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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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2.1 Parallel text 1: Pliny

Here is a short extract from Pliny in English and Latin, together with notes on individual words and phrases. Spend a couple of minutes familiarising yourself with it and seeing how much, if any, you can understand. Then attempt the questions that follow with the aid of the translation and the dictionary entries provided in Table 3.

Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16.1.

In this extract, Pliny begins his response to a request from the historian Tacitus for information about the death of his uncle after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.


You ask that I describe to you the death of my uncle, so that you can transmit it more truthfully to future generations.


petis ut tibi auunculī meī exitum scrībam, quō uērius trādere posterīs possis.

A note on long vowels

Long vowels in Latin have been marked with a horizontal line above the letter, called a ‘macron’ (from the Greek word for ‘long’). Thus the ‘i’ in scrībam is pronounced like the vowels in the English word ‘meet’ rather than ‘sit’.

A macron is an aid to pronunciation. In some situations, an understanding of pronunciation can help you understand the full meaning of a Latin word. The ‘Introducing Latin [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ site contains more information on the pronunciation of Latin.

Table 3 Dictionary entries for parallel text 1: Pliny
LatinEnglishDictionary entry
petisyou askpetō – ‘I seek, ask’
utthatut – with requests, meaning ‘that’
tibito youtu – ‘you’ (singular)
auunculīof (my) uncleauunculus – ‘uncle’
meīmymeus – ‘my’
exitumdeathexitus – literally ‘departure’, here meaning ‘death’
scribamI describescrībō – ‘I write’
quōso thatquō – ‘so that’ (literally, ‘by which’)
uēriusmore truthfullyuērus – ‘true’
trāderetransmittrādō – ‘hand over’, ‘transmit’
posterīsto future generationsposterī – literally ‘those who come later’, i.e. ‘future generations’
possisyou canpossum – ‘I can’

Activity 4

Jot down the Latin equivalent for the following:

  1. You ask
  2. the death of my uncle
  3. transmit
  4. to future generations
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EnglishLatin equivalent
You askpetis
the death of my uncleauunculī meī exitum
to future generationsposterīs

Activity 5

What do you notice about the ratio of Latin words to English in this passage?


The English translation uses almost twice as many words as Latin (23 English words to Latin’s 12). Most Latin words in this extract are represented by at least two English ones.

Of course a different English version might have deployed fewer words (or perhaps more). The chosen example is not, however, especially wordy or untypical. It would certainly be impossible to produce anything like a literal English translation in just 12 words.