The Forms of the Latin Verb

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)
Verbs are the heart of Latin stylistics. Latin uses verbs in a variety of ways, while English of the present time, especially in America and specifically in science and textbook writing, expresses itself largely in noun-concepts. One might well suspect that the only live verbs in English are those which join nouns to their modifiers, and this produces often a stiff and unyielding text-book style.

Not so Latin, which understands the flow and motility of verbal ideas, and with a relatively full arsenal of verbal modifications, faces the world verbally...... actively, as it turns out. The clearest proof of this difference in the languages appears when you try to translate English into Latin, a revealing intellectual exercise. First, the nouns have to be quite literally translated into verbal processes, and then the sentences can be reconstructed into a Latin of the Classical Period. Medieval Latin is as noun-beset as modern English, and one suspects it would have been virtually un-understandable to an educated Roman of Cicero's period.

Verbs can be formally distinguished from nouns by the fact that they have an entirely different set of endings from the Nouns. Reviewing the grammatical layout, we find these salient characteristics in the NOUN formations:

NUMBER: Both singular and plural.

ACTION: By means of the "case", reference to various functions:

1) Who is doing something to whom (subject)
2)..or if the thing is being done to him (object)
3) who he/ she/it belongs to (possessive)
4) to whom or for whom something is done (dative)
5) and finally where or from what place something is or originates (ablative).
6) In the rare Vocative a verbal message is being addressed to someone.
In all these cases it is not the identity which is being considered, but the relationship of the person or thing to an action, which acts upon it, pushes it around, locates It, or removes it. In this sense we might well define nouns, in addition to their basic root meanings, as having certain basic kinds of functional relationships.

VERBS ARE DIFFERENT. Their roots contain the seeds of functional actions , but three other things are built into almost every verb form:

  1. They define time, and within the range of time sometimes extent or continuity of an action. The "ending" which confers this time sense fuses onto the root, but it is not necessarily the termination of the verb at all, since other endings will well fuse onto it.
  2. They define several degrees of factualness, what we might call "the sense of possibility, or conditionality". The ancient Roman theorists on language called such forms "subjunctive" from the Latin subjunctus "sub-joined" because Roman schoolboys wrote these forms underneath (sub-juncta) the regular forms, which were called Indicative. This term Indicative is the name the Roman schoolmasters gave them, presumably because they indicated something rather than implied it uncertainly. The terms Indicative and Subjunctive are used in grammars, however we should understand the Indicative as the factual base, but the Subjunctive as an indicator of conditionality changed from the base forms of the Indicative.

  3. This conditional/subjunctive split is not unlike the Conditional in Romance languages, although there are some differences in usage. Conditional states of action are not entirely familiar to English. For English speakers perhaps the only remaining in-use phrase might be: "if it were" beside the more common "if it was...', while the conditional "if it be..." disappeared early in this century.
    Behind this loss lies the undeniable fact of American pragmatism, which fails to distinguish between what really IS, and what might airily be supposed to be (somehow) possible. Far warier in their time, the Romans needed a conditional mode as part of their language and culture, just as the Greeks before them needed two conditional modes (subjunctive and optative) receding into levels of probability behind the world of sheer fact. Athabascan Indians have at least five levels of conditionality, as is necessary for a hunting society, where a shade of a degree of difference in fact can mean food for the people or starvation. Again, after the pioneer Linguist Whorf, language follows needs, and in turn moulds future generations' speech and social patterns.
  4. Verbs are more specifically concerned with persons than nouns. They define automatically the following concepts:
    1. NUMBER, whether singular or plural.
    2. PERSON, quite specifically who the person is: whether it is "I, or You, or S/He", which translated into plurality comes out as "We, You /You-all, and They".
    3. TIME FUNCTION. The above code-endings fuse onto the time-signal coded STEMS, to make what we normally call the TENSES of Latin. These are the conventional sequence: Present, Imperfect, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect and Future-Perfect.
    4. ACTION TYPE can be Active (he does it) or Passive (it is done to him). Examples: occidit "he kills" vis-a-vis occiditur "he is killed". Note that this in turn is "fused" onto the TIME FUNCTION with addition of Active/Passive endings.
    5. UNREALITY. Here again transmutations of the endings, usually by a change in the vowel before the Action Type ending, can change the meaning of the verb from the normal, factual level (Indicative) to an un-real Conditional (Subjunctive) meaning.
* * *

Note that whereas the nouns note sex and grammatical gender very particularly, verbs take no note of sex, (except in compounded passive forms where one part of the verb is in fact an adjective/participle, with noun characteristics). The fact that "he / she" are not defined specifically by verbs surprises English and Arabic speakers, where the gender of the third person singular is specifically defined. But when we consider the social differences of various cultures, why should language differences surprise us? Pons asinorum.....

* * *

Putting this all together, we see that Latin verbs are fairly complex structures , they tell some things about the person involved, nothing about the sex of the person, they define time rather subtly, indicate reality as against unreality or conditionality, and they mark the difference between active and passive.

Technicalities on terminology, for when you need them:

The time sequences are called Tenses.

The active/passive differentiation is called Voice.

The factual/conditional division is called Mode (specifically the Indicative mode vs. Subjunctive mode in the grammar manuals).

The endings which tell who did the action are called Person.

The terms Singular and Plural in their normal senses are formally called Number.

Since there are three persons with two numbers, six active tenses and six passive tenses, along with four conditional active tenses and four passives, and furthermore the verbs are congregated into four basic Classes (Conjugations), you can see that there are many forms to be learned, in fact a veritable multitude. (Calculate the number yourself, you may be be shocked ...?)

 But there are many internal resemblances, many forms are generated quite automatically out of simple principles, and even the complex ones are often seen as developments of a few handfuls of ideas. (On the other hand there are irregular verbs, and quite a list of irrational pattern-changes, so the number of forms to be learned goes up again. On the other hand, your brain is more than adequate for recognizing myriad fact and detail.) Language is a universal human invention which works efficiently with the brain-capacity of a minimally functioning member of a society. So after all, in learning a new and complex language system, there is really little to fear!


In the verb the four main classes (Conjugations) show real similarities, with only a few striking differences. The examples of the four classes are all laid out in one "paradigm" below, so you can see similarities and differences at a glance. Learning the verb as a whole, you will see a fairly uniform system of expression, and since your task is recognition, not recall, learning the Latin verb is not as hard as it might seem.

 On the other hand, English speakers regularly get into trouble by grasping at the root, assuming a clear basic meaning as in English, and often they try to guess the complex additive structure of the endings (inflection) the verb by intuition. Remember this very important point:

Words in Latin are compounded out of various meaningful components, and nowhere is this more essential to grasp than in the verbal system.

* * *

At this point we are going to present you with a tableau of the Latin verb, listing one form for each function in all four classes (or Conjugations), starting with the basic Indicative or factual verb (in the active voice or mode) and in the present tense.

The Present Tense

             Present Tense, Active, Indicative

            I            II             II             IV
            amo          moneo          duco           audio
            amas         mones          ducis          audis
            amat         monet          ducit          audit

            amamus       monemus        ducitis        audimus
            amatis       monetis        ducitis        auditis
            amant        monent         ducunt         audiunt
There are several important differences among these four Classes of Conjugations (classes) of the Latin verb:

First, note  the stems:

             -a-         -ê-             -e-           -î-
(The circumflex accent marks a as long, no macrons available!)

Second, note the changes of vowel of the endings through the paradigms, which although not perfectly regular, tend to have an -o for 1 sg., and in 3 rd sg. Decl. III and IV the 3 Pl. is -u-nt. These are historical changes which took place in the development of the Latin language, there are no phonematic meanings involved.

The Imperfect Tense

We now proceed backwards in time to the Imperfect Tense, which refers specifically to things which used to happen, were happening, and are probably still going on. This continuing thread in the past is essential to understanding the Imperfect, and when you meet forms in this time sequence, you will have something a bit more complicated than just saying "was...".

        I                 II            III             IV
        amabam            monebam       ducebam         audiebam 
        amabas            monebas       ducebas         audiebas 
        amabat            monebat       ducebat         audiebat
        amabamus          monebamus     ducebamus       audiebamus 
        amabatis          monebatis     ducebatis       audiebatis 
        amabant           monebant      ducebant        audiebant
As was noted above, many tenses are generated on a single principle, and the Imperfect is a fair example. Only one detail differentiates the four classes, which is the nature of the vowel which occurs right before the -ba- imperfect-marking syllable.

Thus the root of the first class ends in -a-, the second in -e-, the third in -i- (which was originally -e- as you will see later), the fourth in -ie- (originally -i-). Call these four classes:

     I: root in -a-
     II: root in -e-
     III: root in -e-
     IV: root in -i-.

These characteristic root vowels will appear later in other forms, which is why I mention them at this point as a matter of definition.

This is a convenient point to stop for a moment as try to make some general observations on what we have been watching in the Present and Imperfect tenses.

First, we have a set of "personal endings" which are apparently thus-far fairly uniform as we proceed through the four classes. These endings also appear in both present and imperfect tense, hence are a good example of a Present type and a Past type conjugation:

Sg      1  -o/m         2  -s           3  -t
P1      1  -mus         2 -tis          3  -nt
In the present classes only the vowel before the endings change; in fact that vowel "belongs" to the root and wont change at all. And the only difference in the ending-system between present and imperfect, again in all classes, is that the present 1 sg. is -o, while the Imperfect 1 sg. is -m.

The sure sign of an imperfect tense in any class is -ba- inserted between the root and the ending. (Note that it is specifically -ba-, since there is another use reserved for -bi- in the Future tense....) With these six endings, you can follow four classes in two tenses, with 24 forms, but don't let your confidence swell, since there is a lot more to come.

The Future Tense

The Future tense is almost identical to the future in English in meaning, and offers no problems in that department. But you will notice immediately that Class I and II have one type of future with -bi-, whereas types III and IV have a different type with a short vowel.

 There is no differentiation of meaning here, it's just their form and the way the classes are constructed ( I and II with -b- but III and IV with a short vowel). This is one of the few cases of a real difference in construction among the verbal Conjugations.

        I               II              III             IV
        amabo           monebo          ducam           audiam 
        amabis          monebis         duces           audies 
        amabit          monebit         ducet           audiet
        amabimus        monebimus       ducemus         audiemus 
        amabitis        monebitis       ducetis         audietis 
        amabunt         monebunt        ducent          audient
Repeat: All you need to note is that the last two classes of verb form their future tense in an entirely different way than we would have expected from the first two.

Looking at Class I and II, we note that the final -o of the present 1 sg. has returned, and there is a logic to this: The present and future have no part in the world of the past, hence they share here and there features which you will not find in the various past tenses (Imperfect, Perfect, and Pluperfect). The 3 p1. breaks the -i- habit, with its uncharacteristic -u-, which is an orthographic variant of the -o which was set up in the 1 sg., although no real logic is in evidence here. Remember -o and -u- as the beginning AND end of this group as a memory device, since these forms are atypical and may well confuse you later.

About the -e- vowel future of Class III and IV, there is little one can say by way of explanation, without undue historico-linguistic complications, except as you learn to read Latin they will become quite normal. The first person singular is singular indeed, for it breaks the regular -e- feature which marks this tense. You can accept this as another irregularity, or think, as I do, that it is actually a present 1 sg. subjunctive (conditional) borrowed into this category because of the near-relationship of conditionality and futurity:

audiam "I'd bear", audies "you'll hear"
Note a similar vacillation in English "I shall" beside "you will". Teachers in grade school see all sorts of subtle differences in meaning, but the populace uses the forms both ways, apparently without much sense of difference.

The Perfect Tense

Now we approach the Past tenses as such, The Perfect System, so called after the Latin terminology "Perfect", since perfectum in Latin means "completely done, or finished". There is nothing perfect about this tense, sporting a handful of odd irregularities, which actually are traces of a more ancient stage of the language.

      I               II              III             IV
      amavi           monui           duxi            audivi 
      amavisti        monuisti        duxisti         audivisti 
      amavit          monuit          duxi            audivit
      amavimus        monuimus        duximus         audivimus 
      amavistis       monuistis       duxistis        audivistis
      amaverunt/-ere  monuerunt/-ere  duxerunt/-ere   audiverunt/-ere
Here is a disconcerting situation in regard to the endings: This one tense, the Perfect, is odd and irregular and it is ancient in origin, but fortunately no other tense in the verb system is like it. Probably best memorize it right off, know it cold, and try to recall in which way it is different from the other tenses.

The Pluperfect Tense

The next tense, going backwards in time still further, is the "More Than Perfect", which is precisely what the Pluperfect or 'plus quam perfectum 'actually means. Some English grammars use the term Past-Perfect, but this doesn't really say anything , so we might as well accede to the Traditionalists and call this tense the Pluperfect. Remember that it refers to past time before the Perfect, and is pretty much the same as English "he had loved, he had warned, he had led, he had heard". There should be no trouble with the meaning, and the forms are straightforward too:

        I               II              III             IV
        amaveram        monueram        duxeram         audiveram
        amaveras        monueras        duxeras         audiveras
        amaverat        monuerat        duxerat         audiverat

        amaveramus      monueramus      duxeramus       audiveramus
        amaveratis      monueratis      duxeratis       audiveratis
        amaverant       monuerant       duxerant        audiverant
The endings of the Pluperfect obtain in all classes, nothing could be more direct. The signature syllable of this tense, right before the endings is always -era-, and there are no irregularities. Enough said, and we can pass on to the last tense in the active verb series, the Future-Perfect.

The Future Perfect Tense

The Future-Perfect is just what it says it is. It is a future tense grafted onto a past tense, and it translates pretty accurately into a somewhat stilted English "I will have done....(something)", "I will have loved", whatever that really means. It is not hard to follow the logic of this tense, but it is not clear why the Romans should ever have invented it in the first place. Actually it is not used a great deal in Latin, mainly in balanced Future/ Future-Perfect conditions, and sometimes in place of a pure Future. Its forms are:

        I              II              III              IV 
        amavero        monuero         duxero           audivero 
        amaveris       monueris        duxeris          audiveris 
        amaverit       monuerit        duxerit          audiverit
        amaverimus     monuerimus      duxerimus        audiverimus 
        amaveritis     monueritis      duxeritis        audiveritis 
        amaverint      monuerint       duxerint         audiverint
Again as with the Pluperfect, this is a simple group, with only one basic characteristic, the syllable -eri-, and this has only one exception, the -o of the 1 sg. which certainly follows the pattern of the Future of Classes I and II (-bo, bis, bit....) This regular tense will give you little trouble, especially since you will probably not see it often.

* * *

These are the forms of the Perfect, Pluperfect and Future perfect tenses, you will remember the odd endings of the Perfect, as against the regular endings of the Pluperfect and Future Perfect easily enough. But we have not said anything (on purpose) about what went before the endings, and if you noted something structural changing before your eyes, you were correct. Let's go into that in detail:

When you enter the world of these three (Perfect System) tenses, you make a significant change in the stem:

 Class I verbs add to the stem -v -
Class II verbs add to the stem -u-.

(Since -u- and -v- are phonetic variants of each other, they are vocalic and consonantal "allophones" of each other, and the variation depends on whether a vowel precedes (amavi), or a consonant (monui). Since Latin used one letter for both sounds, pronounced -w- without question, this footnote is totally unnecessary: Romans wrote in the uncial manuscripts AMAVI and MONVI, left it to the reader the select the right pronunciation.) We are in a less fortunate position with our protracted argumentation about "purist" or "Church" pronunciation of this letter.

Class IlI can add -s- as sign of the Perfect, an ancient Indo-European practice, as seen in the -s- or sigmatic aorists in Greek . Many Indo-European languages go this path, while the -v- or -u- of the first two classes is probably a Latin invention. Note that -x- as in duxi is a graphemic representation of duc-si.

But other words in this class make their perfects in others ways. Let take a few of the common types:

     iungo "join, yoke.." perf. iunxi

This is nothing more than the -s- fused with the -g- of the stem, and written as the compound letter -x- which is g/k + s.

        venio "come" (short -e-)        vêni (long -e-)
        facio "do"                      fêci
Here we have a prime example of an ancient Indo European "ablaut" process (the German term is used in linguistics as more convenient than Vowel Gradation), a vowel-change system, which uses differentiation between long and short vowels to signal grammatical change. It can also change the vowel color as e/o, in the grammatical use of Ablaut shifting.

But also note complex perfect formations like tundo "beat", with its perfect: tu-tudi

This shows two features: First the "nasal infix" -n- of Present Imperfect and Future disappears, second the first syllable is repeated or "Reduplicated", a standard and ancient IE practice , for example, in the normal Greek perfect tense formation (te-the-ka "I ahve made"). The Reduplicating Perfect is used with half a dozen verbs in Latin and one may read hundreds of pages without seeing a reduplicator like spondeo / spopondi (spepondi) "marry"

Another unexpected change can be seen in Present cresco "increase" beside the Perfect crevi. Here we are marking the perfect negatively, that is by removing something characteristic of the Present system, the "incohative" infix -sco. There are many verbs in this class, since the idea of growth and process is important as a linguistic and semantic notion.

 Class IV is normal Latin practice following Conj. I and II: we go back to the -v-, but here always consonantal, and it follows the long -i- which is part of the root. e.g. Pres. audio, Perf. audivi.

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