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Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 4: Person and number

Latin has two numbers, single and plural, and three persons, first, second and third. While comparable languages like ancient Greek and Sanskrit retained a dual number into the documented period, Latin did not; also while most Romance languages use both a familiar and a non-familiar or deferential form of the second person, Latin does not.

The first person includes the speaker. Although other languages have inclusive and exclusive forms of the first person plural, most Indo-European languages such as Latin do not. Hence whether or not the person addressed forms part of the we or us referred to depends on context.

The second person includes the person or persons addressed but not the speaker. Modern English does not typically distinguish between singular and plural forms of you, although some dialects include the option of phrases such as y’all or you guys. Nevertheless, the distinction is often important and is included in Latin and the Romance languages.

The third person refers to discussion of someone or something not including either the speaker or the person(s) addressed. In English, the associated pronouns include he/she/it and they/those, among others.

The combination of persons and number create a simple table in which the basic pattern of conjugations for Latin is shown:

person singular plural
1st -o/-m -mus
2nd -s -tis
3rd -t -(u)nt

Of the six Latin simple tenses, five employ a form of this basic pattern and the sixth, the perfect, uses a pattern which is not entirely dissimilar:

person singular plural
1st -i -imus
2nd -isti -istis
3rd -it -erunt

The specific patterns of conjugation as previously discussed follow five basic classes, four conjugations of which the third has two sub-types. These conjugation classes are characterized by the length and vowel characteristic of the root of the verb. (First, second and fourth conjugations are respectively associated with long vowels a, e and i, while third conjugation is associated with short vowels e and i. Examples and more detailed discussion can be found in Allen & Greenough.

For the present tense (indicative active), the first pattern

person singular plural
1st -o -mus
2nd -s -tis
3rd -t -(u)nt

is followed in the first, second and fourth conjugations, where the u of the third person plural is employed in the (third and) fourth conjugation(s), not the first and second conjugations. These suffixes are added to the root of the verb exactly as the first principal part of the verb is formed but retaining the characteristic vowel of the root. In the third conjugation, the characteristic vowel becomes an i, and the u of the third person plural is used.

In this previous post, I described the formation of the first person singular indicative active of each of the six basic Latin tenses. The present and perfect tenses are already discussed above. The remaining tenses to fully conjugate are the imperfect, the future, the pluperfect and the future perfect.

For the imperfect, the characteristic suffix on the root is -ba- for all conjugations. It then conjugates to become:

person singular plural
1st -bam -bamus
2nd -bas -batis
3rd -bat -bant

For the first and second conjugations, the future suffixes are markedly similar:

person singular plural
1st -bo -bimus
2nd -bis -bitis
3rd -bit -bunt

but for the remaining conjugations the future suffix takes a form:

person singular plural
1st -am -emus
2nd -es -etis
3rd -et -ent

Then the pluperfect and future perfect in all conjugations both add the marker -er- to the prefect stem but differ in the characteristic vowel. Like the imperfect, the pluperfect has an associated vowel a and, like the future, the future perfect has a characteristic vowel i. Thus one uses

person singular plural
1st -eram -eramus
2nd -eras -eratis
3rd -erat -erant

for the pluperfect and

person singular plural
1st -ero -erimus
2nd -eris -eritis
3rd -erit -erint

for the future perfect.The point is that with minor variations, the patterns are essentially the same throughout. One need only learn the basic pattern and the peculiarities of how each tense adapts that pattern.


Grammar/syntax as a template

Grammar and syntax are respectively descriptions of how one forms and joins words to express basic ideas as clauses and how those clauses are in turn combined to express more complex ideas. Rather than prescribing how a language should be used, grammar and syntax describe how a language actually is used. So long as each individual description is consistent with the scope of usage, any number of such descriptions of any individual language is possible. Which description one chooses depends on context and purpose.

To give an example, one can describe Latin verbs in terms of six simple tenses and therefore compound tenses are described as a combination of verbs in those basic tenses and complimentary verbs forms such as infinitives and participles. For analytical and pedagogical purposes, such an approach can be highly useful because it assigns to each and every word a specific and unique function in any given sentence. Yet to most simply express the overall syntactical meaning of sentences as a whole, the notion of compound tenses is often useful. In philological terms, one may think of these alternate approaches as emphasizing either the fine details or the proverbial big picture. For learning a language, my opinion is that the analytic approach is virtually always the way to start. The more broad scope description however should accompany a deeper understanding of the target language.

A principal advantage of using an analytic approach for learning (bearing in mind that such approaches are in general non-unique) is that it minimizes the complexity of the language as a system and allows one to think of a language’s grammar and syntax in terms of a reasonably finite set of elements selected from a similarly reasonably finite set of elements. In other words, one can approach grammar/syntax via a template.

Personally, I tend to think of grammar as dealing with classes of words and their arrangement and syntax as dealing with classes of clauses and how they are put together. While I have heard of more complicated systems for classification of words, clauses and sentences, I tend to fall back on a slightly modified form of the categories I learned as a boy for English grammar; those modifications are minimal in order to accommodate the other languages I now know.

One of the most basic characteristics of clauses is basic word order. The overwhelming majority of languages can be described as either VSO or SVO. (Obviously other orders are possible but they are comparatively rare.) While these anagrams refer to verb, subject and object, most often VSO languages also characteristically tend to place modifiers after the word modified and SVO in contrast characteristically tend to place modifiers before the word modified. Even languages like Latin and Sanskrit which have highly active case systems so that word order becomes highly flexible do have a default word order; it helps the speaker process clauses more quickly and aids in the deciphering of ambiguities.

One then processes through the classes of words to see which properties apply. Nouns can have gender or similar classes, number and case. Pronouns will have the same properties as nouns and sometimes a few more; typically their properties will somehow echo their antecedents. In addition to person, number, voice, tense and mood, verbs may have gender or classes similar to nouns and indeed typically will agree in this respect with a related noun; while the examples which I already know make that agreement with a subject (after the pattern of nominative-accusative languages), generalization of the properties of nouns allows one to imagine gender agreement of verbs after the fashion of ergative-absolutive languages. Verbs can also have stem classes which modify the root meaning according to an inflectional pattern analogous in that way to a case system for nouns. Modifiers of nouns or pronouns (articles, quantifiers and/or simple adjectives) will often have to agree in their properties (e.g., gender, number and case) with the word modified. While I have never encountered a need for modifiers of verbs, adverbs or adjectives to agree, one can imagine the requirement. Conjunctions may be affixes or may differ based on class of the objects linked. Prepositions can be echoed in verbs or affixes of their objects. Particles can serve a variety of functions. Determining which properties apply to what sorts of words becomes a mental checklist when tackling a new language. (Syntactical relationships among clauses similarly fit a finite number of categories which each language builds in a particular way.)

The point without further bogging down in details is that one can and should identify the patterns a new language uses and that these patterns take certain standard forms. Then one identifies which patterns a given language uses, what if any eccentricities the target language associates with those patterns. The universals of grammar and syntax are not the specific details of any given element in a language but rather what elements a language can have.

Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 3: Tenses

Having introduced in previous posts the concept of Latin verbs‘ four principal parts, I wish to move on to the formation of the different tenses. For now, I intend to stick to indicative active verbs in first person singular. One can deal with the passive, the subjunctive and conjugation for person and number hereafter. Discussion of irregular verbs is similarly deferred.

Latin has six simple active indicative verb tenses, meaning tenses formed by conjugation of the verb and without use of an auxiliary verb: present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect and future perfect. These tenses are commonly grouped by aspect. While grammatical aspect is not as marked a feature in Latin grammar as in ancient Greek or Russian grammar, the concept is useful in understanding the nature of Latin tenses.

The present tense in Latin is contrasted to the present tense although the natural inclination of English speakers is to think of the perfect as fundamentally a past tense; after all, the action expressed by that tense is completed. Yet the perfect tense expresses the completion of an action– typically in the very recent past– with implications for the present. Julius Caesar’s famous quote, “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” is perhaps best rendered, “I have come. I have seen. I have conquered.” It denotes that Caesar was at the pinnacle of the conquest. The present tension denotes being in the middle of an action that is ongoing, and the perfect denotes its essentially present completion. Accordingly, the imperfect is contrasted to the pluperfect and the future is contrasted to the future perfect. The formation of the future and of the imperfect not surprisingly then uses the root from the first principle part, i.e., the present active indicative. The formation of the pluperfect and future perfect uses the root from the third principle part, namely the perfect indicative active. Another point where understanding of the parallelism of the tenses in Latin verbs helps is that it serves as mnemonic device to help remember that the use of a –m ending in lieu of the –o ending familiar from the present tense occurs in the indicative only in the two tenses the Romans thought of as proper past tenses, the imperfect and the pluperfect.

The imperfect is formed for all conjugations by dropping the -o ending of the first principle part (by so restoring absorbed vowels in the case of the the first and third conjugations) and adding the suffix –bam. The addition of an e with the i-stem verbs of the third conjugation and verbs of the fourth conjugation is viewed as regularization.

The future in formed differently for the first and second conjugations than for the third and fourth conjugations. In the former, one drops the –o of the first principal part and then adds the suffix –bo. For the other conjugations, one similarly drops the ending -o but adds the suffix –am.

Similarly, the pluperfect tense is formed for all conjugations by dropping the final –i characteristic of the third principal part and adding in its place the suffix –eram. That this suffix is the same as the imperfect of the verb to be (sum, esse,…) seems to me more apt to be confusing than to serve as a mnemonic, at least when taken by itself.

English: Latin: Future Perfect Indicative Active

English: Latin: Future Perfect Indicative Active (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The future perfect is formed for all conjugations by dropping the –i ending of the third principle part and adding in its place the suffix –ero.  That suffix is the same as the future tense of the verb to be. Thus the form of to be in the parallel tense is added as a suffix to the perfect root for both the pluperfect and the future perfect.

Another blogger has given examples.

One of the reasons English speakers will have a tendency to think of the perfect tense as a past rather than a present tense is because in late Latin and then the Romance languages, the perfect evolved into a past tense. Thus for example the preterite or simple past in Spanish derives from the perfect tense in Latin.

Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 2: Principal Parts for 3rd conjugation

In standard terminology for Latin grammar, the terms first conjugation, second conjugation and fourth conjugation each refer to a class of verbs characterized by a long vowel at the end of the root or stem (formed by dropping -re from the end of the infinitive); the long vowel in each is respectively a, e and i. Verbs in the other vowels o and u do not occur.

The third conjugation deals with the short vowels. The vowel a does not occur short; if it did in a previous stage of Latin’s development, then those vowels had lengthened by the Classical period. Indeed, all infinitives of the third conjugation have a short vowel e in the infinitive. Yet a large class of third conjugation verbs preserve an i in the stem in at least the first principal part. My opinion is that in some earlier pre-Classical stage of Latin, these i-stem third conjugation verbs were associated with a short i which mutated in the infinitive.


A good discussion of how the four classes of verbs evolved into the Romance languages can be found here. The association of the third conjugation with short vowels e and possibly also i remains for all the languages discussed at the link: the five national Romance languages plus Sardinian, Catalan and Romansh. Occitan is a notable Romance language which is not discussed at that link but its verbs appear to have lost the distinction between second and third conjugation verbs in terms of Latin.

: end digression.

When applying the pattern for the principal parts, which takes the form

-o, -re, -vi, -tum

as established in a previous post about long vowel stems, the fact that short vowels (especially when unstressed as in this case) are highly mutable. Moreover they often influence mutations in adjacent consonants. (Latin stressed the penultimate syllable if it was either closed or has a long vowel but the ante-penultimate syllable otherwise.) Thus even the two classes of regular third conjugation verbs in Latin are irregular in the sense that the stem tends to change:

duc-o, duce-re, dux-i, duc-tum

capi-o, cape-re, cep-i, cap-tum.

In the first principal part, the short e of the root is absorbed into the long o of the conjugation suffix. The short i remains. In the second principal part, the short e remains but the short i is transmuted into a short e— effectively a neutral vowel. In the fourth principal part, both short vowels are simply dropped.

The third principal part (the first person singular active perfect form of the verb) often undergoes marked changes to the stem. The short vowel is almost always absorbed. If the semi-vowel u/v of the conjugation suffix is retained at all (which happens but is rare) it becomes strictly vocalic, i.e., u but not v.

What this means is that when learning Latin verbs, the third conjugation will usually require the most effort to learn. The phonological shifts do have patterns but familiarization with the principal parts of as large amount of Latin verbs will tend to impart an intuitive knowledge of those phonological patterns better than trying to consciously memorize them. When memorizing verbs in Latin, one should try to apply the Latin rules of syllable accentuation because that will help in the application of correct grammatical forms.

Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 1: Principal Parts

One of the most difficult initial hurdles when approaching a new language one wishes to learn is the sheer amount of vocabulary one needs to memorize in order to operate in the target language. In past posts, I’ve discussed the use of phonological patterns and cognates to reduce the effort needed to learn vocabulary. While one cannot eliminate any effort needed to learn a language, one can use patterns to reduce the amount of work. The example to be used in this post is the patterns to be used in learning Latin verbs. This topic is one I intend at least to spend a few posts on, starting with the idea of principal parts of each Latin verb.

As should be familiar sounding to anyone who has studied a Romance language, Latin verbs can be divided into three classes based on the vowel used  at the end of its (active) infinitive. (Latin also has a passive infinitive which is largely lost in modern Romance languages and which is not otherwise relevant to this post.) All such characteristic infinitives end in –re. Those letters are preceded by either an a, e or i— never an o or u.

In Latin, even irregular verbs can be formed regularly from four forms of the verb known as the principal parts:

  1. 1st person singular active indicative present
  2. active infinitive
  3. 1st person singular active indicative perfect
  4. perfect passive participle (masculine or neuter depending on source used).

E.g., The textbook I learned from Wheelock’s Latin, 3rd ed., used the neuter for the fourth principal part but a set of vocabulary flashcards I own uses the masculine instead. For regular verbs, these four principal parts of a verb form a predictable pattern.

I will discuss the formation of these principal parts in more detail after discussing the three regular forms and showing an irregular verb.

For verbs with an a vowel-stem in the infinitive ending (called first conjugation):

laud-o, lauda-re, lauda-vi, lauda-tum

In other words, if the infinitive form’s ending has an a as its vowel, one normally keep the previous root and adds on the suffix after the hyphen to construct the forms identified as principal parts.

Latin e-stem verbs vary the pattern in a couple of different ways, depending on whether the e of the stem is long or short in the infinitive, something most dictionaries will therefore show.

A similar but not quite identical pattern exists for verbs whose infinitive is characterized by a long vowel e (called second conjugation):

mone-o, mone-re, mon-ui, moni-tum.

When the e of the stem is short in the infinitive (third conjugation), the basic pattern undergoes a large amount of phonological changes so that these will form a separate post.

Finally verbs characterized by an i at the end of the root (fourth conjugation) form a pattern of principal parts as:

molli-o, molli-re, molli-vi, molli-tum.

To my mind, it is a shame that the verbs are usually presented in this order which is based on frequency of occurrence. I say this because the basic underlying pattern of the principal parts

-o, -re, -vi, -tum

without phonological influences happens in the i-stem verbs.

For a-steam verbs, the pattern is mostly regular except that the vowel combination a+o in early Latin resulted in simply an o sound. Hence the first principle part effectively drops the letter a from the stem.

For long e-stem verbs, two phonological shifts occur; one in each of the last two principal parts. The Romans did not distinguish between the letters u and v because much like Welsh, these represented a semi-vowel which could be used either consonantly or vocally. Only in later Latin did these become distinct. The vowel e from the stem in the third principal part is absorbed by the semi-vowel but thereby causes it to be vocalic rather than consonantal. In the last principal part, the e of the stem just transmutes into an i.

Hence the pattern for formation of principal parts becomes modified by phonological considerations, but the pattern remains essentially. So for regular verbs, the forms can be predicted. An irregular verb such as

fero, ferre, tuli, latum

requires one to memorize these forms for a given verb, but principal parts in Latin were chosen by grammarians precisely because in general any form can be constructed from them more or less regularly applying other verb patterns to be discussed hereafter.

Classic epic poetry in many languages

N.B.: In some ways, this post is a follow up to this previous post which lamented the loss of musicality in most modern languages.

Like many people educated in the United States, I have felt at times that my education in poetry was sadly lacking. Identifying the cadence of a work from only seeing the words in print is not a skill I was taught and hence it does not come easily to me if at all. Yet like my wife recently pointed out to me in a conversation about poetry, it is as much about the sound of the words as about what they mean. Without the rhythm and inflection meant to be conveyed, the richness of the language is often lost and in some cases even the meaning of the poetry changes. While I admit that my appreciation of poetry is not exactly robust, I started at some level to get the idea of it in of all things a lecture on Roman history and culture.

In both Classical Greek and Roman cultures, indeed throughout the ancient world and well into the modern era, poetry was by far the most popular form of literature. The bias in literary output and popularity is simply unmistakable.  That makes modern cultures like those of the English speaking world the outliers. Thus, why was poetry so wildly popular and why isn’t it so popular now? In many ways, the assumptions of the question are dimply misleading. For a few reasons, historical, cultural and philological, English and many other modern languages are unusual in making a distinction between poetry and song lyrics. That distinction has allowed for a number of remarkable innovations within music but downplays or even loses altogether the musical qualities of language.

While that may suffice to deal with shorter poetry, it potentially ignores the role of longer especially epic poetry. These works were typically recited by bards, minstrels, troubadours or other traveling performers whose recitations of poetry were viewed as today one might view a popular musician‘s concert given on a tour. Similarly, the works of Shakespeare are written in verse; these plays would have been to an extent sung, much like more modern opera if not necessarily in that style.

A good number of these classic epic poems can be found in the original online. Sadly the people qualified to properly perform them are long dead. While I hope to create a more extensive page for this blog listing far more, here are a few:

The themes of the stories are varied.

My fascination with Indo-European languages (Part 1)

As someone trained in Classical philology (at least to the level of the first university degree) I have always found myself fascinated by two groups of languages, the Indo-European language family and the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Admittedly these are precisely the most studied two groups of languages in the field, but for myself and what interests me, that is not a bad thing. This post is about the former of the two groups of languages.

Map of early spread of Indo-European languages

Depending on how one counts them, the Indo-European family of languages consists of usually 10 to 12 branches or sub-families of languages. I’m giving the form with maximum separation, but the Baltic and Slavic branches are often combined into a single Balto-Slavic branch and similarly the Iranian and Indic branches are often combined into the Indo-Iranian languages. (The older nomenclature of Aryan in lieu of Iranian in both the independent and combined forms should be known in order to understand older references, but it is now avoided due to unfortunate associations.)

  1. Anatolian (Hittite, Luwian, etc.– all extinct)
  2. Armenian (dialects of Armenian)
  3. Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Old Prussian, etc.)
  4. Gaelic or Celtic (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, etc.)
  5. Germanic (English, German, Dutch, Danish, etc.)
  6. Hellenic (dialects of Greek)
  7. Illyrian or Albanian (dialects of Albanian, thought possibly to descend from Illyrian)
  8. Indic (Sanskrit, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, etc.)
  9. Iranian (Farsi, Ossetian, Pashto, etc.)
  10. Italic (Latin and hence the Romance languages [Spanish, French, Italian, etc.], Oscan, etc.)
  11. Slavic (Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Czech, etc.)
  12. Tocharian (Tocharian A and Tocharian B— both extinct)

These groups of languages bear striking commonalities in their grammar, syntax, morphology, phonology and core vocabulary.The standard explanation for these commonalities is the hypothesis that all these groups of languages and thus all the languages within them (at least a couple of hundreds of them) evolved from a common parent language which has no extant record. That hypothetical language is therefore called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). As a published physical scientist (which more than the first university degree in physics) I am uncomfortable treating as entirely established the existence of a language for which no extant direct evidence exists. Sure, PIE seems the most logical hypothesis to me, but that simply falls short of definite proof. Nevertheless, assuming as one virtually has to that the PIE is correct, then a good deal can be said about the cultural milieu that language must have occupied and the properties of the language, based on the daughter languages. A modern fable composed in the reconstructed language is periodically updated to reflect the latest understanding of the properties and vocabulary of PIE.

The same commonalities which hint at the form PIE would have taken can also be used to facilitate the learning of Indo-European languages, at least for reading purposes. That does not in practice eliminate the effort for learning the languages, but certainly it minimizes it and allows the efforts to be focused specifically where needed. Languages have essentially four aspects:

  1. Phonology
  2. Lexical content
  3. Morphology
  4. Grammar/Syntax.

Indo-European languages have commonalities in all four areas. Essentially these are the sound of the language, the meanings of words and phrases within the language, the patterns of word formation and how words and groups of words are combined to create more complex ideas out of basic meanings.

Places of articulation

Places of articulation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Phonology entails the basic set of sounds or phonemes used in a language, the cadence of speech in that language, accentuation, patterns of stresses and tones, etc. Indo-European languages typically lack most gutturals (sounds very common in Semitic languages) and the click sounds of Khoisan languages (apart from occasional borrowings such as in some dialects of Afrikaans with Xhosa loanwords). The majority of Indo-European languages also share a set of vowels sometimes referred to as Continental values; English is a notable exception to this property but differs less than one might suppose. The point is that if one is in doubt how the vowels of a language should be pronounced, in the case of the Indo-European languages starting with Continental values as a first approximation but then adjusting these as needed is simply good practice because it is more often correct than not. Indo-European languages lack vowels harmony and so vowels can be treated separately from one another. Stresses and accents tend to follow regular patterns such as being on the first syllable of the root word or on the penultimate syllable. Tone is not used in the manner of the Sino-Tibetan languages but rather to emphasize or change definiteness of clauses; a change of tone in Indo-European languages does not change the meaning of individual words. Until possibly even the modern period, Indo-European languages were dominated by pitch accents more than by stress accents but the tune formed by a clause did not have any grammatical significance as it did in ancient Hebrew.

Lexical content principally involves cognates, especially in core vocabulary. Yet while most people have heard the term cognate, few non-specialists actually understand what it means. First, even when cognates do in fact have identical meanings, they can appear markedly different. The English word through is cognate to the German word dürch. By application of patterns of phonological shifts, one can get from one word to the other as follows:

  • Initial consonant: d→ð→Θ (Using English representations, the sound of d as in dog transforms first to the th as in this— a plosive consonant replaced with a fricative one– and then to the th as in think— a loss of voicing.
  • reversal of order of a rhotic consonant and a vowel of the same syllable with loss of trill
  • The vowels are nearly identical with a slight difference in roundedness.
  • German ch represents an unvoiced aspirate (like a sort of heavy h sound) which when voiced becomes how gh used to be pronounced, but in English that voice aspirate has become silent as aspirates (especially in final position) often do.

In other words, the pattern of points of articulation is identical and in this case even the vowels are similar. So two words in related languages might be cognate to one another without the relationship being obvious to non-specialists who do not know how to analyze the sound patterns or are not used to doing so.

At the same time, more often than not, cognates develop often subtle but sometimes radical differences in meaning. Typically the meanings will involve evolution of a core meaning along markedly different paths. One may for example consider the cognate pair English person and French personne; these words are not false cognates as the derive from the same Old French word (spelled like the modern French word) but they do mean markedly different things. While understanding the actual etymologies may be interesting, for the purposes of the learner, a mnemonic pseudo-etymology (if not taken literally) will suffice. Thus, Old French personne in its positive connotation meant a person as in an arbitrary individual but in its negative connotation meant a figurative nobody; whether such a folk etymology as any historical basis or not (and I am openly claiming it probably does not) does not matter. The mental connection via a plausible but not necessarily literal etymology suffices to understand the connection of the cognate words.

The discussion of grammar/syntax and morphology is complex enough that it warrants a follow-up post (or two) but in essence Indo-European languages share a great deal of grammatical, syntactical and morphological properties so that a specialist approaching an unfamiliar Indo-European language for learning purposes needs only learn how the individual language varies from a basic Indo-European template and will then already know most or all of the grammatical features, the syntax and to some extent the morphological patterns.