The Perfect Active Indicative System of Verbs

Students often relate Latin tenses, particularly the perfect, to the nearest equivalents in modern languages with which they are already familiar, but it is better not to do so, since the terms used in this course are universal in the teaching of Latin grammar and the correspondence with tenses in other languages is often inexact and sometimes misleading.

The future perfect is best learned now, when the perfect system first appears. As in English, it is rarely used in main clauses, but it is considerably more common in various types of subordinate clause in Latin than it is in English.

This greater frequency is partly attributable to Latin’s greater use of subordination in many styles of prose writing. An extreme example is the Senatus Consultum de Gnaeo Pisone Patre “The Senatorial Decree about the elder Gnaeus Piso” (a judgment condemning a former friend of the emperor Tiberius, first published in 1996): although it extends to 176 lines and contains approximately 2,040 words, there are only six main verbs. In the 2,003 words in the Fetutinae to Chapter 1, there are 102 main verbs.

Ancient grammarians, rather oddly, did not acknowledge the existence of the future perfect, perhaps because of its similarity to the perfect subjunctive (see Chapter 22) and its relative infrequency in Greek (Latin grammars being influenced so strongly by Greek models).

Although the perfect infinitive active is to be learned here, and the perfect infinitive passive in Chapter 14, they will not be used much or at all until indirect statement is discussed in Chapter 21. It might seem that the perfect infinitive would be used in such sentences as “I ought to have given the money to my owner”; unlike English, however, Latin expresses the idea of past time only in the finite verb: pecuniam domino dare debui.

Note that -erint is the only ending in either the future perfect or the pluperfect which differs from the forms learned in Chapter 4 for the future and imperfect of esse: amaverunt is a perfect, not a future perfect form. The e in the perfect ending -erunt is long, in contrast to the short e in the future perfect and pluperfect endings -erint and -erant, as also in the word erunt “they will be”.

The term “pluperfect” is derived from plus quam perfectum, “more than completed”, i.e. occurring earlier than some other past event.

Since the imperative mood focusses on the present and future, it is not surprising that there are no imperatives in the perfect system. memento, mementote, the imperative forms of the defective verb memini, meminisse “remember” (see Chapter 18), found only in the perfect active system, are uniquely exceptional.

Defective verbs occur in English also; e.g. “can”, “may”, “must”, “ought”, “will”. novi “I have come to know” = “I know” is distantly related to the English verb “can”, which has what was originally a past tense serving as a present tense: “I have come to know how to ...” = “I know how to ...” = “I can”. Similarly, the Greek verb οδα (oida), meaning “I know”, is a perfect tense of the obsolete verb εδω (eido, cognate with video), meaning “I see”; i.e. “I have seen” = “I know”.

English uses the continuous perfect (sc. “have been -ing”) to express an action or state begun in the past and continuing in the present. Latin, like many other languages, uses the present tense in such sentences. For example:

Proto-IndoEuropean had distinct tenses to denote the simple past (e.g. “they died”) and the perfect (e.g. “they have died”). This distinction, although absent from classical Latin, was maintained in other related languages, notably in classical Greek, with its aorist and perfect tenses, and is still found in the majority of IndoEuropean languages. The double function of the Latin perfect can be seen in the perfect form of some verbs: whereas most Latin perfects were originally aoristic (i.e. the simple past), some form their perfect by a modified reduplication of the stem, as is normal in the Greek perfect; e.g. dedi, steti, cecidi, cecīdi, didici, perdidi [i.e. per + dedi]. Compare, for example, λύω (luo “I release”) has the aorist form λυσα (elusa “I released”) and the perfect form λέλυκα (leluka “I have released”), παύω (pauo “I stop”) has the the aorist form παυσα (epausa “I stopped”) and the perfect form πέπαυκα (pepauka “I have stopped”).

By contrast to such reduplication, the -s- or -x- at the end of the perfect stem of so many verbs corresponds to the -σ- (sigma) or -ξ- (xi) at the end of the Greek aorist stem.

Such a reduplication appears on the notorious Praeneste brooch, purportedly dating from the 7th century B.C., and therefore the earliest written evidence for Latin: MANIOS MED FHEFHAKED NUMASIOI (= MANIUS ME FECIT NUMERIO “Manius made me for Numerius”). Unfortunately, the brooch, or at least the inscription, has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be a 19th century forgery, produced by an Italian archaeologist cynically and unscrupulously eager for quick promotion.

Forms such as portatum habeo “I have carried”, constructed with the verb “have” and the perfect participle passive (see Chapter 19), found mostly in subliterary usage in the classical period, were developed in the Romance languages; hence e.g. ho portato and j’ai porté alongside portai and je portai (from portavi) in Italian and French respectively.

Perfect forms such as fūgit and fūgimus, lēgit and lēgimus are clearly distinguishable from their present equivalents, fugit and fugimus, legit and legimus, because of the difference in the length of the vowel in the stem, and vēnit is similarly distinct from venit, and vēnimus [perfect] is doubly distinct from venīmus [present]. There is a comparable distinction between the present and past tenses of “we read” when spoken, but not when written.

Latin does not, however, always make such distinctions. Hence bibit and bibimus are, respectively, the third person singular and the first person plural both in the present and in the perfect tense, i.e. “he drinks” and “he drank/has drunk”. Context will usually make clear which tense is intended. Many other verbs also lack a distinction between tenses in these two forms; e.g. defendit/defendimus (Chapter 14), accendit/accendimus and vertit/vertimus (Chapter 19), ait and inquit (Chapter 7); pluit (Chapter 28). The verbs cado, cadere, cecidi 3 “fall” (Chapter 7) and curro, currere, cucurri, cursum 3 “run” (Chapter 19) have distinct present and perfect forms: cadit, cadimus/cecidit, cecidimus and currit, currimus/cucurrit, cucurrimus. When they are compounded, however, these verbs generally drop the reduplicating prefix in their perfect forms: e.g. decidi rather than dececidi, recurri rather than recucurri. Morphological ambiguity was thought preferable to difficulty of pronunciation; hence, e.g. accidit, concidit, decidit, decurrimus, incurrimus, recurrimus are used without distinction as both present and perfect forms.