More New Perspectives on Verbs

salvēte iterum, amīcissimī! To all you ancient Romans out there, I’d like to wish you a very happy Lupercalia!  🙂 For you non-Roman readers out there, and for anyone who is not familiar with the major Roman holidays, Lupercalia was an early-spring fertility rite which contributed a few traditions to our Valentine’s Day celebration. But my face-to-face students are always glad that we don’t follow some of the Lupercalia traditions … especially the part where chosen young men run naked through the streets of a city, whipping young women to increase their fertility! 🙂 You can find out a lot more about Lupercalia from this Wikipedia article if you’d like.

As promised, today we’ll look at what the Romans called modus inpersōnālis and what English-speaking scholars of Latin grammar call the “impersonal passive.” For reasons I discussed last week, I think it’s logical (if not exactly traditional) to progress towards an understanding of the active-passive distinction in Latin by this three-fold process:

  1. Starting with verba dēpōnentia (which use the passive endings, but don’t have a passive meaning) so that learners become familiar with the forms first;
  2. Moving on, once learners are familiar with the forms, to the inpersōnālis so that learners get used to
    1. sentences that focus on the action rather than the doer of the action;
    2. the idea that the -tur ending, at least, can express this focus; and
    3. the idea that the actor in such a sentence can be expressed by an ablative noun (with or without a preposition, depending on whether the actor is a person or not); and then, finally
  3. Meeting full-fledged passives, where there is a nominative word in the sentence – but it doesn’t represent the person or thing who did the action.

Does that still make sense to you, if you’ve read the previous posts in this series?  And if you haven’t, can you see the logic?  In either case, even if you do think it’s logical, do you think it will work?  Or will it just confuse learners hopelessly? 🙂

I suppose it’s convenient that this post will first appear on Lupercalia because, in the current draft of the Tres Columnae system, the inpersōnālis makes its first appearance in a story about a holiday. The setting for Lectiō XII is an exhibition of gladiators, which traditionally only took place to commemorate the death of someone famous. It takes place in nearby Pompeii … a city which sometimes had trouble containing its enthusiasm for gladiators. In fact, according to Tacitus, there was such a big riot in Pompeii after a gladiator fight in A.D. 61 that the arena was (at least officially) closed for 10 years.  (Of course, it may not have really been closed for all ten years, as this article reminds us.)  So the amphitheater in Pompeii has only been re-opened (officially at least) for a few years when our friends venture over for a few days to attend the fights and see some friends.  School is closed, of course, for the gladiator fight, which commemorates the death of Emperor Vespasian’s wife Domitilla (no need to mention his not-quite-wife Caenis in this context!).  I had thought about commemorating Vespasian’s own death, but since he died in June A.D. 79 and Vesuvius erupted two months later, I thought it might be a bit difficult to schedule! 🙂  I also want this story to take place when our main characters are still children; by A.D. 79, Valeria and Lollia are married and Caius, Lucius, and Cnaeus are “young adults” of 16 or 17.

A bit of context: we learn about verba dēpōnentia in Lectiō V, as you know. We’ve seen a selection from Lectiō VI, in which we learn about imperatives and vocatives, in this post from January – the story where Cnaeus (mirabile dictu!) gets in trouble for being lazy and disrespectful.  (Yes, lectōrēs fidēlissimī, we will find out, one day, how his Mom used the cow to punish him; no, lectōrēs fidēlissimī, we’re still not going to do that today!)  Lectiōnēs VII – X follow Cnaeus, Caius, and Lucius to school, where (mirabilie dictu!) they get in trouble; on the way, we discover complementary infinitives (VII); plurals (VII – X); demonstratives (IX); and a few things about the type of Latin nōmen that English speakers call “adjectives.”   Along the way, we’ve become fairly familiar with all six forms of present indicative verbs – actīva, neutra, et dēpōnentia, as the Romans said, or “active and deponent,” as we say.

So … imagine the illustrations for this pair of captions:

Cnaeus saltat et cantat,”hodiē lūdus clausus est!”

ā Cnaeō saltātur et cantātur, “hodiē lūdus clausus est!”

And for this pair:

Rīdiculus in “cēnāculō” dormit.

ā Rīdiculō in “cēnāculō” dormītur.

And, of course, for this pair:

Cāius cum Celerī mustēlā lūdit.

ā Cāiō cum Celerī mustēlā lūditur.

And one more pair:

Ferōx et Medūsa vehementer lātrant.

ā Ferōce et Medūsā vehementer lātrātur.

And one final pair:

Valērius in tablīnō sedet.

ā Valēriō in tablīnō sedētur.

As usual, we move on to a brief explanation:

quid novī?

In these sentences, the –tur ending is showing up on ordinary verbs, or verba neutra! Normally it has only appeared on verba dēpōnentia. The Romans called this modus inpersōnālis. (The -tur ending can also appear on a verbum actīvum, but it’s a bit complicated when that happens. We’ll save that case, known as modus passīvus, for another Lectiō.)

So what’s different and special about the modus inpersōnālis? It puts the focus of the sentence in a different place.

  • Valērius in tablīnō sedet. The focus is on Valerius: he did the sitting.
  • in tablīnō sedētur. The focus is on the sitting. The sentence doesn’t even mention who did it!

In a normal sentence, the focus is on the person, animal, or object that does the action: the nōmen cāsūs nōminātīvī.

But in these sentences, there is no nōmen cāsūs nōminātīvī! Instead, the focus is on the action itself, not the person … that’s why Roman grammarians called this the modus inpersōnālis! If the person who did the action is mentioned at all, they’re stuck in a prepositional phrase as a nōmen cāsūs ablātīvī … and they don’t have to be mentioned at all.

  • cīvēs per viās urbis prōcēdunt.
  • per viās urbis prōcēditur.
  • servī in agrīs strēnuē labōrant.
  • in agrīs strēnuē labōrātur.
  • hospitēs in triclīniō laetissimē cēnant.
  • in triclīniō laetissimē cēnātur.

As you can see, I want to work up to the essential difference between active and passive – the focus on the doer in active sentences, and on something else in passive sentences – without a whole bunch of terminology and tears! 🙂 In a “typical” grammar-translation Latin class, by contrast, the focus would be on the grammatical transformation of a modus actīvus sentence to modus passīvus. The teacher would probably start with English sentences:

  • The boy eats the food.
  • The food is eaten by the boy.

Much use would be made of the terms subject, object, and voice – and in many cases, aspersions would be cast (how’s that for a passive sentence?) on the students’ former English teachers, or on their prior knowledge of English grammar. Only then would some Latin examples appear:

  • puer cibum cōnsūmit.
  • cibus ā puerō cōnsūmitur.

And then, in addition to presenting the grammatical forms, the poor teacher also has to say something like this:

The nominative subject in the active sentence becomes an ablative of personal agent in the passive sentence. The accusative direct object – John, pay attention! – in the active sentence becomes a – Louise! give me that note right now! – becomes a nominative subject in the passive sentence. Stop this talking! Stop it right now! This will be on the test tomorrow!

I’m probably being a bit unfair :-), but I think you get the idea.  The students get the idea, too – passives are complicated and terrifying!

A typical reading-method class, by contrast, will not get to passive verbs until the middle of Latin II. There will certainly be more examples, and less terminology thrown about.  But when passives are postponed for so long, beginning Latin learners won’t realize how much Latin tends to privilege passive (and “impersonal”) voice constructions. They’re such a great feature of the language – and so different from English prose style, where young writers are taught to “avoid passive verbs” even if they don’t exactly know what one is! 🙂  I really don’t want Tres Columnae participants to have a wrong impression of the workings of the language they study – it would be like learning Chinese or Japanese without mentioning the writing systems!

Anyway, our explanation will continue with a brief English connection:

It’s very hard to express a verbum modī inpersōnālis in English, even though they’re easy to understand Latīnē! When you try to focus on the action, rather than the person who did it, in English, you often end up sounding like a government agency in an official document:

“Walking through the streets is ongoing.”

“Hard work is being implemented in the fields.”

“Happy dining is under way in the dining room.”

This is one of the many reasons we don’t recommend “literal translation” as a regular practice at Tres Columnae … it’s often simply impossible to do! 🙂 What’s important, for our purposes, is that we can

  • transform an ordinary sentence (with a verbum neutrum) into a sentence with a verbum modī inpersōnālis, and vice versa;
  • understand a sentence with a verbum modī inpersōnālis;
  • create sentences with a verbum modī inpersōnālis when appropriate; and
  • understand why a Roman might choose to use an inpersōnālis in a particular sentence.

Notice how the emphasis is on Knowledge and Skill, in the Paideia framework.  Deeper Understanding will come later, after repeated use.  My big concern with grammar-translation methodology, as you know, is that it often tries to achieve Understanding before Knowledge and Skill, which (meā quidem sententiā)  is rather like building a house from the roof down to the foundation.  By contrast, my concern with reading-method techniques is that it’s all too easy to stop with Knowledge and Skill, which is rather like building a foundation and walls … and then stopping without a roof.

As usual, we then ask

On our traditional scale from 1-5, how comfortable do you feel with each of these goals?

And I’m sure you can imagine the exercises that follow for participants who need additional practice.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • This is a very different approach from either of the “traditional” ones, isn’t it?
  • Can you see the internal logic of the progression – or am I deluding myself?
  • If I am deluding myself, please tell me! 🙂
  • If not, I’m now beginning to wonder why no one has thought to introduce passive / “impersonal” voice verbs this way before!
  • When do you think we should actually introduce full-fledged, non-impersonal passives? Should it be soon after this, or should we wait until a more “traditional” time?

Tune in next time for the first real story that uses impersonal passives. It is hoped that liking will take place when the reading process has occurred. 🙂 And in the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming.


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  1. […] amīcī et sodālēs!  And grātiās maximās to our faithful reader Rebecca, who mentioned this post from February in a recent message to the Oerberg listserv about impersonal verbs.  I thanked her there, but I […]

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