Latin as it is spoke: some thoughts on Latin syntax

In the last few days I have been looking at the Latin text of the passio of St Valentine of Interamna / Terni.  It’s a while since I did any Latin translating.  But the process always involves difficulty.

These days it is very easy to determine the tense, number, case, gender and meaning of individual words, with tools like QuickLatin or Whitaker’s Words, or other morphologisers.

Likewise the wide availability of dictionaries in PDF format makes it easier than ever to look up unusual words in specialised dictionaries.  The next step is for these to emerge in an indexed electronic form.  In fact a kind correspondent has sent me an interesting tool, in which you can search a wide range of dictionaries, where the start and end word of each page are stored electronically, and then you can display on-screen a bitmap of the page.  Many problems require a flash of genius; and this is an example of it.  I hope to write more about this in due course.

But none of this helps you with a phrase which simply won’t make sense, even when you know all the words.  This is because you don’t know much about Latin syntax.

A lot of people know some Latin.  A great number of people know enough Latin to do something with the tools above.

But most people do not know simply Latin constructions, like the accusative + infinitive phrase, even though there is even a Wikipedia page on it:

Iulia dicit, se bonam discipulam esse

Julia says, that she (se) is (esse) a good pupil (bonam discipulam)

Once you recognise the format, it’s not hard.  You translate the accusative “se” as “that she”,  and “she” becomes the subject of the new clause.  You find the infinitive (“esse”, to be), and treat it as an indicative (“est”, is).  After that, the rest of the clause is normal.  There may be other words along for the ride, which don’t matter, as here with “bonam discipulum”.

I have found by experience that few people understand this construction.

My own knowledge of Latin constructions is limited.  It wasn’t an important part of the Latin that I did at school.

Something that we all need to work upon some more.  I shall dig out a textbook and have a read!

4 thoughts on “Latin as it is spoke: some thoughts on Latin syntax

  1. I am a big fan of Stackexchange’s Latin forum. A very friendly place to get pointers on syntax, difficult idioms, and translation help.

Leave a Reply