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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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2.4 Word endings

You might have noticed already that some Latin words used in the passages of Pliny and Catullus differ slightly from their dictionary entries. This is a sure sign that changes in the form of words play a role in the Latin language. Look, for instance, at the word for ‘uncle’. Compare the word as it appears in the text (auunculī) with its dictionary entry (auunculus) in Table 5. They differ by one letter at the end, which makes a crucial difference to the meaning of the word.

Table 5 Dictionary entry for ‘uncle’
LatinEnglishDictionary entry
auunculīof (my) uncleauunculus – ‘uncle’

Activity 8

How many words in the extract from Pliny’s letter differ from their dictionary entry? [You may find it helpful here and elsewhere to open the Latin text in a separate tab or window by right-clicking the link.]

a. 

Fewer than half


b. 

More than half


The correct answer is b.

Answer

More than half of the words are used by Pliny in a different form from their dictionary entry. They are listed below.

Dictionary entries
LatinEnglishDictionary entry
petisyou askpetō – ‘I seek, ask’
tibito youtu – ‘you’ (singular)
auunculīof (my) uncleauunculus – ‘uncle’
meīmymeus – ‘my’
exitumdeathexitus – literally ‘departure’, here meaning ‘death’
scrībamI describescrībō – ‘I write’
uēriusmore truthfullyuērus – ‘true’
trāderetransmittrādō – ‘hand over’, ‘transmit’
posterīsto future generationsposterī – literally ‘those who come later’, i.e. ‘future generations’
possisyou canpossum – ‘I can’

Your results could differ from these if you have used your own dictionary. Some dictionaries will contain entries for certain forms like tibi, although this would refer back to the entry for tu.

Now try the same activity with the English translation.

Activity 9

How many words in the English translation would appear in a dictionary with a different word ending?

a. 

Fewer than half.


b. 

More than half.


The correct answer is a.

Answer

Very few and, certainly, less than half. The precise number may differ depending on the dictionary you use. ‘Generations’ will appear under ‘generation’; ‘truthfully’ might appear under ‘truthful’.

Activity 10

What problem would arise with a dictionary containing an entry for the word ‘generations’?

Discussion

A dictionary containing ‘generations’ would need to include every plural noun, such as ‘cats’, ‘dogs’, ‘bicycles’, and so on.

When learning English, it would be a pointless to learn all the forms of nouns that have plurals ending with ‘-s’. Instead, it is more sensible to learn a rule: that regular English nouns in the plural follow a pattern of adding ‘-s’ (or ‘-es’ if the noun ends in -ch, -sh, -s, -x or -z). There are exceptions like ‘mouse / mice’ and ‘goose / geese’ which must be learned individually and may well have their own entries in an English dictionary. But the majority follow a pattern that English speakers need to learn.