Bossy Latin: Free Printable

(Latina pro Parvulis–Latin for Kids, pt. II)

I like to get students working to read real Latin as soon as possible. Thanks to an ancient book called the Disticha Catonis, this is really possible after only a few Latin concepts have been introduced. Here’s a project I’ve done with a roomful of 40 fifth-graders, and we had fun!

It’s a little printable, foldable book students can make and then translate from: the 14 (XIV) one-liners (Monosticha) in the book are taken from a much longer work called Disticha Catonis, or The Distichs of Cato. A man called Dionysius Cato wrote this book for his son in the 3rd or 4th century AD, to advise him on how to live rightly and do well. Later on, it was used for centuries as a textbook to teach boys Latin (and character). Benjamin Franklin loved it, and paid for a printing with his own money to make it popular with Americans.

Folding Instructions

How to fold this thing up? This explanation (at the very bottom of the page: “An 8-sided zine from 1 sheet with 1 cut”) shows how to fold one sheet of paper into a eight-page mini book–no staples required! Fold it in half both ways and the long halves in half again, until you have eight equal sections. Then after you cut partially at the middle fold, you fold it together inwards and–voila!–a tiny book with a front and back cover and six inner pages.  (This all does make sense once you can see it–here is a link showing someone folding up one of these mini-books in seven steps.)


(What Students Should Know First)

Students are ready for this activity when they understand 1) Verbs are actions words, 2) Nouns are words for persons/places/things/ideas, 3) Adjectives describe the nouns, 4) the Subject and Object of a sentence, and 5) that Subjects and Objects in Latin have different endings to show which is which.

Bossy Latin: Introducing Imperatives

To introduce this lesson and activity (folding up this booklet and translating Real Latin!), I ask for a show of hands. One by one I call for the first-borns, youngests, middles, and onlies to identify themselves, then we spend a few minutes commiserating with all about the various trials and tribulations of placement in birth order. That’s when I tell kids that I myself am a first-born, with three after me, so growing up I had plenty of time to practice telling my siblings what to do. Over and over and over again. Then I say, “If only English had special endings for being bossy like Latin does, I would have loved bossing everyone around using these special verb endings!” With today’s lesson we will see some verb endings in bossy mode, a.k.a. “imperative mood.”

After introducing the project like this, pass out the printable, it’s just an 8 1/2″ x 11″ page with print on one side. Students will fold up the little books as you show them how to do it, and then you can work with them on the grammar and translation part. They will be interested to hear about what this book is, so be sure to let them know that the person who wrote this book was using bossy forms of verbs to tell his son what to do. Why? He wanted his son to have a good life, and so he told him what to do to have a good life.

Look at the book you’ve just folded up. The cover has a Roman man, and I imagine Dionysius Cato would have looked like him. The title of the little book is “Monosticha Catonis (XIV)” or “Monostichs of Cato (14)”. Now flip to the back cover. Here are all the verbs inside, the very bossy verbs we’ve been discussing. Read through this list a couple of times and get acquainted–look to see if any of the Latin words are like the English words. When you have gone over these bossy verbs a couple of times you can open up the book and begin translating. Here are the other word lists you will need:

Noun list
--something borrowed
(pro) Patria
--(for) the Fatherland
--a die
--a gift
--a good reputation

Adjective list
blandus--pleasant, mild, gentle
--clean, pure
maledicus--slanderous, evil-speaking

* "ne" is used for "do not" *

(Verb list on booklet's back cover)

After working through these sentences together, translating into English, ask students what they think about the advice Cato gave his son. Do they think it is good advice? Would following it lead to a happy life? Benjamin Franklin certainly thought so…and many others have, too.

I think you and your students will have fun with this one. After all, teaching Latin is the most fun you can have, short of diving into a pile of history books with unlimited reading time! In closing, allow me one final bossy verb here:

Utiminiy’all enjoy using this!


(Images in this booklet were found on the recently-defunct OpenClipArt site where they were presented as public-domain offerings)

P.S. (Super-Nerdy Detailed Technical Grammar Stuff)

Moods. Like me, the imperative mood is the bossy one of a set of four. Besides this directive big sister, there’s also a doer (indicative mood), a daydreamer (subjunctive mood), and a conceptualizer (infinitive mood). Grammatically, moods are the way certain sets of verb endings are categorized to “express the manner in which the action [of the verb] is conceived” (Allen & Greenough’s New Latin Grammar). In other words, Latin has a collection of endings that are used 1) when giving orders and commands (imperative)–Eat!, 2) when talking about real actions in the real world (indicative)–We eat., 3) when talking about actions just imagined or wished for–We should eat…, 4) when talking about action abstractly (infinitive)–“To eat“. Depending on its conjugation, you can find the proper set of endings to use to put a verb into the imperative mood.

Imperative singular/plural. We only saw the use of the singular imperative endings for the verbs in our lesson. Each of them has another ending for bossing people around in the plural. Our translation exercises were sentences from a father giving commands to his one son: “Familiam cura. Parentes ama.” Had Cato been giving these orders to multiple children, they would have read differently: “Familiam curate. Parentes amate.” &c, &c. In any good textbook students will be exposed to both kinds of endings, and learn how to transform the singular imperative to the plural (thankfully one of the easier things to learn in Latin grammar!).

Negative commands. In this activity/lesson, students saw an example of negative command: “Do not __ !” Using “ne” with an imperative was a very old-fashioned way of telling people what not to do; as time went on, Latin writers such as St. Jerome, in his translation of the Vulgate Bible, used other ways to write negative commands. (E.g., St. John 20:17–“Noli me tangere” or “Do not touch me”, which uses “noli” rather than “ne,” and infinitive mood endings rather than imperative mood endings.)

Well thank you for reading all this. Et nunc–


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