Latin: an Indo-European language
Latin is an Indo-European language, the best attested member of
the Italic family, a group that included a number of other
languages formerly spoken on the Italian peninsula, including
Oscan, Umbrian, Sicel, and Faliscan.
English, also, is an Indo-European language, but contemporary
English has lost many of the distinctively Indo-European features
that Latin retains. As a result, those who would understand
Latin must learn to frame their thoughts in a rather different
The Latin noun
English retains the inherited structure of `case,' the inflection
of nouns, most clearly in the pronouns. In the conventional
terms, I is a "nominative" form; me is an `oblique'
form that serves as both "genitive" and "dative;" and my
is a "genitive" form. Common nouns in English do not use an
oblique case; they only have a genitive, which in English is
often called a "possessive" case.
In Latin, all nouns have these cases, and several others. The
cases give Latin a flexibility and concision that English lacks.
Here, for example, is the singular paradigm of equus,
equus, (the) horse (Nominative)
equi, the horse's (Genitive)
equo, to a horse (Dative)
equum, the horse (Accusative)
eque, Hello, horse! (Vocative)
equo, by, at, from, with, or in a horse (Ablative)
These cases allow Latin to do things English cannot. In English,
you can say I gave her an apple, where her is marked
by its case form as being in the `dative' case, an indirect
object. A proper noun can go there: I gave Mary an apple;
or a title like teacher.
In Latin, these would be:
malum ei dedi
malum Mariæ dedi
malum magistro dedi
malum equo dedi
Observe also that in Latin, since the functions of the words are
defined by the case forms or `endings' they bear, you can
reorder them freely to emphasise one over the
other. Malum equo dedi, equo malum dedi, malum dedi equo,
equo dedi malum, and dedi malum equo share the same
literal meaning, and differ in emphasis.
But when you change the case, you change the meaning: malum
equus dedi can only mean "I'm a horse, and I gave an apple,"
or "While I was a horse, I gave an apple." It's not
ungrammatical per se in Latin, but the unusual sentiment
is hard to render in English.
The `ablative' case in Latin is especially distinctive. It
inherits the role of three Indo-European cases, the original
ablative case, plus two others called `locative' and
`instrumental.' You'd have to cope with all three of these if
you were studying Russian or Lithuanian, whose nouns are even
more conservatively Indo-European.
The ablative case serves as the target of several very common
prepositions. It can also stand by itself, and takes the place
of what in English becomes a whole prepositional phrase:
equo iter feci, I made a journey
on horseback (or, by my
The ablative is also used in a handy construction which grammar
books call the "ablative absolute." It uses the ablative case to
take the place of a whole subordinate clause in English:
Bello consummato, miles domum rediit.
After the war was won, the soldier returned
The ablative has other uses, roughly similar to this one:
whenever you want to specify the way something happened, how
things are different, or why it happened so, you usually turn to
the ablative case. Grammarians give different names to each of
these several uses, but once you have been through them all you
start to see a theme developing.
Latin resembles Japanese more than it does English in the way it
handles nouns. In Japanese, you have various particles, which
serve as grammatical markers that define how a noun phrase
relates to the rest of the sentence. You have some liberty of
changing the position of these noun phrases if their function is
defined by the particle. In Latin, the case endings serve the
same goal, and allow the speaker even more freedom to move things
around, for the sake of emphasis and euphony.
The Latin verb
The English verb has lost even more of its original structure
than the English noun has. In Latin, the verb retains much of
its original Indo-European structure: it has voice (active and
middle/passive); tense, number, and mood.
The Latin active verb is easy enough if you know Spanish, which of course descends directly from it. As in Spanish, a pronoun subject can in most cases be omitted. Spanish has retained most of the indicative tenses and many of the subjunctive ones. The relationship is apparent enough from the following present tense active paradigm:
amo I love;
amas you (singular) love;
amat he, she, or it loves;
amamus we love;
amatis you (plural) love;
amant they love
In addition to these active forms, however, the Latin verb also has a set of passive forms that reverse the relationship between the subject and the action. Historically, the passive forms are often distinguished from the active by the presence of an /r/ infix:
amor I am loved;
amaris you (singular) are loved;
amatur he, she, or it is loved;
amamur we are loved;
amamini you (plural) are loved;
amantur they are loved
The availability of these forms, unmatched by anything in a
living Germanic language, again adds concision and expressiveness
to Latin. In English, the "passive voice" requires extra words
to make the paraphrase. The fact that it suppresses who is doing
the deed makes it seem weaselly, and makes it suspect to style
commentators. No such opprobrium attaches to the passive voice
in Latin, where these verb forms stand on an equal footing with
the active voice.
More importantly, the availability of many inflectional forms
gives Latin the power to express more in a single word; English,
to do the same job, would require several auxiliaries and
adverbs. The single Latin word amer! in idiomatic English
would have to be rendered as "let me be loved!" or "I hope I will
be loved!" Such is the power of a language with living
subjunctive and passive inflections.
Language and Difficulty
Latin is supposed to be more difficult for English speakers than,
say, German or Spanish. This difficulty is in fact an
Looked at as a huge table to memorise, the Latin inflections may
well seem daunting to the newcomer. There are, of course,
internal regularities in them as there are in the inflections of
any language; the Spanish verb is only slightly less daunting
than a Latin verb is. The difficulty is only partially here.
Rather, the difficulty in learning Latin consists in changing
your habits of thought out of the synthetic and positional world
of English syntax into the analytic and inflectional world that
Latin supplies. There is nothing necessarily simpler about
having to memorise dozens of prepositions and idioms that Latin
can dispense with, since it uses cases for many of the same
tasks. It is, simply, different. Mastering that difference has
To learn any foreign language is to learn how to draw
distinctions that exist in that language, which may not map
neatly into those drawn by your native tongue. The Spanish
distinction between ser and estar does not exist at
all in English; those who would master that language must learn
to think differently.
Latin, with its inflectional syntax, requires even more
adjustments to your habits of thinking than Spanish does.
Writing Latin properly is less a matter of finding the right
Latin word, and more a problem of moving from thinking in an
English based structure to the quite different structure of
For an example of how different it is, consider the opening of
Arma virumque cano, Troiæ qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum sævæ memorem Iunonis ob iram;
Word for word, in English, this would be rendered as: (The) arms
(arma) man-and (virum-que) sing-I (can-o), of-Troy
(Troiæ) who (qui) first (primus) from (ab) shores (oris)
to-Italy (Italia-m), from-fate (fat-o) a fugitive (profugus),
Lavinian-and (Lavinia-que) came-he (veni-t) banks (litora), much
(multum) that-one (ille) and (et) on-lands (terr-is) tossed
(iactatus) and (et) by-high (alt-o) power (vi) of-gods (super-um)
of-bitter (sæv-æ) remembering (memorem) of-Juno
(Iunon -is) for (ob) wrath (iram).
In somewhat more natural English: I sing of arms and the man,
destined to be a fugitive, who first came from the shoes of Troy
to the Lavinian banks. Only after he had endured much was he at
last cast up on land by the high power of the gods; even so, he
must always remember the wrath of bitter Juno.
Obviously, moving from Latin to English, or vice versa, requires
major adjustments in your thinking habits. Acquiring the ability
to make those changes is a benefit of learning Latin that is at
least as important as the ability to read the language itself.
For further reference:
Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar online. New? Has it changed?
The Latin Library. A well organised collection of Latin texts.
Latin course for the Virtual School of Languages. A beginning online course in Latin; rather elementary.
Wheelock's Latin. Still probably the best introductory book on the language. An Amazon.com link.