Via Brevis

John O’Gorman

This aims at being the short route to learning to read Latin for enjoyment. It attempts to pick out the minimum you need to know in order to get the drift of Latin writing. To write Latin, you need to know a lot more than outlined here.
Latin was mainly a spoken language. Vergil’s Aeneid was recited to audiences who understood it as it was recited. Ignore advice to “Look for the subject, then the verb, then the object” which will limit you to decoding rather than understanding. Only as a last resort when you cannot understand the sentence as written should you start hunting for subject, then verb, then object.
Read Latin aloud to yourself first - to get the rhythm and any poetic quality. Then reread the sentences while trying to identify the meanings of word endings as you read each word in order. If you have ever listened to the UN simultaneous translaters rendering Russian into English, you will get the idea - “waiting for the verb” - blah blah - “waiting for the verb”.
To read any language, you need to know the vocabulary. With Latin this is easy because nearly all key words have cognates in English. There are a few false friends but not many. The hardest words are the short connectives: e.g.: sed, enim, ut, nam, etc. Get a good vocabulary book and learn them.

1 Declensions

Nouns and adjectives have so-called case endings which distinguish the grammatical function of words in a sentence. The tables of different endings are called declensions. Traditionally Latin teachers taught their pupils to learn them off by heart in order. e.g. dominus, domine, dominum, domini, domino, domino. The idea was that, on reading say domino, you would rattle down the list until you encountered the match. This method of learning is a conspicuous failure. To enjoy reading the language you need instant comprehension of the -o ending.
The 3 important cases to learn are the subject, the object, and the with forms (or nominative, accusative, ablative as they are labeled in traditional grammars). The ablative should really have been labeled instrumental.
Traditional Latin grammars define 5 declensions numbered 1 to 5 (or I to V). This is not very useful. Instead think of them as vowel based: -a, -o, -e or i or φ, u, and finally e. The vowel is the last part of the stem.
-a -o -e,-i,φ -u -\=e
puella servus civis spiritus dies

1.1 Remarks

Some phonetic evolution in Latin:
  1. Intervocalic -s- (s between vowels) becomes r. e.g. bodies: corposa -> corpora
  2. -\uos becomes -us. e.g. corpos -> corpus, servos -> servus. But note that is for short vowels only. obj plural serv\=os remains serv\=os
  3. -im weakens to -em (except for adverbs e.g. interim, verbatim).
  4. -ai -> -ae and oi -> -i. servois -> serv\=is, servoi -> serv\=i, puellai -> puellae

2 Cases

Traditional Latin grammars identify the following cases with names like genitive, dative, etc. Again these labels are not useful. Instead use the following:
singular plural
nominative subject -s -i or -\=vs
accusative object -m long vowel -s
genitive of -i | -s -rum | -um
dative for -i
ablative with -\=v or - \ue is | bus
singular -a -o -e,-i,-zero -u -e
subj -s - os->us -s -s -s
obj -m -m om->um -(e)m -m -m
with long vowel -a -o -e -u -e
for -i ai->ae -i -i -i
of -i or -s ai->ae or->i -is -s -i
plural    -a -o -e,-i,-zero -u -e
subj -i or -\=vs -ai -> -ae -oi -> -i -\=es -\=us -\=es
obj -\=vs -\=as -\=os -\=es -\=us -\=es
with -\=is or -bus -is -is -(i)bus -bus -bus
of -rum arum orum -(i)um -um rum
singular -a -o -e,-i,zero -u -e
subj puella servus civis spiritus dies
obj -m puellam servum civem spiritum diem
with \=v puell\=a serv\=o civ\ue spirit\=u di\=e
for -i puellae civi spiritui diei
of -i or -s puellae servi civis spiritus diei
plural    -a -o -e,-i,φ -u -e
subj -i or \=vs puellae servi civ\=es spirit\=us di\=es
obj \=vs puell\=as serv\=os civ\=es spirit\=us di\=es
with -is or -bus puell\=is serv\=is civibus spiritibus diebus
of -rum or -um puellarum servorum civium spirituum dierum

3 Adjectives

Adjectives have the same pattern as nouns but have fewer forms, just -a (feminine), -o (masculine), e,i,φ (either). Adjectives must match the nouns they go with in gender and case. e.g. bonus poeta, bonum poetam, etc. The -a types are used with feminine nouns, the -o types with masculine or neuter nouns, and the -e,-i,-φ types for all three genders.

4 Word order

Word order is not arbitrary in Latin. In general the most important elements of a sentence are placed first and most importantly last.
The expected order is: subject object .... verb. Any variation from this order places emphasis on the displaced word.
For example
miles hostem gladio necavit. The soldier killed his enemy with a sword
gladio miles hostem necavit. It was a sword that the soldier used to kill his enemy
miles gladio necavit hostem. It was his enemy that the soldier killed with a sword
hostem gladio necavit miles. It was the soldier who killed the enemy with a sword.

5 Pronunciation

Latin is pronounced mostly as it is written. But be aware that
Despite what the books say, by the time Rome had established provinces in Iberia and Gallia (modern Portugal, Spain, and France) these were the norm. All the Romance languages soften the c and g before front vowels as do English borrowings from Latin. e.g. Zaragossa is the Spanish for CaesarAugustus.
The reason for the change is physiological. Front vowels drag the point of articulation toward the teeth.
The evolution of, for example, ci, was ki -> kyi -> tyi -> tj- or tsi. Similarly gi became gyi, dyi, dji.

6 Prefixes

Latin was a highly successful language lasting more than 2000 years and surviving through great leaps forward in science, engineering and the arts partly because of its ability to create new words by prefixing root words. e.g. servare and conservare (keep and keep together). It pays to learn the prefixes. They are used very consistently (in contrast to Greek say):
Prefix Meaning Example
a(b(s))- away aberrat = wanders away
ad- near adventus=coming near
circum- around circumstant=stand around
com- together conflatus=blown together
de- down deflatus=blown down
dis- apart dissectus=cut apart
e(x)- out efflatus=blown out
in- in(to) or not injectus=thrown in, insanus=not healthy
ob- against objectus=thrown against
prae- or pre- in front, before praedictus=said before
pro- forward projectus=thrown forward
re- back rejectus=thrown back
sub- up sufflatus=blown up,
trans- across transportat=carries across
Note that closed syllables often alliterate. e.g.
Note that sub- means up, not under. (Submarine is not a Latin word!). As a preposition, sub does mean below e.g. sub rosa=below the rose. Why the difference? Think of the prefix as implying movement from under (hence: up).

7 Verbs

Traditional grammars tabulate verbs into
making 864 separate endings to learn! Don’t bother.
Get by with the following:
Pretty simple eh? But there are three flies in the ointment: perfect aspect, subjunctive mood, and future. You can’t avoid the perfect; Caesar threw his bridges across the Rhine using the perfect aspect quid vide.

7.1 Perfect Aspect

The Perfect aspect originally meant completed e.g. aedificavit (has built). There had also been a simple past tense (called preterite) . The distinction was lost early in Latin’s development and aedificavit now serves ambiguously as either has built or built. To make matters worse, there is no reliable systematic pattern for the stem of the verb. Mostly a -u- or -v- is inserted before the ending, but many verbs use an -s- (from the extinct preterite form) instead, and others change the vowel. Examples:
When reading, assume the simple past meaning (rexit=he ruled) rather than the perfect (he has ruled) unless the context implies otherwise. The confusion caused by all of the above resulted in Latin adopting the periphrastic construction habet aedificatum to mean has built. This is form now used by all the Romance languages. You will see it occasionally in classical Latin.

7.2 Subjunctive

Subjunctive literally means joined-up and was used for subordinate clauses e.g. mihi dixit qui esset dives = He told me who was the rich one. Expect a subjunctive whenever you see a clause introduced by ut, qui, quod, ubi, cum, etc. If a subjunctive occurs anywhere else assume it means may (present) or might (past) (traditionally expressing wish, command, doubt, or denial).
Recognise the following as subjunctive:
The present subjunctive is conjugated as follows:

7.3 Persons

For the record, the complete set of person endings is (Note the perfect aspect has different endings).
Person Ending Passive Command Perfect
1: I -o or -m -or -i
2: You -s -ris remove the -s -isti
3: He -t -tur -t
1:We -mus -mur -imus
2:You -tis -mini -te -istis
3:They -nt -ntur -erunt

7.4 Future

The simple future tense has 2 forms:
In common speech a new periphrastic construction of -re (infinitive) followed by the appropriate form for habere=have. e.g. amare habet = he will love (cf French aimera) was used for the future tense. You may see this in later Latin texts.

7.5 Exceptions

All languages have irregular verbs (verbs which do not conform to normal patterns). They survive usually because they are very frequently used. Words such as be, go, have, etc.
You need to learn the verbs esse = to be and ire=to go in all their guises.
Means Present Future Imperfect Perfect Subjunctive
esse be est, sunt ero, erunt erat, erant fuit, fuerunt sim, sint
ire go it, eunt ibit, ibunt iebat, iebant i(v)it, i(v)erunt eat, eant
ferre bear fert, ferunt fer ferrebat, ferrebant tulit, tulerunt ferat, ferant

7.6 Participles

Verb stems have endings which mean -ing. They can be adjectives or nouns (gerunds).
Participles are sparse (not all tenses and voices have them). For example there is
Tense Ending Meaning Example
present -ens, -entem, -ente, etc ...-ing luna fulgente,= with the moon shining,
-endus, -endum, -endo, etc needing to be ...ex haec legenda=these things needing to be read
future -tur- about to ... morituri Caesarem salutant= about to die they salute Caesar
past -tus, -tum, -to, etc having been...ed his dictis=with these things having been said

7.7 Verbal Nouns

Gerunds are -ing nouns and are neuter. They have the form -endum, -endum, -endo. You cannot distinguish them from gerundives which are ing adjectives except by context. The infinitive form is also a verbal noun.
Verbal Noun Meaning Example
legendum reading legendo discunt=with reading they learn
laborare to work laborare est orare= to work is to pray