The Present Active Indicative, Imperative, and Infinitive of Verbs

Nota Bene

The material presented in the Fetutinae accompanying each chapter consists mainly of unconnected points arising from the chapter. There is nothing here that you must know to be able to work successfully through the chapter. Indeed, especially since vocabulary and syntax often appear in the Fetutinae before you meet them in the course, you may find it best to return to browse through these files after you have advanced farther.

Grammatical terms such as “present”, “indicative” and “active” define the precise form of the verb. They will either be explained briefly when they first occur, or presumed to be comprehensible from the context, or even ignored till later chapters. For example, the significance of “present” will become clear through contrast with other tenses (see Chapter 3); of “indicative”, through contrast with “subjunctive” (see Chapter 22); of “active”, through contrast with “passive” (see Chapter 14).

The importance of verbs is reflected in the word “verb” itself, for it is derived from the Latin noun verbum, which means not only “verb” but also “word” (of any kind). Some ancient etymologising was wonderfully improbable: a verbum was thought by some to be so called because the air reverberates when we speak. (There will be a section on ancient etymologising in every chapter from Chapter 11 onward.)

Many languages use different forms to address individuals or groups, according to their status or relationship with the speaker. For example, French uses the second person plural, German the third person plural, in formal address both to individuals and to groups; Italian, the third person singular in formal address to an individual, the third person plural to a group; Spanish usage varies considerably from country to country. Moreover, in spoken French, the first person plural (e.g. nous sommes “we are”) has largely been supplanted by an impersonal third person singular (e.g. on est [literally “one is”], on being derived from the Latin homo “person”). Classical Latin, however, is as straightforward as English in this respect, having only one such idiom, the first person “plural of modesty”, used occasionally instead of the first person singular to draw emphasis away from the speaker’s own feelings and actions, i.e. rather the opposite of the “Royal”We”, as in “We are not amused”, attributed in this sense to Queen Victoria.

The first person plural, but not the second or the third, is used very commonly in Latin poetry instead of the singular, with no significant difference in nuance, but this is a poetic convention rather than a general idiom.

Had the last two paragraphs been written in the Victorian Age, it might have been worth observing that the plural “you” had now mostly supplanted the singular “thou”; i.e. forms such as “thou art”, “thou amusest” were dropping out of use. Since the plural “you” is now used for both singular and plural, the form “y’all” is used in some U.S. dialects to refer to the plural (though, rather confusingly, even this expression is sometimes directed to a single addressee). In Middle English, “ye/you” were used as a polite alternative to the singular “thou/thee”, and gradually supplanted the singular forms.

In the third person singular (amat, monet etc.), Latin is not as clear as the English equivalent: amat can mean either “he loves”, “she loves” or “it loves”. The context will usually make clear which sense is intended; if not, a pronoun “he”, “she” or “it” is added (see Chapter 17). The use of pronouns with verbs only for clarity, emphasis or contrast is not peculiar to Latin; Greek (both classical and modern), Italian and Spanish, for example, are very comparable in this respect. English, French and German, however, are not Pro(noun)-Drop(ping) languages. The advertising slogan yo quiero Taco Bell is philologically dubious: the Spanish for “I want Taco Bell” is quiero Taco Bell, and the addition of the pronoun yo (presumably to give a word-for-word correspondence with the English version) implies that, even though everyone else may detest Mexican fast food, I personally rather like it.

The term “conjugation” is derived from the Latin verb coniugo, coniugare, coniugavi, coniugatum (1) “to join together”, denoting the way in which the various forms of a verb are organized.

Verbs in –eo, other than in compounds of eo “I go” (see Chapter 4), are almost all 2nd conjugation. The only such verb in the 1st conj. is the rare confarreo, referring to marriage by an ancient ceremony involving the exchange of wheat cakes (farreum).

The distinction between in and sub with the accusative or ablative depends on whether or not motion towards is involved. Motion alone is not enough:

ambulo in casam I walk into the house

ambulo in casa I walk (about) in the house

ambulo sub arborem I walk (to) under the tree

ambulo sub arbore I walk (about) under the tree

It has been speculated that the imperative was the earliest form of the verb to evolve. This is incapable of proof, but it seems reasonable to suppose that “Watch out for saber-toothed tigers!” had a particularly strong utilitarian value.

Imperatives are found in Latin almost exclusively in the second person singular and plural of the present active tense, except for the special case of deponent verbs, which use passive forms of the present tense with an active sense; see Chapter 15. Third person imperatives and future active imperatives do exist, but they had largely dropped out of use by the classical period. When future imperative forms continued to be used, they had often become equivalent in sense to the present forms.

The third i-stem, or mixed, conjugation is essentially a subdivision of the third, with elements taken also from the fourth. The dominance of i in i-stem verbs will become apparent when we meet the future and imperfect tenses in Chapter 3. It is conventional to present this conjugation either after the third or, more commonly, as in this course, after the fourth. In antiquity, grammarians regularly conflated the third, fourth and third i-stem conjugations, in a very unhelpful manner. Since Latin grammars were styled closely on Greek models, it may be that this particular lack of coherence arose because Greek does not have an equivalent system of conjugations.

Being able to distinguish the length of the first vowel of the infinitive ending (e.g. monēre, but mittere and capere) will help to determine conjugation. Since the accent falls on the penultimate syllable if the vowel in that syllable is long, but on the antepenultimate if it is short, the distinction between monēre and infinitives of the third or third i-stem conjugations (míttere, cápere) will be all the clearer.

Latin is often commended for the elegant conciseness of its verb-system, but very many other languages also have one single form for each tense, and there are distinct advantages in the simple and effective use of auxiliary verbs (be, do, have) in English. There is some evidence for the use in everyday speech of forms such as mittens sum “I am sending”, involving the auxiliary verb “to be” (Chapter 4) and the present participle (Chapter 19), but it should not be imitated.

audire implies both active listening and passive hearing. Latin does not make the distinction between hearing and listening found in most modern European languages; cf. Sp. oir/escuchar, Fr. écouter/entendre, Ital. sentire/ascoltare, Germ. hören/zuhören.

The Spanish verb tener “to have” is derived from the Latin tenere, but tenet means “he holds”, not “he has”.

In the vocabulary lists given in almost all chapters, no attempt is made to reflect the much greater richness of English lexical choices. Occasionally, when a Latin word bears more than one distinct meaning, those meanings are given. Hence, in Chapter 1, it is noted that debere means “owe”, “ought”, “must” and “should”, and that audire means both “hear” and “listen to”. No purpose is served, however, in noting that spectare means not just “watch” but also “view”, “gaze at”, “look at”, “survey”, “observe” etc. It seems better to allow students to think of synonyms and near-synonyms for themselves rather than to enshrine a list of alternatives in a vocabulary list.

This is especially true of adjectives, a part of speech with which English is particularly well endowed. It is quite enough to know that vita sine lingua Latina tristis est means “life without the Latin language is sad”; you will work out soon enough that it is also “depressing”, “dismal”, “doleful”, “dreary”, “gloomy” and “glum”, not to say “lugubrious”, “melancholy”, “miserable”, “morose”, “unhappy”, and “wretched”.

Latin, and even Greek, are surprising deficient in adjectives denoting color. In an interesting discussion of the imprecision of Latin color terminology at Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 2.26.2, one of the speakers notes that “colors are many and various, but our names for them are vague and inadequate; our eyes distinguish more different colors than we have terms with which to describe them” (multiplex colorum facies, appellationes autem incertae et exiguae; plura sunt in sensibus oculorum quam in verbis vocibusque colorum discrimina). Aristotle considered that the rainbow contained only three colors, red, blue and green, with just a hint of orange (Meteorological Studies 3.2).

Although they almost all conform to particular linguistic principles, the numerous variations in the stem of verbs formed on the perfect stem, both active and passive, are no different from irregularities for the beginner, and must be learned as such. For example, the verbs capio, capere, cepi, captum “take” and rapio, rapere, rapui, raptum “seize” are both 3 i-stem verbs, differing only, but in an apparently arbitrary way, in the perfect active system.

The wide range of forms in Latin verbs gradually becomes interesting, rather than simply daunting: in George Orwell’s 1984, the State aimed to abolish irregular verbs. In modern English, there are almost 300 “irregular” verbs, but it points to a strong level of regularity in their origin that they are all Anglo-Saxon and monosyllabic, and refer to basic actions and states. English probably has more “irregular” verbs than any other language now spoken, while some others, such as Turkish, Finnish, Welsh, Chinese and Japanese, have almost none.

Publilius Syrus

Mime in antiquity was much like modern pantomime, with many actors speaking and singing. Conversely, pantomime was much like modern mime, with a single actor performing with gestures alone. Modern pantomime is now found particularly as a traditional form of theatrical performance for children at Christmas in Great Britain, rich in slapstick humor and often interlarded with doubles entendres to appeal to adult members of the audience. In antiquity, it ranked rather higher than mime: literary texts as intellectually challenging as Platonic dialogues were among the subjects for pantomime.

Aulus Gellius, writing in the mid-2nd century AD, quotes a group of 14 of Publilius’ sententiae, describing them as lepidae et ad communem sermonum usum commendatissimae “elegant and very well suited to everyday use in conversation”. (sermo, sermonis masc. 3 means “conversation” rather than “sermon”.)

The wisdom of sprinkling one’s conversation with Latin expressions is debatable nowadays. Certainly, we should bear in mind that Publilius’ sayings are taken out of context, and presumably did not have quite the same slightly patronizing aura in their original setting, mimes on broadly comic and often obscene subjects. The popularity of these collections inevitably led to the addition of material from other sources, and it is rarely possible to distinguish original lines from later accretions.

Publilius was not the only author to be treated this way. In the Middle Ages, Ovid’s poetry was “moralized”, so that even the Remedia Amoris came to be exploited as a school text. Quotation out of context could have quite the opposite effect: Ausonius’ Cento Nuptialis draws on some 215 lines of Vergil to concoct a more or less explicit description of sexual intercourse in 131 hexameters. (Ausonius himself calls the Cento a silly little poem of no value [frivolum et nullius pretii opusculum], but anyone who has ever tried to compose a cento on even a much more modest scale will appreciate his ingenuity.)