A Big Question about Verbs

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today, as promised, I’ll ask that Big Question about Verbs. First, though, I’d like to remind you about what you already “know” about Latin grammar by the end of Lectiō Quārta:

  • Latin, like other languages, has nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech (Prīma)
  • Latin nouns have multiple forms called cāsūs. Two of these are nōminātīvus and genitīvus. (Secunda)
  • Another cāsus is ablātīvus, used in certain prepositional phrases and, by itself, in time expressions (Tertia – obviously we’ll learn more about independent ablative uses later).
  • Another cāsus is accūsātīvus, used when a noun receives an action or movement, whether from a verb or a preposition. (Quārta)
  • And how ’bout verbs anyway? (Quīnta)

So here’s the question: when we learn about verbs, would it make sense to have deponents as well as normal verbs from the beginning? I think of my favorite introductory Greek textbook, the JACT Reading Greek series, which introduces middle-voice verbs very early. That way, learners are familiar with the personal endings from the beginning; later, when they start seeing passives in the JACT book, it’s a fairly simple transition (or at least it was for me as a beginning Greek student, multōs ante annōs) to realize that these endings behave differently when they’re applied to “normal” verbs. By contrast, when I was a Latin learner, plūrimōs ante annōs, deponent verbs were a terrifying mystery … largely because we “learned them” in one chapter, near the end of the book, and (of course) right after we’d “learned” passives.

My thought is that it would be a lot easier for participants if, from the beginning, we see things like this:

Lollius per iānuam cēnāculī ambulat. Lollius ē cēnāculō ēgreditur. Lollius caupōnam ingreditur et amīcum salūtat.

Some verbs end with -t, others with –tur, and of course you can tell from the dictionary listing.  No problem, right? 🙂

Sine the Roman grammarians envisioned a modus inpersonalis (or at least Donatus refers to one in the Ars Minor), I think we might come to passives with the impersonals. They’re not translatable into English, of course, but the relationship is easy to see in Latin:

Lollius per viās ambulābat. ā Lolliō per viās ambulābātur.

The first sentence focuses on Lollius, and the second sentence focuses on the walking.  Once again, no problem, right? 🙂  And besides, we now know that the –tur ending can go on a normal verb, and it changes the focus.

Only then, I think, will we “mess with” other passive sentences, which involve so many transformations:

Lollius Valērium salūtat. Valērius ā Lolliō salūtātur.

Not only has the verb changed, but the whole case structure changed too!  And Latin teachers love to talk about all that grammar.  Look, children, the nominative became an ablative and the accusative became a nominative!  The object is now the subject, and the subject is now an ablative of personal agent!  To which the learner most likely responds, “What language are you speaking??!!” 😦

That’s probably why passives seemed so scary and confusing to me as a beginning Latin student. And that’s why I want to approach them slowly, and gradually, and in small steps:

  1. Just the different ending, but on “normally” behaving verbs.
  2. Applying that now-familiar set of endings in a new way, after many Lectiōnēs, with the inpersonālis.
  3. Only now applying that very-familiar set of endings (and the idea of focusing on the action rather than the doer, with the doer expressed by a nōmen cāsūs ablātīvī) to a sentence where there’s an expressed subject for the passive verb, again after several Lectiōnēs.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • This is a very “untraditional” order, isn’t it?
  • But does it make sense?
  • And, more importantly, do you think it will help learners?
  • Or do you think it will confuse them more?
  • If so, what might we do to alleviate the confusion?

Tune in next time for some sample stories with deponents and maybe even the inpersonālis. And, as always, thank you so much for reading … and please keep those comments and emails coming! 🙂

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 8:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Well, the textbook series I’m currently using introduces perfect participles together, both passive and deponent, and it generates a fair amount of confusion in my students. I try to show the distinction between “having ___ed” and “having been ___ed” in several different ways, but for some students they like to simply know that A, B, and C translate in X way and D, E, and F translate in Y way. Of course, the Tres Columnae strategy of working more directly in the language may ease that confusion and make it a non-issue!

    • I think I’m fairly familiar with that textbook! 🙂 You’re right, it does seem to confuse students with its introduction of perfect participles in this way. The problem there, I think (and if we’re talking about the same book, I’ve been using it, quite happily for the most part, for almost 20 years), is that there’s one ending with two radically different meanings and no time (or hardly any time) to sort it out. My thought with “TC” is to reverse things so that there are two endings(t and tur) with the same meaning, at least at first. After we get used to a world where t always goes with verba activa and tur always goes with verba deponentia, we’ll expand our minds and find out what happens when tur appears as an ending on normal verbs. Then, by the time we get to participles, the normal/deponent distinction should be very familiar, and we should avoid all those tears and struggles … or at least some of them! 🙂

      Gratias tibi maximas for your faithful reading, and for this very insightful comment.


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