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Latin Grammar

Latin is an ancient language that is not in widespread use in any modern population. However, it was used for a long time (and in some cases is still used) as a language of literature, academia, law, medicine, and official documentation, especially within the Roman Catholic Church. Because of this, many people may come across this language often but not know how it works and how to translate it. This section of the Latin tutorial will provide information on the grammar of the Latin language, with a focus on translating parish records written in Latin.

Latin Inflections

Latin is a highly inflected language. This means that its words change based on how they are used in the sentence. In comparison, English is a language with very few inflections. However, it does have some examples that can help illustrate the concept.

For example, the English pronoun he/she/it. This word has many inflections and changes based on how it is used:

She, He, It, They, Her, Him, Them, Her, His, Its, Their.

As you can see, the word changes based on gender (feminine, masculine, or neutral), number (singular or plural), and its function in the sentence (subject, object, possessive, etc.)

In Latin the nouns, adjectives, and verbs are all inflected. Most Latin words are inflected by changing the ending of the word while keeping the stem (the beginning of the word) the same.

For example: filiae, filiam, filiarum are all inflections of the Latin word filia (“daughter”). The stem stays the same, but the ending changes.

Some irregular verb inflections in Latin change the whole word, but this is not very common. The most used irregular verb is the Latin verb “to be.” Some of its different forms are sum (“I am”), est (“he/she/it is”), fuit (“he/she/it was”), and fuerunt (“they were”).

You can learn more about the inflections for Latin nouns, adjectives, and verbs on the Latin Nouns, Latin Verbs, and Latin Adjectives pages.

Latin Syntax

Syntax is the structure of a sentence. For example, simple English syntax usually includes the subject at the beginning of the sentence, then the verb, and at last the direct object of the verb.

Example: I translated the documents.

“I” – the subject is at the beginning

“translated” – the verb is next

“documents” – the direct object of the verb is at the end

Because Latin is a highly inflected language, the words of Latin sentences show how they are used by their form, instead of just by their position in the sentence. Because of this, Latin syntax may be rearranged.

Here are some examples of Latin sentences with varied syntax and their translations:

Ego baptizavi Jacobum. (“I baptized Jacobus.”)

Ego (“I”) – the subject is at the beginning

baptizavi (“baptized”) – the verb is next

Jacobum (“Jacobus”) – the direct object of the verb is at the end

Fuerunt in matrimonium coniuncti Generius et Maria. (“Were joined in marriage Generius and Maria.”)

Fuerunt…coniuncti (“Were joined”) – the verb is at the beginning

in matrimonium (“in marriage”) – a prepositional phrase is in the middle of the two words that form the verb.

Generius et Maria (“Generius and Maria”) – the subjects are at the end

There is no direct object in this sentence.

Active and Passive Voice

The first example above is written in the active voice. The last example is written in the passive voice. Whether a sentence is written in the passive or active voice also changes its syntax. Sentences in the active voice include a subject, active verb, and direct object. Sentences in the passive voice include and subject and a passive verb, with no direct object. They also often include a prepositional phrase a/ab ____ (“by ____”), indicating whom the action was done by.

Active Voice Example:

Ego baptizavi Mariam. (“I baptized Maria.”)

Ego (“I”) – the subject is at the beginning

baptizavi (“baptized”) – the verb is next

Mariam (“Maria”) – the direct object of the verb is at the end

Passive Voice Example:

Maria baptizata fuit a me. (“Maria was baptized by me.”)

Maria – the subject is first

baptizata fuit (“was baptized”) – the verb is next

a me (“by me”) – a prepositional phrase is at the end.

There is no direct object in this sentence.

You can learn more about the active and passive voice on the Latin Verbs page.

Additional Descriptive Phrases

The basic structure of the sentence consists of a subject and a verb, as well as a direct object if it is in the active voice. But these basic elements are often padded with prepositional phrases and additional clauses. In Latin records, the most common phrases outside of the basic structure of the sentence express time, place, and other descriptive elements.

For example, here is a more complex version of a sentence listed above:

Maria filia Jacobi die 6 huius nata est et baptizata fuit a me Joanne Baptista Avenio rectore Sanctae Margaritae Jatii.

(Maria, daughter of Jacobus, was born on day 6 of this [month] and was baptized by me, Joannes Baptista Avenius, rector of Saint Margarita of Jatius.)

Maria – subject

filia Jacobi (“daughter of Jacobus”) – appositive phrase; an additional noun phrase to describe Maria

die 6 huius (“on day 6 of this [month]”) – prepositional phrase expressing time

Nata est et baptizata fuit (“was born and was baptized”) – two verbs

a me (“by me”) – prepositional phrase; expresses the agent, or the person doing an action

Joanne Baptista Avenio (“Joannes Baptista Avenius”) – appositive; additional noun to describe me

rectore (“rector”) – appositive; another noun describing me

Sanctae Margaritae Jatii (“of Saint Margarita of Jatius”) – phrase expressing location/affiliation

Not included in this example are adjectives. These descriptive words usually appear near the noun they modify. They can either appear before or after the noun: legitima filia or filia legitima, both translated into English as “legitimate daughter.” You can learn more about adjectives on the Latin Adjectives page.

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