In That Case…


Last night I was coaching my daughter on some of her Latin translation homework. She and her sister, as well as Tina’s daughter, are studying Wheelock’s Latin. Consider this Latin sentence,

Fortuna viros magnos amat.

With a smattering of Latin vocabulary, you might be able to recognize,

Fortune men great love.

But does this make any sense?

If you’ve ever tried your hand at translating Latin into English, you know that identifying the tense of verbs and the case of nouns is essential. The challenge comes because in English we don’t use inflection of words to show their case (except for pronouns), we use word order. Latin relies on inflection. Parsing the words, which is the process of identifying their case or tense, gender, and number, we discover that our sentence would translate,

Fortune loves great men.

We know it isn’t, “Great fortune loves men,” or, “Great men love fortune,” because the word endings tell us.

I think that The Mother Tongue is a great complement to the study of a foreign language. Students learn to identify in English the cases of substantives, and use terms like nominative, genitive, and objective to parse them. Parsing words is a regular exercise in studying Latin and learning to do the same skill in English helps train students to quickly see the function of a word.

I’ve heard many people say that they didn’t truly learn English grammar until they studied Latin. This may be because the act of translating Latin engages students in parsing words and in sentence analysis. Breaking down a sentence into parts is a critical skill in translation, and the process often helps us understand grammar better.

Which word is the subject? Is there an object? An adjective? Exercises in The Mother Tongue train students in parsing words and in analyzing sentences. From chapter 72, “Additional Review Exercises”:

Identify the nominatives. Parse them by telling the nominative class to which it belongs (subject, predicate nominative, vocative, exclamatory, or appositive), the gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), and number (singular or plural).

12. Every visitor who arrived after nightfall was challenged from a loophole or from a barricaded window.

If that task seems overwhelming, remember that it comes in chapter 72 and the text prepares students well for the assignment! In the sentence above, the only nominative to identify is visitor. Other nouns, such as nightfall or loophole or window, are objects of the preposition and therefore in the objective case. Visitor is the subject, it is masculine or feminine, and it is singular.

When my daughter was stuck on a particularly frustrating Latin sentence last night, we went back to the basics: parse each word and then rearrange them into English to reflect its case or tense or function. Knowing how to do this in her mother tongue makes it that much easier to do in Latin.

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