Latin vs. English: The Big Difference

Everybody thinks of Latin as hard to learn. And it is–all languages are. But what sets Latin apart for its difficulty is not the what–it’s the how.

Another way of saying this is that it’s not the vocabulary words that make Latin a challenge. (Certainly not–my goodness, we already intuitively know many of those from how they have phased into our every-day English usage!) No, it’s because of the difference in how the two languages use words to signal meaning.

Our beloved English is a word-order language. This means that we understand the meaning of a sentence by where we hear or see the words placed in that sentence. Although all the words themselves are exactly the same in the following sentences–

The man sees the dog. The dog sees the man.

–we understand that the meaning is different between the two sentences. The one in the sentence who is the one doing the seeing is different in each one. The word for the one doing the actual seeing comes first, and the word for the one that is being seen comes second. That’s how we know what’s going on here–English expresses these meanings by where words are in a sentence. And…Latin does not.

Latin is an inflected language–it expresses meaning by how the words are in a sentence, not where. We understand the meaning of a Latin sentence by noticing how the words look: which particular endings are attached to each word’s basic stem. To demonstrate:

Vir videt canem.          Videt canem vir.        Canem vir videt.

Canem videt vir.          Vir canem videt.         Videt vir canem.         

       These six iterations are all EXACTLY THE SAME SENTENCE with EXACTLY THE SAME MEANING: “The man sees the dog.”

The word forms are all the same. It does not matter which word is where, the endings tell who is doing what. To change the meaning of this sentence, and have the man (vir, above) be to one to in turn see the dog (canem, above), we have to change the form of the words.  Now the “man” will be virum and the “dog” will be canis.

Canis videt virum.           Virum canis videt.             Videt canis virum.

Videt  virum canis.       Canis virum videt.     Virum videt canis.              

Again, six arrangements that all say “The dog sees the man.”

Obviously, this is unthinkable in English. It requires a huge shift in thinking for a student to get used to the way Latin works. (It’s also hard to get used to the fact that Latin does not have any use for words like “a,”  “an,” or “the”. It takes a little while at first to make that shift too.)

What makes the mental shifts happen? Practice with translation and composition, of course. It takes a little while, and is often frustrating at first, but a slow and steady course/textbook/teacher will make it much better!

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