Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

6.3 Larger units

The ability to recognise words that relate to one another is an important part of fluent reading. It takes some time to acquire this skill, but it is useful to be aware of it as a goal at an early stage. Even spotting two or three related words represents an advance over reading word by word and can help to speed up the reading process. Here are a few word groups that have been mentioned so far:

a preposition and its nounto the lighthouse
an adjective and its noungreen onions
two nouns, one in the genitive caseMartha’s brother
a subject, a verb and a direct objectthe dog chased the cat

Let us look more closely at one example, noun−adjective pairs.

Activity 30

Find four examples of adjectives and their nouns in the passage from Gibbon.

In the second century of the Christian Era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind.


In the second century of the Christian Era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind.

Note that in the above passage the adjectives are adjacent to their nouns, the standard pattern in English. This is frequently true of Latin too, as with Catullus’ ‘charming new booklet’ (lepidum nouum libellum). But the noun−adjective pair can also be separated, and frequently is in Latin poetry. Remember the ‘dry pumice’ in Catullus, split by the word modo (‘recently’).

āridā modo pūmice expolītum?

Here are some more examples, the last of which contains two noun-adjective pairs.

magnā cum laude – ‘with great praise’

altae moenia Rōmae – ‘the walls of lofty Rome’ (Virgil, Aeneid, 1.7)

aurea purpuream subnectit fībula vestem – ’a golden brooch binds her purple cloak’ (Virgil, Aeneid, 4.139)

In Latin, as you might have suspected by now, the word endings provide you with important clues for relating words to one another. The meaning usually also provides some clue, but it is only the meaning combined with the word order that really decides the issue. In the final example, the meaning would allow a ‘golden cloak’ and a ‘purple brooch’, but the word endings establish that the brooch is golden (aurea ... fībula) and the cloak purple (purpuream ... vestem).

Key point

The study of small units like words and word endings is a central part of learning Latin.

But reading a Latin text also involves seeing how the words fit together into larger units such as phrases, clauses and indeed whole sentences. The word endings can help you spot these larger units, by allowing you to see which words relate to one another. If you can start to blend these approaches together – the small and the large – then you really will be on your way to reading Latin like a citizen of ancient Rome!


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