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Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 1: Principal Parts

December 3, 2014

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.

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