There are two important elements in the study of the Latin verb:
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:
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.
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:
- amat = "he/she/it loves" [depending on the context]
- Euclio amat = "Euclio loves" [not "Euclio, he loves"]
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.
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):
- present: "I love," "I do love," "I am loving"
- future: "I will love," "I will be loving"
- imperfect: "I was loving," "I used to love," "I was beginning to love," "I was attempting to love"
- perfect: "I have loved," "I loved"
- future perfect: "I will have loved"
- pluperfect: "I had loved"
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:
- progressive aspect: presents the action as on-going or in some way incomplete [a moving picture: "I am talking to you!" "I kept pulling on the handle."]
- aoristic aspect: presents the action as a bare fact or as occurring in the blink of an eye [a snapshot: "I graduated." "He blinked."]
- perfect aspect: presents an action which was completed at some point in the past but is viewed from the standpoint of the present, often with the sense of some enduring result ["I have read the book (and can now answer your question)." "I have decided what is to be done."]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
[Note: the term "conjugation" indicates a "yoking together" of the verb stem with the personal endings.]
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:
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