Introduction to Latin (2023)

Series Introduction

Winfred P. Lehmann and Jonathan Slocum

Latin is probably the easiest of the older languages for speakers of English to learn, both because of their earlier relationship and because of the long use of Latin as the language of educational, ecclesiastical, legal and political affairs in western culture. Moreover, we use the Latin alphabet, so that the language is read without difficulty. On the other hand, the sentence structure and number of forms require a great deal of attention, since the words of sentences are placed for their emphasis, rather than in accordance with a pattern like that of the English Subject-Verb-Object sentence. It is essential, then, to learn the basic inflections of nouns and verbs.

1. The Latin alphabet and pronunciation.

The Latin alphabet was taken over from the Greek through Etruscan. The order of the letters is therefore much the same as in Greek, as is also true of most of their pronunciation. The 23-letter alphabet is as follows:


English has maintained this order with a few modifications. In Latin the letter I was used both for its vocalic value and to represent the sound y as in yet. An elongated form of the letter, J, was later introduced. But this is generally pronounced today as in jam, while the letter Y represents the consonantal value of I. Similarly, the Latin letter V was used to represent both the vocalic value of U as in hue, and the sound w as in wet. A rounded form, U, was introduced to represent the vowel, and a doubled form, W, was introduced to represent the consonantal value. It might also be noted that the third letter of the alphabet was pronounced with its value in cat, rather than with its value in cent or in our pronunciation of Caesar.

The chief difference in pronunciation of these letters has to do with the vowels. The consonants are pronounced like their principal pronunciations in English. Whether long or short, the vowels are pronounced as in the languages of Europe. It might be noted, however, that when Latin was spoken in everyday use, it was pronounced in accordance with the pronunciation of the native language in the country, so that the pronunciation in Italy differed considerably from that in France or Germany, not to speak of England. But today it is pronounced as we assume it was in the Classical period of Latin, that is, at the beginning of our era. Its pronunciation is simple, if one remembers a few key words. Latin i and e are pronounced as in English cliché; Latin a is pronounced as in father; Latin o is pronounced as in so, and u as in sue. When two vowels are found in the same syllable, each has its normal value; the first syllable of Caesar was then pronounced with the a as in father and the e as in cliché, so that it was similar to our pronunciation of the pronoun I.

Unlike English, Latin has few silent letters. A line of verse may then be read with every letter pronounced, such as the first line of Vergil's Aeneid:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae qui primus ab ōris
'I sing of the arms and the man, who first [came] from the shores of Troy'

Or the first line of Caesar's Gallic Wars:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partēs trēs
'Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts'
2. The vocabulary.

English and Latin belong to the Indo-European language family; their earlier versions separated from each other over three thousand years ago. And until this century, much university instruction was carried on in Latin. Moreover, it was taught to many students from the high school years onward through college. University scholars often spoke to one another in Latin, as do members of the Vatican to this day. As a result, English shares many of the same words, especially in technical fields, although in modified form. Nonetheless it is useful to relate such words to their Latin counterparts.

Some words have undergone little change so that their roots are close to those of their Latin equivalents, if spelled somewhat differently, for example English spew, Latin spuere, English stand, Latin stāre. But most of the common words that the two languages share by inheritance are somewhat concealed, many of them because of a massive change of consonants in Germanic before the modern era. This change was described by the great German scholar Jakob Grimm and is known as Grimm's law, which is listed even in smaller dictionaries of English. At this time, p, t, k were changed to sounds that today are represented by f, th, h. Among examples are Latin pater vs. English father, Latin mater vs. English mother, and Latin cornu vs. English horn. And the sounds represented as bh, dh, gh in Indo-European were changed to the sounds that today are represented by b, d, g. These were also changed in Latin, where bh is represented by f, as in Latin frater vs. English brother; similarly, dh in Latin is also represented by f, as in Latin foris vs. English door; and gh is in Latin represented by h among other developments, as in Latin hanser, later anser vs. English goose. And d, g were changed to t, k (b was rare in Indo-European); compare Latin edere vs. English eat, Latin gelidus vs. English cold.

It is interesting to compare such cognate words, but the changes that both languages have undergone often conceal the relationships, as for the numerals for four and five. Most of the others are transparently related, in spite of the changes: Latin ūnus, one; duo, two; trēs, three; quattuor, four; quinque, five; sex, six; septem, seven; octo, eight; novem, nine; decem, ten. Since dictionaries often provide the Latin cognates of English entries, control over the Latin vocabulary can be gained by noting them.

By far the greatest number of similar words are found in technical language, where English simply took over the Latin terms as industrial, political and technological affairs became more complex, especially in the last several centuries; ecclesiastical terms were taken over as England was christianized. The words were pronounced in accordance with the English spellings, rather than with their pronunciation in Latin. Some examples from these specialties are cited here.

The industrial and technological spheres include such words as arbitrate, agent, auction, calculate, contract, junction, labor, premium, propeller, science, specimen. The political and legal sphere includes such terms as affidavit, alias, alibi, divorce, habeas corpus, injunction, subpoena. The ecclesiastical sphere includes such words as altar, confession, doctrine, infidel, repent, salvation, trinity. And other words belong to our every day vocabulary, such as animal, bonus, inertia, minimum, recipe, stimulus, vacuum. Thanks to the great number of such importations from Latin, it is relatively easy to learn its vocabulary.

3. The sentence structure of Latin.

As is clear from the earlier quotations, the sentence order of Latin may differ considerably from that of English. In an earlier form of Latin, the verb was placed last in the sentence, as in the first clause of the Aeneid. But its position in the first line of Gallic Wars is quite different. The different positions are possible because of Latin inflections. In English we generally have to place together verbal phrases like 'is divided'; we can place some adverbs between them, as in 'is often divided', but we cannot ordinarily put numerals or adjectives after the nouns they modify, as is done in partes tres. English has strict rules of placement; Latin on the other hand can move elements around for stylistic purposes, so that instead of writing omnis Gallia, the order that Caesar used is quite acceptable, as is that of partes tres.

In examining a Latin text, one should first identify the verb, whose forms are identifiable through their inflections. Similarly, the subject, if it is included in addition to the marker in the verb, should be identified. Clearly there is no such subject for canō, so that one translates it with the subject ('I') indicated by its inflection. Verb forms ending in -ō have a first person subject, in contrast with the second person canis 'you sing', canit 'he/she sings'. It is useful, therefore, to memorize the basic inflections of verbs. Similarly, the subject can be identified by its form. Gallia, like many nouns, has feminine gender, and its nominative form ends in -a.

As illustrated by these brief passages, the key to reading Latin is provided by knowledge of its inflections. While these are numerous, memorization of the basic inflections of nouns and verbs is generally adequate.

4. The forms of Latin.
4.1 Nouns, adjectives and pronouns.

These three parts of speech are inflected for five cases, besides a case of address called the vocative. The cases are as follows:

  • Nominative, the case of the subject;
  • Genitive, the case indicating possession -- possessive, in grammars of English
  • Dative, the case of the indirect object
  • Accusative, the case of the direct object -- objective, in grammars of English
  • Ablative, the case indicating separation

Case forms may also be determined by prepositions.

In English, only the nominative, genitive/possessive and accusative/objective have been maintained, and the last only in pronouns: I is nominative, my is genitive, me is accusative. Nouns simply have a nominative and a possessive, as in dog, dog's. Adjectives are not inflected.

Latin nouns are also inflected based on --

  • number, that is, singular and plural.
  • three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
  • five declensions.

Paradigms are given in the various lessons. For illustration here, forms of nouns are shown in the first declension (most of which are feminine like via 'way'), and in the second declension (many of which are masculine such as numerus 'number'), and also the forms of the pronoun ego 'I':


The vocative in the first declension is the same as the nominative; in the second declension it ends in e, so that a slave, servus, would be called by saying serve.

4.2 Verbs.

Like nouns, verbs have many inflections based on:

  • active vs. passive voice;
  • indicative vs. subjunctive mood;
  • three tenses: present, past or imperfect, and future. Of these there are two sets: the simple present set and the perfect set. The perfect forms indicate a state or completion.

The conjugations are given below. Here only a sketch is provided for understanding of the various forms and their relation to one another with first singular examples of the verb laudō 'I praise.'

Active voicePassive voice
laudāvīlaudāverimlaudātus sumlaudātus sim
Past Perfect
laudāveramlaudāvissemlaudātus eramlaudātus essem
Future Perfect
laudāverolaudātus ero

In addition there are imperative forms, infinitives, participles, a gerund, and a supine. The imperative forms are rare in written texts, and are not illustrated here.

The present infinitive active is laudāre. The present participle active is laudans. The present infinitive passive is laudārī. The perfect participle passive is laudātus.

Because four forms provide sufficient information to produce the others for a verb, dictionaries and grammars list four principal parts. These are: the first person singular present active, e.g. laudō; the first person singular perfect active, e.g. laudāvī; the perfect participle passive, e.g. laudātus; and the present infinitive active, e.g. laudāre. It is especially important to note these for verbs of the third conjugation, because these are often irregular, e.g. edō 'I eat', ēdī, ēsus, edere; faciō 'I do', fēcī, factus, facere; scribō 'I write', scripsī, scriptus, scribere. (Dictionaries and grammars may give the principal parts with the infinitive as second form; they may also give the neuter form of the perfect participle passive, e.g. factum.)

4.3 The other parts of speech.

In addition to these four parts of speech, Latin includes adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and prepositions. Since their functions are comparable to those of their English counterparts, they will not be discussed here.

5. Examples of texts.

Proverbs or passages from literary figures are often cited, also in English works. A few will be given here to illustrate the use of forms and patterns of syntax.

Caesar:Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.
'I came, I saw, I conquered.' [three perfect forms]
Ferē libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.
'Nearly always people believe willingly that which they wish.'
Cicero:Salus populī suprema est lex.
'The welfare of the people is the supreme law.'
Silent enim legēs inter arma.
'Laws indeed are silent in war.'
Horace:Ira furor brevis est.
'Anger is brief madness.'
Integer vitae, scelerisque purus.
'Blameless in life, and free of sins.'
Dulce et decorum est pro patriā morī.
'It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.'
Terence:Homo sum; humanī nil ā mē alienum putō.
'I am a man; I believe that nothing human is foreign to me.'
Nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius.
'Nothing has yet been said that has not been said earlier.'
Virgil:Equō nē crēdite, Teucrī,
Quidquid id est, timeō Danaōs et dona ferentīs.
'Do not trust in the horse, Trojans,
Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks also [when they] are bringing gifts.'
Hōs successus alit; possunt, quia posse videntur.
'Success nourishes them; they can because they think they can.'

Related Language Courses at UT

Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; however, numerous courses in Latin, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, are taught in the Department of Classics (link opens in a new browser window). Online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).

Italic Resources Elsewhere

Our Links page includes pointers to Italic resources elsewhere.

The Latin Lessons
  1. from Livy's History of Rome, Book 1, Section 1
  2. from Livy's History of Rome, Book 2, Section 10
  3. from Caesar's Gallic War, Book 6, Section 13
  4. from Caesar's Gallic War, Book 6, Sections 15-20
  5. from Caesar's Gallic War, Book 6, Sections 21-22
  6. from Tacitus' Germania, Section 16
  7. from Ennius' Annals, Sections 80-100
  8. from Augustine's Confessions, Book 1, Section 8
  9. from Einhard's On Charlemagne
  10. from Virgil's Aeneid, Section 1ff.
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