A Little Latin, Just in Case

Lately I’ve been posting about the mimetic aspect of narrative and world building. There’s a lot more to say about different aspects of world building—landscapes, social structures, the time and place of the events of a story, characterization, and so on. I will definitely get back to all this, but I thought I would take a break and write a few essays on other philological topics. I begin with a fascinating view of sentence construction called case grammar. I will start by looking at the cases in Latin, and in a later post I will add the cases systems of some other languages, including English, and then I will eventually move on to the proposal that there is a universal system of cases in what is called deep structure.

But first the cases in Latin. If you took Latin at some point, or another inflected language, you learned about cases, but a refresher may be helpful, and the whole idea may be new to those who never took Latin.

The first thing a Latin student learns is the forms of (some) nouns and the forms of (some) verbs. I will leave verb forms for a later post; noun forms are enough for now. In Latin there are five noun forms called cases—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative—in both singular and plural; I’m leaving off the vocative, the case of “hey, you!”, because it doesn’t do much. A noun takes different case forms depending on its function in a sentence. As a first approximation we can say that the subject of a verb is in the nominative case, and the direct object of a verb is in the accusative. The genitive is used for possession, and the dative is used for the indirect object. The ablative is complicated, but often it is used (perhaps with a preposition) to indicate some kind of separation. But this is just a first approximation of the case functions. I will return to these case functions later.

Latin nouns also fall into different categories, called declensions, which have different forms for the cases. Here are the forms of a typical noun of the first declension, “puella”, which means “girl”:

                        singular          plural
nom                puella             puellae
gen                  puellae          puellarum
dat                  puellae          puellis
acc                  puellam         puellas
abl                   puella             puellis            

And here are the forms of a (mostly) typical noun of the second declension, “puer”, meaning “boy”:

                        singular          plural
nom               puer                pueri
gen                 puero              pueris
dat                  puero              pueris
acc                 puerum          pueros
abl                  puero              pueris

And here are the forms of a typical neuter noun of the second declension, “donum”, meaning “gift”:

                        singular          plural
nom                donum           dona
gen                  doni                donorum
dat                  dono               donis
acc                   donum           dona
abl                   donis              donis

Latin has five declensions, but these forms from the first and second declensions should be enough. All nouns (with a very few exceptions) belong to one of the five declensions and have all five case forms. Names also decline, so every Latin name has five case forms, depending on how it’s used in the sentence. So if Marcus is the subject of the sentence, his name will take the form “Marcus”, but if he’s the direct object, it will take the form “Marcum”, and so on. Some names borrowed from other languages, however, don’t decline; Greek names often appear in their Greek forms; in the Latin Bible some Hebrew names, such as Moses, take different forms (“Moyses” in the nominative, “Moysen” in the accusative, and so on), and others, such as “David”, are the same no matter what.

Adjectives in Latin also have case, and the case of an adjective has to be the same as the case of the noun it’s attached to. In addition, it has to match up with the gender and number of the noun. This match-up of an adjective with its noun is called agreement, and we say that a Latin adjective has to agree with its noun in gender, number, and case. Thus the adjective “bonus”, which means “good”, has forms for three genders, two numbers, and five cases, for a total of thirty forms. In the nominative singular the forms are “bonus, bona, bonum”, or for short, “bonus, -a, -um”. (The great jazz bassist Charles Mingus put out an album back in the 1960s with the title “Mingus, a, um”, as if his name was a Latin adjective.) So “good boy” would be “bonus puer”, “good boys” would be “boni pueri”, “good girl” would be “bona puella”, and “good girls” would be “bonae puellae”, all in the nominative; in the accusative, they would be “bonum puerum”, “bonos pueros”, “bonae puellae”, and “bonas puellas”; and so on.

If you’ve studied French, you will be familiar with the idea that an adjective has to agree with its noun in gender and number, but there are no cases in French, so that makes life a little easier. In English, nouns show number, singular or plural, but adjectives don’t change their forms to agree with their nouns in any way—so we say “good boys” rather than “goods boys”. In German, however, adjectives do agree with their nouns in person, number, and case. Every language has its own system.

Now let’s look at a few Latin sentences from the Latin Bible. The grammar of Biblical Latin is usually not too complex, and a lot of the vocabulary is familiar from English derivatives.

Here’s the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram”. The word “in” is a preposition which conveniently means “in”. The word “principio” is a noun, meaning “beginning” (it’s related to “primus”, meaning “first”), and it’s in the ablative case because it follows the preposition “in”; different prepositions, or different uses of a preposition, require different cases. The next word, “creavit”, is the verb, in the perfect tense, and it means “created”; you can see that the English verb “to create” is derived from the Latin. The subject comes next, “Deus”, which means “God”; it’s a nominative case of the second declension. Now we have the two direct objects, both in the accusative case; “caelum” (second declension) means “heaven” (compare our word “celestial”) and “terram” (first declension) means “earth”. “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” Notice that the subject doesn’t have to come before the verb, as it would in English. We know that “Deus” is the subject because it’s in the nominative case, and we know that “caelum” and “terram” are the objects because they are in the accusative case. Also notice that Latin doesn’t have any words corresponding to the English articles “the” or “a/an”; it would be perfectly possible to translate this “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or even “In the beginning God created a heaven and an earth.” The translator has to decide which article to use, if any.

Here’s the next sentence: “Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae erant super faciem abyssi, et Spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas”. We’ve already seen the first word in the accusative case, but here it’s in the nominative, so it has to be the subject of the sentence. The second word is an adverb which means “however”. The third word, “erat”, is the past tense of the verb “to be”. The word “inanis” is an adjective in the nominative case (from the third declension, which I haven’t mentioned yet), modifying the subject; it means “empty” or “void”, and it’s the source of our word “inane”—an inane comment is void of meaning. The word “et” is just the conjunction “and”. “Vacua” is another adjective in the nominative, modifying the subject, and it’s another word meaning “empty” (as in English “vacuum”). So this clause means something like, “The earth, however, was empty and void”.

The new clause begins with the conjunction “et”; “tenebrae” is in the nominative plural; the singular form “tenebra” rarely occurs—by way of comparison, some English words occur always or almost always in the plural—“scissors” or “pants” come to mind. The plural form “tenebrae” is usually translated by the singular English “darkness”. The verb “erant” is plural to match the plural subject “tenebrae”, but if we translate “tenebrae” as the singular “darkness”, we would translate the verb as a singular, “was” rather than “were”. “Super” is a preposition meaning “above”; its object is “faciem”, meaning “face”, in the accusative case following “super”, and “abyssi” is a genitive—genitives are sort of like the English possessive case, though often they can be translated with the preposition “of”, so “faciem abyssi” could be “the face of the abyss”. The word “abyssus” is not a native Latin word, it’s borrowed from Greek. The tip-off is the letter “y”, which is not a regular part of the Latin alphabet; whenever it’s used it has a kind of exotic flavour. So this clause could be translated “and darkness was above the face of the abyss”.

Then the conjunction “et” introduces a third clause. “Spiritus”, “spirit” or “breath”, is in the nominative, so it’s the subject of its clause; “Dei” is genitive “God’s” or “of God”; “ferebatur” is a verb, past tense in the passive voice, meaning “was carried”; we have already seen “super”, “above”; and “aquas”, in the accusative plural as object of “super”, means “waters”, as in English “aquatic”. So this clause means something like, “and the spirit [or breath] of God was carried above the waters”. We can argue for hours about what “spirit” actually means in Latin or in English or in the original Hebrew (about which I know nothing).

I grew up with the King James version of the Bible, which translates these two verses this way: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

The point of this exercise (aside from the pleasure of reading a little Latin) was the cases. The words were in various cases, depending on their function in the sentences. These sentences didn’t happen to include any datives, but there were nouns in the nominative (Deus, terra, Tenebrae, Spiritus); in the genitive (Dei, abyssi); in the accusative (caelum, terram, faciem, aquas); and in the ablative (principio). The nominatives were all subjects; the genitives were possessives; the accusatives were either direct objects or the object of a preposition; and the ablative was the object of a preposition. You can see that the cases convey a lot of information—if you see a nominative, it’s going to be the subject; if you see a genitive, it’s most likely going to be some kind of possessive, and so on. In English, or in other languages with small case systems, this information is conveyed in other ways, such as word order. But in later posts we will see that even English has a wider case system which doesn’t happen to show up as surface case forms.

A footnote for those interested in the technical aspects of rhetoric: In the Latin (and in the King James translation), the last word of the first sentence (“terram”) is at the beginning of the second sentence (“terra”). This figure is called anadiplosis. (In the Latin there is also a change of cases, from the accusative to the nominative; this figure is called polyptoton, but this change won’t show up in the English.) I think we can more than name the figure. In some theories of syntax, a sentence can be divided into a topic, what the sentence is talking about, and a comment, what it says about whatever it’s talking about. You could say that the topic of the first sentence is “God” and the comment is “created heaven and earth”. In the second sentence the topic is “The earth” and the comment is “was without form and void”. So the comment of the first sentence has become the topic of the second sentence. In Latin the change of function is indicated by the change in case: a topic is likely to be in the nominative and (with exceptions) a comment is likely to be in some other case. Chains of comment-to-topic are very common, and they are a good way to provide an easy flow from one sentence to the next. Sometimes you will find the same kind of connection from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next—we can call this paragraph anadiplosis. There are also somewhat more complicated structures—for example, in a series of paragraphs each with a topic sentence, the topic sentences may form a chain. The traditional rhetorical term anadiplosis just talks about the repetition without noting this function of the figure.

5 thoughts on “A Little Latin, Just in Case

  1. *LOVED* this. So many connections!! Having not learned Latin, but having some German, this made a great deal of sense. But what was even more eye-popping was the connection to Greek. Not that I understand Greek or that I can read it but, rather, the similarities of the word ‘endings’ and forms in full sentences—what I have called the ‘poetic’ aspect of the language—suddenly make a great deal more sense.

    On the vocative: reading what you wrote, I immediately thought of interpolation in the Althusserian sense, a haling (rather than the usual ‘hailing’) of the target of the shout, “Hey, YOU!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a future post I will give some noun forms and verb forms from Sanskrit. They will blow your mind.

      And a great comment on the vocative—thanks for that.


      1. Of course, spell-check hip-checked me into the stands. That should have read “Althuserrian interpellation” (which is what I typed last night but the iPhone thought it knew better).

        Of course, the “Hey, YOU!” could be read as an interpolation, as well, depending on what it interrupted.

        Looking forward to the nouns!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this, Matthew!

    You wrote, “ So the comment of the first sentence has become the topic of the second sentence. Hence, the lower tetrachord of a major scale becomes the upper tetra chord of the scale with an added flat. The upper tetrachord of a major scale becomes the lower tetrachord of a major scale with an added sharp. I got it, right???😀

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic comment!!! Can we ride this horse a little further? The subject of a fugue will be stated in the tonic, and the answer will be in either the subdominant or the dominant, depending—that’s the relationship you note of the tetrachords. So any given note in the subject—all of the notes in the subject—are reinterpreted in the answer. In general, the meaning or function of an element depends on the context. The note C in the subject will have a different meaning when it occurs in the answer. And so on. I think this principle can be applied in other situations, as well. Thanks so much for this great comment.


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