Latin Beginner’s Question: Cases & Word Order

Someone in our newly-commenced session of Latin I just e-mailed me a great question! I thought I would put the answer up on the blog for other curious beginners:

Q:  What is meant by “case”? (And why doesn’t it matter which way words are arranged in a Latin sentence?)

A:  Greeks and Romans way back when decided to look at their languages and see what they did, and how they worked. We get “grammar” from these efforts of theirs. One thing they noticed was the different jobs that words do in sentences. Let’s look at the English sentence: Mary saw Marcus. Seeing was going on. Someone was seeing somebody. Somebody was being seen. First of all, who is the one who was seeing?
     You know it’s Mary who was seeing, because, in English, we put that word first in order in our sentence. Mary was doing the seeing, and she is known therefore as the Subject of that sentence. To make a new sentence, where Marcus is the Subject, the one who was seeing, in English we just put him first now: Marcus saw Mary. Everything is spelled the same as the first time, the difference is that the words are just in different places. And, that’s how English works! In our language, we get signals of these jobs that our words do (being the Subject, etc.) by WHERE they are in the sentence. Again, “Mary” and “Marcus” have their names spelled the same way no matter which job in the English sentence they are doing, so the names are exactly the same in both sentences. But…that is not how Latin works.
     Latin is an “inflected” language. It’s TOTALLY different from English! In Latin sentences, we don’t look for who is written first to know who is the one doing the seeing in our sentence. Instead, we look at the spelling (ending) of each word, to find the spelling which indicates the word that is the Subject.  The proper spelling for the Subject is called the “Nominative case.” In our sentence, the one who was being seen by the Subject is called the Object of the verb/sentence, and in Latin there is also a special spelling (ending) to show which word is doing the job of the Object in a sentence. That spelling (ending) is called the “Objective case.”   
    So if Mary is the Subject,

  • in English we see: Mary saw Marcus.
  • in Latin we see: Maria vidit Marcum.

     And if Marcus instead is the Subject,

  • in English we see: Marcus saw Mary.
  • in Latin we have: Marcus vidit Mariam.

See how the spelling of the Latin words changed? That spelling tells us what we need to know about who is doing what. So, given that fact, Latin can have these correct word forms placed in any order in our sentence, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s the spelling/endings that matter to tell us the job of each word. 
    Yes, it takes some getting used to! I remember when finally after Lesson 3 in high school my mind finally made the shift to understand this difference. (“Whoa!” was all I could think for a while…) So that’s what I mean when I tell students that Latin requires us to think differently. It’s certainly doable-but you have to make your mental gears switch as you begin your studies!

(Want to learn more? See the following link for more on some of the jobs Latin nouns do. And some info on the various things that verb endings show is there at that link. Comment or contact me with questions!)

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