The Idea of Latin Grammar

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)
Latin, in common with its Indo-European congeners, is an inflected language, which basically means that "roots" or basic units of form with standardized meaning are extended and further defined by grammatical syllables fused onto them for extended meaning. So a Latin word typically has these sections: Let us take a few examples:

NOUNS: The word "amatoribus" originally starts with the verb root ama- meaning "love", but our starting point is the noun amator "lover"(the dictionary form). Fused to this is the ending -ibus, which has two connotations:

a) plural, "they"
b) "to, for" and also possibly "from".
Reading the word amatoribus, we understand not only "lover", but more specifically "lovers" (plural), and also that something is being given to or taken away from these lovers (via the case ending). Most words in Latin have this kind of composite signification, which seems strange to users of languages which feature basic words with few modifiers, like English and Chinese.

VERBS: The verb amabantur has the same root ama- but here it is used verbally, which I can tell immediately from the type of endings used. The syllable -ba- means "was doing it, used to..." (imperfect tense), the -nt- tells us that more than one persons did it, and also that it was a "they" concept, as against a "we" or "you-all" concept. And the -ur- at the end indicates that the action was being done to them, i.e. we are dealing with a grammatical passive form. Putting it all together, we can authentically state that "they were being loved", which tells us everything except the sex of the persons involved. Verbs usually do not note sex, nouns often do, but not always. Sex or gender is noted in other ways, to be sure, but not directly and formally in the Latin noun-verb structure.

We have thus noted the existence of the two major grammatical classifications of words, the NOUNS and the VERBS. Beside these are several other classes of words:

ADJECTIVES are basically nouns in most of their forms, that is they look like nouns, but they accompany nouns and tell us something about the nouns they modify. So vir bonus means "a good man", actually "man.. good" and the second word is descriptive, hence an adjective. (Note that Latin does not use articles with its nouns, like the English word "the". Convenient as it seems to us, the Romans seemed to manage perfectly well without it).

 PRONOUNS include the group "he, she, it, they, that one, this one here" etc. They are an odd class in themselves, sometimes being written like nouns, sometimes by their own pattern (dating back to Indo-European times), They are often called irregular in the manuals, which means that they will be difficult to remember. But they are quite common in use, so one just has to learn them on their own terms.

PARTICIPLES have noun-adjective endings grafted onto verb roots, sometimes used descriptively as adjectives. or sometimes as nouns. They correspond to the English words ending in "-ing" when used descriptively, as "running, dancing" etc. (But do not confuse these with the English nouns like "running", as in the phrase "Running is healthy", which is a Latin Gerund!) Participles compare with the "running nose" and the "overflowing cup". As an example: sequentes "following - plural - subject", as in "following the herd", but also in many cases the allied noun-idea of "followers". In short participles are verbal adjectives, sometimes used as verbal nouns.

INFINITIVES are much like English "to love" "to hear" etc. They go along with verbs but often are used in special constructions to denote quoted or hearsay information (Indirect Discourse, which is complicated, of which more later). Infinitives can be used as nouns, as "to hear is good", although this use is not common, since there is a great plenty of abstract nouns which do the same thing more clearly.

PREFIXES are like verbal endings, except they are fused onto the beginning of the root rather than the end. Typical are com- "with", in- "not", contra- "against" pro- "toward", and they often join permanently with verbs to make specialized standardized meanings, as con-iungere "join together, (hence) marry".

 Prefixes may also be used with nouns, either fused with the noun stem so as to become a compound, or standing as separate words in front of them, and requiring or "taking" a certain noun ending or "case". So in urbem "into the city" shows two separate words, but the second one, because of the nature of the prefix in- meaning "into", it is in the object or accusative case. In urbe "in the city" is different in meaning, with the second word turned into the in- or ablative case, denoting location. More of this when we get into the actual meanings of the cases.

ADVERBS are fixed or non-inflected words which amplify or describe a verb, witness their name ad verbum "toward a verb". They often don't look like as a class, and you learn them generally as individual words, e.g. cras "tomorrow", mane "early in the morning". But fortiter and belle " bravely" and "prettily" show the two more common endings (-ter and -e), but there is no one ending for this odd class of words. Adverbs like primo "first" are in the Ablative Case, but frozen. Put in here also words like 0 "oh'.", eheu "alas", and the semi-meaningless markers of rhetoric and poetry (autem and enim), used much like the English conversational "Well..." and "Now...".

We have now described in very rough outline a few of the basic types of the forms and features of the Latin language, next we will go back and describe each class in detail, noting all the usable forms as found in the regular Classical authors. Remember that the Latin we have is the result of four centuries of "purification and standardization" by generations of schoolmamsters in the period of the Empire before 400 A.D.. In the Manuscripts and Inscriptions are hundreds of variants which stem from common usage, e.g. "davit" for dedit in a 4 th c. Inscr., or the list of "wrong forms" in the standardizing Appendix Probi. But the Latin we learn in school is the "standardized" version, just as our school French is authorized Académie Française French.


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