Throughout its entire history the Latin language retained the same major characteristics and is on that account classified as one language. These characteristics are reflected best in the classical Latin period and are introduced in this article rather than in the Classical Latin article.
Over its 2500-3000 year history the language varied considerably in minor ways. In general, a native speaker in one historical period understood the Latin of another only with difficulty or not at all. Persons educated in Latin, however, were able through study to broaden their horizons to two or more periods, an event that always commanded the respect of their peers. Queen Elizabeth I of England and her close relatives, for example, who received the best classical education from tutors hired for the purpose from Oxford University, were respected at home and abroad for their command of Latin and ancient Greek. Elizabeth could when required slip easily from French or Spanish into Latin for the convenience of foreign dignitaries.
Pronounciation of Latin by the Romans in ancient times can be reconstructed from evidence in the modern Romance languages, transliteration to and from Greek, and the statements of ancient authors themselves.
Latin spelling seems to have been a fairly close representation of the pronunciation, but some distinctions did not show up in the spelling. In particular all vowels could be either long or short, the letter N before G, or X (and probably G before N) represented IPA /ŋ/ (like English ng in sing) and the letters I and V each functioned sometimes as a vowel and sometimes as a consonant. In modern texts, V is generally printed as U / u when a vowel and V / v when a consonant (although some editions use V for upper case and u for lower case). Less commonly, I is printed as I / i when a vowel and J / j when a consonant.
Most of the letters are pronounced the same as in English, but note the following:
- c = /k/ (never "soft c")
- g = /g/ (never "soft g")
- t = /t/ (never as in English nation)
- v (consonantal u) = /w/
- j (consonantal i) = /j/ (like English y in you)
- a = /a/ when short and /aː/ when long.
- e = /ɛ/ (as in pet) when short and /eː/ (somewhat as in English they) when long.
- i = /ɪ/ (as in pin) when short and /iː/ (as in machine) when long
- o = /ɔ/ (as in British English got) when short and /oː/ (somewhat as in holy) when long.
- u = /ʊ/ (as in put) when short and /uː/ (as in true) when long.
To write Latin, the Romans used the Latin alphabet, derived from the Old Italic alphabet, which itself was derived from the Greek alphabet. The Latin alphabet flourishes today as the writing system for the Romance, Celtic, Germanic (including English), and some Slavic (such as Polish) languages, among others.
The ancient Romans did not use punctuation; macrons (although they did use apices to distinguish between long and short vowels); the letters j, u or w; lowercase letters (although they did have a cursive script); or interword spacing (though dots were occasionally placed between words that would otherwise be difficult to distinguish). So, a sentence originally written as:
would be rendered in a modern edition as
- Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque
or with macrons
- Lūgēte, Ō Venerēs Cupīdinēsque.
and translated as
- Mourn, O Venuses and Cupids
The Roman cursive script is commonly found on the many wax tablets excavated at sites such as forts, an especially extensive set having been discovered at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Curiously enough, most of the Vindolanda tablets show spaces between words, though spaces were avoided in monumental inscriptions from that era.
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Latin is a synthetic, fusional language: affixes (often suffixes, which usually encode more than one grammatical category) are attached to fixed stems to express gender, number, and case in adjectives, nouns, and pronouns—a process called declension. Affixes are attached to fixed stems of verbs, as well, to denote person, number, tense, voice, mood, and aspect—a process called conjugation.
There are six main Latin noun cases. These play a major part in determining a noun's syntactic role in the sentence, so word order is not as important in Latin as it is in some other languages, such as English. Because of noun cases, words can often be moved around in a sentence without significantly altering its meaning, though the emphasis will have been altered. The cases, with their most important uses, are these:
- Nominative: used when the noun is the subject of the sentence or phrase, or when functioning as a predicative of the subject. The thing or person acting (e.g., The girl ran. Puella cucurrit.)
- Genitive: used when the noun is the possessor of an object (e.g., "the horse of the man", or "the man's horse"—in both of these cases, the word man would be in the genitive case when translated into Latin). Also indicates material of which something greater is made (e.g., "a group of people"; "a number of gifts"—people and gifts would be in the genitive case). Some nouns are genitive with special verbs and adjectives too. (e.g., The cup is full of wine. Poculum plenum vini est. The master of the slave had beaten him. Dominus servi eum verberaverat.)
- Dative: used when the noun is the indirect object of the sentence, with special verbs, with certain prepositions, and if used as agent, reference, or even possessor. (e.g., The merchant hands over the stola to the woman. Mercator feminae stolam tradit.)
- Accusative: used when the noun is the direct object of the sentence/phrase, with certain prepositions, or as the subject of an infinitive. The thing or person having something done to them. (e.g., The slave woman carries the wine. Ancilla vinum portat.)
- Ablative: used when the noun demonstrates separation or movement from a source, cause, agent, or instrument, or when the noun is used as the object of certain prepositions; adverbial.
- Vocative: used when the noun is used in a direct address. The vocative form of a noun is the same as the nominative except for second declension nouns ending in -us. The -us becomes an -e or if it ends in -ius (such as filius) then the ending is just -i (fili) (as distinct from the plural nominative (filii). (e.g., "Master!" shouted the slave. "Domine!" servus clamavit.)
There is also a seventh case, called the Locative case, used to indicate a location and services (corresponding to the English "in" or "at"). This is far less common than the other six cases of Latin nouns and usually applies to cities, small towns, and small islands, along with a few common nouns. In the first and second declension singular, its form coincides with the genitive (Roma becomes Romae, "in Rome"). In the plural, and in the other declensions, it coincides with the dative and ablative (Athenae becomes Athenis, "at Athens").
Latin lacks definite and indefinite articles; thus puer currit can mean either "the boy runs" or "a boy runs".
Verbs in Latin are usually identified by four main conjugations, groups of verbs with similarly inflected forms. The first conjugation is typified by active infinitive forms ending in -āre, the second by active infinitives ending in -ēre, the third by infinitives ending in -ere, and the fourth by active infinitives ending in -īre. However, there are exceptions to these rules. Further, there is a subset of the 3rd conjugation, the -iō verbs, which behave somewhat like the 4th conjugation. There are six general tenses in Latin (present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect), three grammatical moods (indicative, imperative and subjunctive, in addition to the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive and supine), three persons (first, second, and third), two numbers (singular and plural), two voices (active and passive), and a few aspects. Verbs are described by four principal parts:
- The first principal part is the first person singular, present tense, indicative mood, active voice form of the verb (or passive voice for verbs lacking an active voice).
- The second principal part is the present infinitive active (or passive for verbs lacking an active) form.
- The third principal part is the first person singular, perfect indicative active (or passive when there is no active) form.
- The fourth principal part is the supine form, or alternatively, the nominative singular, perfect passive participle form of the verb. The fourth principal part can show either one gender of the participle, or all three genders (-us for masculine, -a for feminine, and -um for neuter). It can also be the future participle when the verb cannot be made passive.