Ten hacks for getting better at Latin

Mike Fontaine |

Hack your Latin, part 1


 St. Jerome in His Study, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst.
        St. Jerome in His Study, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

Want to get good at Latin? Studying for the AP exam? Brushing up for Paideia’s Living Latin in Rome? Master these ten points and watch yourself soar.

1. Remember the Future Less Vivid condition? Probably you were taught to translate it “should/would.” If so, get rid of it. The kids today don’t say that. They say “were to/would.” Example: Si tu mihi cervisiam des, libens accipiam means “If you were to give me a beer, I’d gladly take it.”

2. Learn the word modo. It means “only” or “just,” so eam modo vidi means “I just saw her” and Tu modo ausculta means “You just listen” or “Just you listen” or “Just listen.” It’s common with imperatives

3. Get a grip on quidem. It’s a particle, one of the only ones in Latin. Either translate it “yes” or “(it’s) true” or don’t translate it at all. It implies or points forward to a contrast, usually marked by the word sed (but). For example, the sentence homo stultus quidem est, sed bonus means “The guy is an idiot, it’s true, but he’s good.” You could also translate that “The guy is an idiot, yes, but he’s good” or “The guy is an idiot, but he’s good.” Never translate it “indeed” since it doesn’t mean that in the English of 2016.

4. Don’t know the meaning of a Latin word? If it’s a verb, try these three tricks: (1) Find the present participle and get the genitive. You should spot an English word right before the -is. (2) Find the 4th principle part; you’ll spot an English word there, too. (3) Try different prefixes until one hits on an English word. At least one of these three will always work, esp. if you combine them. Random examples: iacere (to lie). Tricks 1 and 3 get you the word adjacent. uti (to use). Tricks 1 and 2 get you abuse. referre (lots of meanings). Trick 1 gets you referent (reference, etc.), Trick 2 gets you relate, and Trick 3 gets you zillions of words (try ’em).

5. Don’t know the meaning of a Latin word? If it’s a noun, it doesn’t matter. Just call it the same thing in English. You’ll figure it out from the context or you won’t, because you can’t. You generally can’t guess the meaning of nouns. Example: Ego tibi dabo hunc cadum = “I’ll give you this cadus.” What’s a cadus? It doesn’t matter — you got the rest of the sentence. Now move on.*

6. Don’t know the meaning of a compound verb of ferre? Just replace the -fer- or -lat- part with -port- (from portare, a synonym). Bingo, there’s an English word: Relatus becomes “report.” So does referunt: “They report.” Translata becomes “transported,” infertur becomes “it’s imported,” and on and on.

7. Learn the words verum and vero. At the start of a sentence or clause (the first word or two) they mean “but.” They have nothing to do with the truth.

8. Learn equidem. It means “I myself” or “I personally” or “I”. It’s not really a compound of ego quidem (see #3) but the Romans thought it was and treated it like one. It’s often a synonym of ipse. Random example from Plautus: Audio, ere, equidem atque animum advorto: “I hear you, master, and I’m paying attention!”

9. Did your teacher teach you to translate nam and enim “for”? If so, get rid of it. In the English of 2016 nam and enim mean “You see.” Example from Plautus: Non edepol habeo profecto, nam iam pridem vendidi, “Good lord, I really don’t have it; I sold it, you see, a long time ago.”

10. The word eo has four meanings in Latin: (1) I am going, (2) to that place, (3) by/with/in him or it, and (4) as an untranslated word anticipating the word quod, “because.” You can learn all four by memorizing the sentence cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, “I’m going there with him because I love him.”

It’s the little words — quidem, equidem, nam, verum, modo, eo — that make Latin tough. Learn the ones listed here and you will get better at Latin, fast. Guaranteed. *P.S. A cadus is a wine jug.

By the way… If you liked these first ten 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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