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Latin 112/113: The Latin Verb


There are two important elements in the study of the Latin verb:

  1. function — the different types of information conveyed by specific forms of the verb

  2. morphology — how the different forms of the verb are constructed
 

Function

The verb in Latin does a great deal more work than in English. Thus, for example, Latin does not as a rule use many helping words: the form of the verb itself conveys information that in English is conveyed via the addition, e.g., of pronouns or of words such as "will," "might," "could," "was," etc. (As we will find, Latin also has a habit of using strong verbs with weak objects — or with the object implied by the verb — whereas today's popular English often favors weak verbs with emphatic objects.)

The most basic distinction to master in studying the Latin verb is that between the finite forms and the infinitive.

[The term "finite" means "defined," "bounded," "limited," and is derived from the Latin finis ("boundary"). The "in-finitive," by contrast, is the "unbounded" or "undefined" form.]

The "unbounded" or infinitive form (which our book deals with in a later unit) presents the action of the verb as an abstract concept: "to love," "to dream," "to die." (As you can see, in English the infinitive is indicated by the use of the word "to.") Technically speaking, this form of the verb provides no reference to a particular time, nor does it indicate anything about whether one person is to be imagined as undertaking the action or many, whether the act is to be imagined as actually occurring or merely possible, etc.; it merely points to the act in the abstract. (As a result, the infinitive is, properly speaking, a verbal noun.)

The "defined" or finite form of the verb, by contrast, conveys very specific information about a particular act (or acts). It is the finite form of the verb that we will be studying first.

The finite form of the verb typically conveys five separate items of information, which can be divided into the following categories:

  1. person — whether the action is presented as being undertaken by the speaker him/herself, perhaps in company with others (1st person: Engl. "I," "we"), by a person or group who is being addressed directly (2nd person: Engl. "you"), or by a person or group whom the speaker is not addressing directly (3rd person: Engl. "he," "she," "it," "they")

  2. number — whether a single individual is presented as engaging in the activity (the singular), or a group of people (the plural) [the difference, e.g., between "I" and "we," or between "she" and "they"]

  3. tense/aspect — when the action is thought of as having occurred (in the present, the future, or the past) and just how the action is imagined as occurring (e.g., is it simply stated as having occurred ["I ran"] or as something that was on-going ["I was running"])

  4. mood — whether the action is stated as a fact (the indicative mood), as a command (the imperative mood), or as something that might happen, that the speaker wishes could happen, that the speaker urges or pleads with another to do, or that is in some way contingent upon something else (the subjunctive mood)

  5. voice — whether the action is performed actively by the subject (the active voice), is done to the subject (the passive voice), or is somehow performed by the subject in his/her own interest or upon him/herself (the middle voice)

It will be important that you develop the habit of recognizing these five elements of the various finite verbs that you translate: this process (i.e., the identification of a particular form's person, number, tense, mood, and voice) is known as parsing.


Person

There is relatively little to say about this element of the verb. Notice, however, that Latin does not generally make use of pronouns. I.e., the Latin for "I live/dwell" is habito; for "he/she loves" is amat.

In the third person, in particular, this means that the reader has to supply a subject ("he," "she," "it," "they") from the particular context if one is not expressly stated; if a subject is stated, it is automatically plugged in as the subject of the verb. Thus:


Number

Again, there is relatively little to say about this element of the verb. Notice that Greek, however, also has a separate dual form, for when two paired items are presented as the subject of the verb.

Tense/Aspect

Tense

The Latin tenses are very like those in English, with some added wrinkles. We will deal with each tense in greater detail as it is formally introduced, but the following forms of the English verb "I love" reflect common uses (via their English equivalents):

Aspect

One difficulty with the tenses in Latin is that they also incorporate another element: aspect. The aspect of a verb concerns just how the action is regarded as occurring. There are three aspects in Latin:
The difficulty with all of this is that the two systems (and their terminology) overlap: rather than having a separate form of each verb to indicate every possible combination of tense and aspect, Latin offers a rather confusing and incomplete mixture of the two. Thus, if you examine the translations presented under "tense" above, you will find that the present and future tenses can be translated in either the aoristic or progressive aspect, while the perfect tense can be translated in either the perfect or aoristic aspect. (On the other hand, the imperfect tense is consistently progressive in aspect, while the future perfect and pluperfect tenses are consistently perfect in aspect.) In general, you should keep in mind that the term "tense" is usually employed as a form of shorthand for this mixture of tense + aspect.

Mood

The indicative mood operates in the realm of fact: it is the form used when the speaker wishes to indicate that something is or is not the case. (He/she might in fact be wrong, or even be lying, but, so far as the grammar of the sentence is concerned, he/she is asserting the truth of the statement. In the case of questions, he/she is asking whether something is in fact the case.) As you can imagine, the indicative is by far the most common of the moods.

The imperative mood operates in the realm of will: it is the form used when the speaker wishes to compel someone else to do something. ("Brush your teeth!" "Eat your vegetables!")

The subjunctive mood is more difficult to pin down, but generally speaking it is the mood of possibility, contingency, or wish. It is employed when the speaker wishes to indicate that something might happen, or could happen if something else were to occur; it is also used in wishes and exhortations.


Voice

So far as morphology is concerned (i.e., the form which verbs can take), Latin has only two voices: active and passive.

In the active form, the subject performs the action indicated by the verb, while in the passive form the subject is the passive recipient of the action (the difference between "I love" and "I am loved").

As we will discover, however, a number of Latin verbs employ passive verbal forms in what is essentially an active sense. In some instances, these forms might be taken to imply that the subject is performing the action in his/her own interest, or (in what is called a reflexive sense) upon him/herself — functions that in Greek are performed by a distinct "middle voice" form of the verb.



Morphology

Having seen something of how the Latin verb functions, it is time to consider how it is formed.

So far as morphology is concerned, there are two types of verbs in Latin: thematic (or "regular") forms, and athematic (or "irregular") forms.

Thematic Forms

There are five types (or conjugations) of regular/thematic verbs.

For each finite verbal form, a particular verbal stem has a personal ending attached to it. The stem indicates the tense/aspect and mood, while the ending indicates the person, number, and voice.

The personal endings for active verbs (all conjugations) are:

Singular Plural
1st Person -o -mus
2nd Person -s -tis
3rd Person -t -nt

Forming the present tense of the indicative mood of active thematic verbs is merely a matter of attaching these personal endings to the present indicative tense stem.

The present tense stem, in turn, consists of a combination of a root + theme vowel. For the indicative mood of the First Conjugation, this theme vowel is an -a-; for the Second Conjugation, this theme vowel is an -e-.

Thus, producing the various active forms of the present indicative of the first conjugation verb amo is merely a matter of attaching the relevant personal endings to the stem am-a-. For the second conjugation verb habeo, one uses the stem hab-e-. The result:


Singular Plural
1st Person am-[a]-o am-a-mus
2nd Person am-a-s am-a-tis
3rd Person am-a-t am-a-nt

Singular Plural
1st Person hab-e-o hab-e-mus
2nd Person hab-e-s hab-e-tis
3rd Person hab-e-t hab-e-nt

[Note: the term "conjugation" indicates a "yoking together" of the verb stem with the personal endings.]



Athematic Forms

The athematic or irregular verbs generally omit the use of a theme vowel and frequently vary their stems.

Thus the stems for the present indicative of the verb sum ("to be") are su- and es-. The personal endings are attached directly to these stems:


Singular Plural
1st Person su-[o]m* su-mus
2nd Person e[s]-s es-tis
3rd Person es-t su-nt

*irregular ending



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