Getting started on classical Latin
Getting started on classical Latin

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Getting started on classical Latin

4.2.5 Verbs

Verbs are the most important words of all, as is suggested by the fact that the verb in both English and Latin is named after the Latin word verbum, word! Without a verb, a sentence cannot be a proper sentence, or a clause a proper clause. A one-word sentence consists of a verb only, for example, ‘Run!’

Verb endings

The ending of a Latin verb shows who is carrying out the action of the verb (which is why there is usually no need for a pronoun to show this). Table 5 below shows the present tense person endings of almost every Latin verb.

Table 5 Person endings of Latin verbs (present tense)

1sto (= I)mus (= we)
2nds (= you)tis (= you)
3rdt (= he/she/it)nt (= they)

The part of the verb to which the person ending is added is called the stem. Thus, the stem ama plus the person ending – t produces amat, ‘he/she/it loves’. Alternatively, ama plus ­ nt produces amant, meaning ‘they love.’

Activity 6

Identify the person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular or plural) of the following English verbs. Type your answers in the box below.

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Exampleperson and number
He loves3rd singular
They capture3rd plural
She carries3rd singular
You desire2nd singular or plural (depending on whether ‘you’ refers to one person or more than one people)
I fear1st singular
We see1st plural
They are3rd plural
I carry1st singular

The tense of verbs

As well as indicating an action, and who is carrying it out, a verb usually tells us when the action happens: I’m eating, for example, tells us of something happening at the present moment, whereas I ate indicates something that happened in the past. This kind of difference is known as the ‘tense’ of the verb. In English, this is often indicated by using another verb to help out the meaning, for example I will eat . This extra verb is sometimes referred to as an ‘auxiliary verb’, from the Latin word auxilium, meaning ‘help’. In Latin, on the other hand, a change of person ending, and sometimes a change of stem, indicates a change in the tense.

The main tenses in Latin are given in Table 6 below.

Table 6 The main tenses in Latin

TenseLatinEnglish translations
PresentportoI carry (simple present) I am carrying (present continuous) I do carry (emphatic)
FutureportaboI shall/will carry I am going to carry
ImperfectportabamI was carrying (continuous action in the past) I used to carry (repeated action) I carried (repeated action)
PerfectportaviI have carried (present perfect) I carried (past simple: a completed action)
PluperfectportaveramI had carried (further back in the past than the perfect)
Future perfectportaveroI will/shall have carried

You will note that ‘I carried’ is a possible English translation of both the imperfect and the perfect.

Latin would use the imperfect (portabam), from Latin imperfectum, ‘incomplete’, when the action was continuing or repeated: e.g. ‘I carried my books to school every day’.

Latin would use the perfect (portavi), from Latin perfectum, ‘complete’, for a one-off action: e.g. ‘I carried my books to school on Tuesday’.

Latin has only the above six tenses. As you can see from the translations provided, there are not as many different ways of describing actions in Latin as there are in English!

Activity 7

Identify the Latin tense – present, imperfect, perfect or pluperfect – that would be used to translate the following English verbs. Then identify the person and number of each (e.g. first person singular; third person plural). Type your answers in the box provided.

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ExamplePerson and tense
You speakpresent tense, 2nd person
They have arrivedperfect tense, 3rd person plural
We used to knowimperfect tense, 1st person plural
We wentperfect tense or imperfect tense (depending whether it is a completed or repeated action), 1st person plural
You are flyingpresent tense, 2nd person
I was tryingimperfect tense, 1st person singular
He had jumpedpluperfect tense, 3rd person singular
She fellperfect tense (depending whether it is a completed or repeated action), 3rd person singular

Activity 8

The following extract from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the New Testament contains several verbs. Identify each of the verbs and say which tense would be used to translate them into Latin (present, future, imperfect, perfect or pluperfect). Type your answers in the box provided.

‘And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country... no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you …’

(Luke 15: 14–18)
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had spentpluperfect tense
aroseperfect tense
beganperfect tense
[‘to be’ is also a form of verb: an ‘infinitive’]
wentperfect tense
joinedperfect tense
gaveimperfect tense (since the action was habitual: he kept not being given anything)
cameperfect tense
saidperfect tense
havepresent tense
[‘to spare’ is also a form of verb: an ‘infinitive’]
perishpresent tense
will arisefuture tense
(will) gofuture tense
will sayfuture tense
have sinnedperfect tense

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