Hack Your Latin, Part 3: The Victory Lap

Mike Fontaine |

The Third Part of Professor Fontaine’s Popular Series on Mastering Latin


                       Thomas Wyck (1616–1677), “The Scholar in his Study” (from Wikimedia Commons).
Thomas Wyck (1616–1677), “The Scholar in his Study” (from Wikimedia Commons).

Mastered my first ten hacks for Latin and my six quick tricks and still running strong? Here comes level three.

1. Learn the Latin words for “yes” and “no.” They’re ita (yes), minime (no), and immo (“No, no no!” or “Actually, …”). You use the last word to contradict someone. There are alternatives and true, in vulgar and medieval Latin people obviously went around saying sic et non or hoc ille est (= French oui). But ita, minime, and immo are the classical words. They’re the ones preferred by people speaking Latin today.

2. In Latin, a second person singular future verb can be a polite imperative. In English it isn’t polite to say “You will eat your dinner,” but in Latin it is or it can be. Cicero’s letter to his friend Paetus (NSFW) ends tu me diliges et valebis, and he doesn’t mean “you’ll do that or else!” He’s being nice about it.

3. Start translating solere as “usually, normally, typically.” We all learned this one as “I’m accustomed to” doing something, but in the English of 2016 you’re better off making it an adverb. Example from Plautus: clarior quam solis radii esse olim quom sudumst solent, “Brighter than the sun’s rays usually are when it’s hot out.”

4. Learn the difference between séquere and sequére. Latin is full of ambiguities; the sooner you master a word’s accent, the sooner you’ll start ignoring irrelevant ones automatically. Séquere (imperative or present indicative) is different from sequére (future). Similarly, víderis (perfect subjunctive or future perfect) is different from vidéris (you seem). It’s a difference you can hear — and the more you actively guess at the accent as you read, the sooner you’ll start being right.

5. Realize that regi, duci, and legi can be two things. Those three words are either dative singular of rex, dux, and lex or the passive infinitives of regere, ducere, and legere. Only context will tell you which is which.

6. Learn qui meaning “how” or “why.” Pop quiz: How do you say “Who?” in Latin?* If you’re right, then you know that quī as the first word of a question sentence has to be something else. What is it? It means “How?” or “Why?,” and it’s way more common than you think.

7. The opposite of qui is quin. Quin as the first word of a question sentence means “why not?” or “why don’t?” (or in central New York, where I live, “whyncha?”). There’s another use of quin in Latin, so be sure to tell them apart. This one is the first word of a sentence and it takes either the second person indicative or imperative.

8. You know -ne but do you know an? You learned that -ne indicates a question but did you know that an at the beginning of a sentence has exactly the same meaning? It’s like the upside question mark in Spanish, and you don’t translate it. It’s just telling you the sentence is a question. (Don’t try translating it “Or” at the start of a sentence because that’s bad English.)

9. Distinguish eho from eheu. Eheu is o no! or oy veh! or alas! It’s a cry of grief. Eho is way more fun. It’s an interjection you use to get someone’s attention, especially when you want to ask, order, or fuss at him, or you think he’s full of it. Your translation will vary. Examples from Plautus: (1) (calling a slave) eho Messenio, accede huc!, “Heya, Messenio, c’mere!” (2) G. Quin loquere quid vis? T. Eho manedum,G. Why don’t you say what you want? T. Whoa, whoa, hold on a second there.” (If you aren’t sure about that quin, reread #7.)

10. Learn the meaning of tandem in questions. Elsewhere it means “finally, at last” but in questions it indicates impatience. In the English of 2016, it’s best conveyed with an exasperated tone of voice or a combination of question marks and exclamation points. Example from Cicero: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?, “How long will you keep abusing our patience, Catiline?!?” (Pop quiz #2: Is that word here pronounced abútere or abutére?**)

By the way… A reader of Six Quick Tricks wrote to ask where he could find out more about Wackernagel’s law. I’d try: Adams, J. N. 1994. “Wackernagel’s Law and the position of unstressed personal pronouns in Classical Latin.” Transactions of the Philological Society 92(2): 103–178.

PS: Quiz answers! *The Latin word for “Who…?” is quis, with a short i. It’s masculine and feminine. **It’s abutére. If you aren’t sure why, reread #4.


Sign up to receive email updates about new articles

Mike Fontaine

Cornell University professor of classics; former LLiR professor; author of Funny Words in Plautine Comedy; Advisory Board member


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.