Latin for Dummies

by - 4:12 PM

Today I went to my final Latin class. For six years I've studied a language that no one speaks, a language that is annoyingly complex and freakishly weird (what language needs seven different verbs that all mean 'to kill'?! Or a word for elegant feet?!).
I am going to miss those classes. I've always liked Latin, saw it as a puzzle I had to solve. There were times when I was less than amused by a certain poem I had to translate.  But when I look back on the last six years, Latin was definitely my favorite subject. I'm also quite good at it. When most people hear that, they ask me stuff like: 'How do you say 'I want to be a flying pig when I grow up' in Latin?'. I always give them the same answer: 'No idea.'

Some actual information
The focus of my Latin classes was on translating, speaking Latin was never part of the curriculum. Why? Because it's way to hard. Romans like to throw all their words into a blender, blend them, take a quick look to see if their sentence-smoothies are confusing enough already and when they are, blend them some more just to make sure. No worries though, they've got a complex system of cases to make sense of their nonsense: the subject is in the nominativus, the genitivus is used for property and ownership stuff (excuse my lack of Englishness today), the indirect object is in the dativus and the object in the accusativus. Everything else is in the ablativus. To make it more confusing: every noun has another way of changing when it's in another case and prepositions and verbs can have influence on the case, but not always.
What's more? Oh right, almost forgot about that: Romans hate subjects, so they presume you know who or what is the subject when you see the end of the finite verb. So amas means 'you love', but amat means 'he loves'. And then, because the Romans have fifty thousend different tenses in present, past and future, verbs can change even more. So amavit means 'he loved', but then amabit means 'he will love'. Good thing the Romans didn't have computers; a typo would have been a downright disaster.

And you're still asking me if I can speak Latin? Okay, okay, I speak a little Latin. Four sentences to be exact. And they aren't exactly helpful either...

'Habeo famem'
Habeo: to have, first person, present tense, 'I have' 
Famem: accusativus of the word fames, meaining 'hunger'
In correct English: I am hungry

If you ever find yourself in the streets of Ancient Rome, hungry after a really good gladiator fight but without a clue of where to get yourself some food, you could tell people you're hungry by saying 'habeo famem'.
Warning: though there were some nice lads who called themselves emperors and handed out bread to the hungry and the poor, there were also some assholes who got to be emperors. Be careful when you say 'habeo famem'; it might get you some food, it might get you killed by annoyed emperors and no matter who the actual emperor is at that moment, there's always a chance of getting killed by other Romans who just don't like your hungry ass.

'Mortuusne es?'
Mortuus: 'dead'
Ne: shows us we're dealing with a question, otherwise totally useless
Es: to be, second person, present tense, 'you are'
In correct English: Are you dead?

Apparently, this is what they ask the pope when the poor guy dies in his sleep, chokes on his food, gets attacked by the stubborn pigeons of Rome or whatever. If the pope dies, someone, probably a cardinal (I wasn't paying attention when this was told), picks him up or shakes the old guy a little or dangles him from one of the balconies of the Vatican and asks: 'Mortuusne es?'
If the pope responds, he's obviously not dead. If the pope doesn't respond, he is dead and the people of the Vatican can be proud of themselves for asking a dead person in Latin if he was dead.

'Jupiter in templo sedet'
Jupiter: Roman version of Zeus
in templo: in the temple (yeah, sometimes it's as easy as that)
sedet: to sit, thrid person, present tense, 'sits'
In correct English: Jupiter sits in the temple.

The most useless sentence I've ever learned is also the one I'll never forget. It was the first sentence I ever translated. Jupiter sits in the temple. Good for Jupiter. Now can we get on to the more interesting things? Nope, first we have to translate five more sentences telling me that Jupiter sits next to Juno and he has a scepter... Halfway through my first Latin class, I was bored to death with Jupiter. Six years later, I still am.

'Cucurbitam describe!'
Cucurbitam: accusativus of cucurbita, meaning 'pumpkin'
Describe: imperative of describere, meaning 'to draw'
In correct English: Draw a pumpkin!

The silliest sentence I translated must be this one. Draw a pumpkin!
There's a story behind it, though. Once upon a time in Ancient Rome, there was an emperor who had his head up his ass and thought he was the greatest architect of all times. He forgot about the truly great architect Apollodorus, who had been the most important architect in Roman Europe when Trajanus was emperor. So the empreror, Hadrian (yes, the guy from the wall), showed Apollodorus his blueprints, which weren't actual blueprints back then, but as I said, my English isn't at it's best today.
Apollodorus took a look and wasn't impressed. Not at all. Apollodorus was insulted by the arrogance of Hadrian and said to the emperor: 'You know nothing about architecture! Cucurbitam describe! Draw a pumpkin!'
BURN! Nah, not really, because Hadrian felt threatened by Apollodorus and had him killed. And then they lived happily ever after. Except Apollodorus of course.

Can you curse in Latin, Envy?
No. Just no. I can command people to draw a pumpkin. I can tell them I'm hungry. I can ask them if they're dead. I can even tell you in which temple Jupiter likes to sit on his ass and argues with his wife and be proud of his scepter (that sounded wrong, but I didn't mean it that way. Honestly, I didn't. Maybe I read too much Catullus poems). But that's it. I'm sorry, but that 's it.

Your blogger Invidia Piscator
Muahaha, see what I did there? That's right, I said goodbye in Latin and translated my own name to Latin. So maybe I can curse in Latin. You'll never know ;)

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4 Fellow Ramblers

  1. Awesome post :)

    I was extremely ignorant about Latin until now, even though I'm eager to learn more about it.. The "draw a pumpkin" story actually made me laugh out loud - you should definitely do more humorous/storytelling-y posts in the future, Envy! :)

    1. Thank you so much :)
      There's a lot more I could tell you about Latin, this was just the tip of the iceberg ;)
      I'm glad I made you laugh, I'm always unsure about my supposedly humorous content (few people seem to share my sense of humor), but now I'll definitely try to do some more of that!

  2. Latin is real old and rarely known language isn't it?I'm pretty sure I won't remember any of this after 3-4 minutes D:

    1. It's about 2200 years old, but more people know Latin than I expected when I first started learning it. It's a great language, translating it is like trying to break a code :)
      Most people forgot a lot within a few minutes, that's why we had at least three hours of Latin per week, four hours most of the time, whereas we had only two hours of English in the last three years of high school. I didn't mind at all :)


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