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Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 3: Tenses

December 6, 2014

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.

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3 Comments
  1. thanks for linking to my post! It reminded me of one of the first verses I learned in Latin: i will create a post about it. I tried to include a jpg in my comment, but WP wouldn’t have it 🙂

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  1. Grammar/syntax as a template | Language learning for reading
  2. Using patterns: Latin verbs: Part 4: Person and number | Language learning for reading

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