla-
tion is for: femina amico togam emit ˜the woman buys her friend
a toga™ or ˜buys a toga for her friend™. It is often like that when you
translate from Latin (or indeed from any other language). A par-


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