Latin For You

Teaching and translating ancient Latin since 1986

Some Help Along the Way

This page is here to offer all of us Latin readers some help as we try to make some sense of the Latin we have in front of us.  Some of us want to understand exactly what the author is telling us with all of his intended nuances and shades os meaning intact.  Some of us just want to just have some vague notion of what is going on.  Either way, or somewhere in between, there should be something useful below.  Enjoy in good health!

Basic Vocabulary

Word Order Means Nothing

The First Word is not Necessarily the Subject

Reading Latin as if it were English (don't do this!)


The Ablative Short-cut

Latin Roots

Basic Vocabulary - done as fun

Here's a fun way to find out what the 100 most common words are in Latin as well as getting that list along with their English meaning(s).  Take this test and see how you do.  It just takes 10 minutes!

Here a few other vocabulary websites that you might find useful:

An alphabetic list of the top (i.e., most common) 1,000 Latin words - these are thee words that notes never tell you about, because they assume you know them already.

Okay, this is cool.  A list of conjugated Latin verbs.  Just click on any verb and its full conjugation pops up.

Another list of common Latin words.  This is of more use to the medievalists in the audience.

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Word Order Means Nothing!

Trying to read a Latin sentence as if it were English and translating it word for word in the order in which it is written will only get you into trouble - and yet everyone naturally does it.

English grammar is based on word order: When I say, Cicero gives the slave a dog you know the slave is the indirect object because it comes right after the verb and dog is the direct object because it follows the indirect object (for the matter you know Cicero is the subject because he comes before the verb.  The order is SUBJECT - VERB - INDIRECT OBJECT - DIRECT OBJECT.  If I change the word order, I change the sentence: Cicero gives the dog a slave, or The slave gives Cicero a dog.

In Latin word tells you nothing about the grammar - you need to look at the endings (you also need to know your endings).  Cicero servo canem dat is standard word order, but I can write Servo dat Cicero canem or Canem Cicero dat servo and nothing changes.  All three sentences in Latin say exactly the same thing in English - Cicero gives the slave a dog.

Here is a sentence from Catullus that illustrates the point rather nicely: otium et reges prius et beatas perdidit urbes.  This not even standard Latin word order!  In standard Latin prose the sentence would look like this: otium et reges et urbes beatas prius perdidit.  That is still a far cry from English word order.  If we put the Latin words in English word order, we get this: prius otium et reges et beatas urbes perdidit.  Now just about anyone with a dictionary at hand can cope and come up with: "Previously leisure has destroyed kings and prosperous cities..

So, learn your endings - know them like the back of your hand - and pay attention to them!

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The First Word is Not Necessarily the Subject!

On a related topic, one of the most common errors is to assume the first word in a sentence or clause is the subject - after all, that's what we do in English!  But that's not what is done in Latin!

A classic example: Quintus Publium videt.  Publium salutat.  When I show this to beginning Latin students (and even some who have taken Latin for a couple of years, the translation I get is: "Quintus sees Publius.  Publius says Hi."  Unfortunately, Publium is accusative and so is the direct object of salutat (just as he was the direct object of videt).

Two things happened in this sentence which combined to lead the reader down the garden path.  In the second sentence the subject is not expressed (which means there is no noun or pronoun which is the subject).  In English we would expect 'Quintus' or 'he' to start the second sentence.  Latin doesn't need that; 'he' is in the ending of the verb.  By itself, salutat means 'he says Hi'.  We all know that, but we tend to forget when we're focussed on translating rather than learning vocabulary.  Since there is no subject word, the first word is the direct object, which we make into the subject, blissfully ignoring the '-um' ending.  And the sentence makes sense, even when it is wrong.  That's just compounds the problem.

So like we said above; watch your endings, or it will be the end of you!

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Reading Latin as if it were English

This is a huge one and no one is immune, not even me.  It is hard-wired in our brains to read and understand a sentence as we go.  For instance, as you read this text, you take in each word as you go and figure out what it means and how it fits into the sentence aas you go from beginning to end.  You aren't doubling back because you're not sure of how the sentence is constructed until you reach the end.  But that is exactly what you need to do when you read Latin!  Take the first couple of lines from the Aeneid: arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit litora.  From an English perspective, the natural logic of the sentence is: cano arma virumque, qui primus venit ab oris Troiae, profugus fato, (ad) Italiam Laviniaque litora.  It's like I keep saying, a sentence is like a hand of cards.  You have to sort your cards before you can play the hand.  But to sort a Latin sentence into English word order, you have to look at the whole sentence first.  If you remember to do that, especially on unseen tests, you'll be miles ahead.

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Homonyms - Latin has them too

In English we're used to one word having a range of meanings, sometimes a huge range.  So a tumbler can be an acrobat, a glass or part of a combination lock.  Well Latin has its share of homonyms too.  Not as many as English, but enough to cause the occasional bit of confusion.  Here is a modest list of few (some of them fairly common)

quam: (who, which, how, than, as . . . as possible)

 puella, quam video

 the girl, whom I see
 cenam, quam consumo the dinner, which I am eating
 Quam facilis Latina est! How easy Latin is!
 Latina est facilior quam Graeca. Latin is easier than Greek.
 Latina est quam facillima.Latin is as easy as possible  


Other common Latin homonyms:

adeo: (so, I go to)   Adeo adeo = Thus do I go to.

hic (here, this)   Hic est hic = This man is here

portas (you carry, gateways)   Portas portas = You are caryying the gate

malum (apple, bad)   Habeo malum malum = I have a bad apple

malo (I prefer, apple, apple tree, evil, misfortune)   Malo malo malo malo = I prefer to be in an apple tree than an evil man in trouble ('in' is assumed for two of the malo's)

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The Ablative Short-cut

The Ablative is a seriously overworked case in the Latin language.  It is a bit of a catch-all: time, agent, separation, means.  The ablative does all that and more.  When you come across an ablative in a passage, the possibilities seem endless.  Luckily they aren't.  In fact, if you follow my simple rule of IN, FROM, BY, WITH, you won't often go wrong.

Any time you see an ablative by itself in a sentence (i.e., with no preposition telling it what to do), try translating it using 'in', 'from', 'by', or 'with'.  Virtually guaranteed that one of them will sound good and that is the one to use.  Try it and see!

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Latin Roots

Usually when we hear this we think of English words that have their root in Latin (about 70-80%).  But here I am talking about Latin words that have Latin roots.  It will save alot of memorizing work and help you make sense of some of the rules of Latin grammar, if you notice some of these connections.  For instance:

The following verbs all look awfully similar;

abscondo, absondere, abscondidi, absconditus  (to conceal)

addo, addere, adidi, additus  (to add)

condo, condere, condidi, conditus  (to establish)

credo, credere, credidi, creditus  (to believe, to trust)

prodo, prodere, prodidi, proditus  (to betray)

trado, tradere, tradidi, traditus  (to hand over)

vendo, vendere, vendidi, venditus  (to sell)

For me, the tip off that these verbs all have the same parent was the reduplication in the 3rd principle part (or to put it more simply, the extra 'di' found between the prefix and the stem).  Hey! that looks like DO, DARE, DEDI, DATUS.  That's because all of these verbs are compounds of 'dare'.  Yes, they all have drifted to the 3rd conjugation (because the long 'A' of the 1st conjugation got downgraded when a prefix was added.  But these verbs all conjugation exactly the same!  And, their meanings have some basis in the verb 'to give' - trado is trans+do which literally means' to give across' and it's not too great a leap from there' to hand over'.

But here's something else.  Students are annoyed that credere 'takes its direct object in the dative', mainly because it's pain to have to remember that.  Now we can see why.  Credere really means ' to give trust'.  The verb is carrying its own direct object.  But,  since the basic meaning of the verb is 'to give', it needs an indirect object and those are in the dative.  BTW, most Latin verbs that 'take their direct objects in a case other than the accusative can be explained in a similar way.  Fruor, frui means enjoy and takes the ablative because fruor really means 'I enjoy myself' and the ablative is an ablative of means.  We may translate fruor vino as 'I enjoy wine.', but the root meaning is 'I enjoy myself with wine.'

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