Six Quick Tricks to Fix Your Latin

Mike Fontaine |

Hack your Latin, part 2

 “Just what was Wackernagel’s Law again?”
“Just what was Wackernagel’s Law again?”


Mastered my first ten hacks for getting good at Latin? Ready to take it to the next level? At Paideia’s Living Latin in Rome, I realized U.S. textbooks aren’t teaching six important points. Learn them and watch the scales fall from your eyes.

1. Wackernagel’s Law. In Latin, unemphatic personal pronouns (ego, tibi, ille, eam) are the second word of a sentence or clause. That’s a rule. By definition, it tells you those pronouns aren’t emphatic — and by converse, anytime those pronouns do appear somewhere else, they are emphatic. Example from Cicero: Hunc ego hominem tam acrem, tam audacem, tam paratum…(+ 19 words later) compulissem… Why did Cicero, seemingly weirdly and randomly, stick the word ego in the midst of all these accusatives? The answer is Wackernagel’s Law, and knowing that will now help you in two ways. First, it tells you that at some point down the line, however far away — in this case, 26 words later — Cicero’s going to use a first-person verb. It’s now your signpost to look out for that verb, and to start to intuit what relationship it might bear to all the accusatives starting this sentence out. Second, it tells you there’s nothing emphatic about ego. Cicero’s not beating his chest here. It’s just normal Latin usage. By the way, the name for Wackernagel’s Law isn’t important either. It’s simply named for the guy who figured it out. But pick a page, any page, of Latin literature, poetry or prose, and you’ll see it in action over and over.

2. Get used to “dative with parts of the body.” In Latin as in English, you can say lavo meas manus, “I’m washing my hands.” Unlike English, though, in Latin you can also say lavo mihi manus and it means the same exact thing. The reason why is Latin uses “dative with parts of the body” (and so do the Romance languages). If you don’t know it, you’ll get stuck trying to explain that dative some other way. (And if you’re not sure why I made mihi the second word of that example, reread fix #1.)

3. Get ready for the “ideal second person subjunctive.” This is another one we don’t teach in U.S. textbooks, but it’s important and it’s everywhere in Latin, so learn it now. In English, we love to say “you” when we mean “one” or “a person.” Latin loves this usage too but as a rule, it puts the verb in the subjunctive — and if you don’t know this use, you’ll mistake it for something else, guaranteed. Example from Horace: naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret, “You can drive human nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll always find her way back in.” This isn’t a (bizarre) mixed conditional, with expellas representing the first part of a Future Less Vivid. Expellas is subjunctive because the “you” is generic.

4. Learn facio “I have been doing.” Everyone know facio means “I am doing” and feci means “I have done” but did you know facio also means “I have been doing”? If “I have done” and “I have been doing” sound the same to you, think about it a bit. “I have washed the dishes” and “I have been washing dishes” don’t mean the same thing, do they? What’s hard is that Latin — like the Romance languages or German, but not English — uses lavo (the present tense verb) for that second one. Once you realize this you’ll see the meaning all over, with all kinds of verbs, in Latin literature. Adverbs will help you spot it.

5. Meet videor mihi. Simple but important point. Those two words do mean “I seem to myself” but you’re better off translating them “I think I,” and looking for the infinitive floating around nearby. It’s normal and common in Latin — so common, actually, that authors sometimes even leave out the mihi. If the Little Blue Engine were in Latin, it’d have to say videor posse, videor posse… on its way up the hill.

6. Get a grip on utinam. Some people love translating this word “If only!” or “would that!”. If you’re one of them, at least consider that the English of 2016 does better to translate it “I hope” or “I wish,” as if the particle were a verb. How do you choose? It depends on the subjunctive: if it’s present, translate it “I hope.” If it’s imperfect or pluperfect, translate it “I wish.” So utinam advenias means “I hope you come!” but utinam advenisses means “I wish you’d come.”

By the way… Some Paideians this summer disliked my explanation of quidem, so let me add an example. Suetonius says Julius Caesar came into the senate house one fateful Ides of March and …spreta religione Spurinnamque [the Etruscan seer] irridens et ut falsum arguens, quod sine ulla sua noxa Idus Martiae adessent: quanquam is venisse quidem eas diceret, sed non praeterisse. When a guy named William Shakespeare read this passage, he decided to translate it:

Caesar: The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer: Aye, Caesar, but not gone.

And there you have it. That “aye” is Shakespeare’s word for quidem. We don’t say aye anymore but (as I said) “yes” or “true” or a tone of voice captures it just fine.

By the way… If you liked these six hacks, don’t miss the sequel!


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Mike Fontaine

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


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