Introducing Aspect, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I write this, it’s a beautiful, sunny late-winter weekend in my physical world, and thoughts of spring cleaning are dancing in my head. 🙂 If you haven’t been to visit www.TresColumnae.com/wiki in a while, you might want to drop by and listen to the audio versions of the first two Fabellae of Lectiō Prīma. Grātiās plūrimās to our faithful reader and contributor Ann, who is doing a phenomenal job with the audio recording! At the moment, you’ll have to click on a link (and have the audio open in a new window), but before too long we’ll have the audio – and some images – embedded so you don’t have to worry about such things. As Spring is approaching and new life of all kinds will soon be bursting forth, I want to assure you that things are also growing and developing with the Tres Columnae project. We’re still aiming to have Cursus Primus, or most of it, “done” by late spring or early summer.

This story occurs in Lectiō XXI, just after the introduction of verbal aspect in Lectiō XX. Now, we’ll begin to see imperfect (and eventually pluperfect) indicative verbs – what the Romans called verba temporis praeteritī inperfectī and verba temporis praeteriī plusquamperfectī – and to explore how verbal aspect is marked in Latin verbs that refer to the past. I do think the “double” tense names that Donatus, Priscian, and the other grammaticī used are quite interesting in light of our conversation about aspect: they certainly seem to imply that the Romans have some kind of awareness (or, at least, borrowed an awareness from the Greeks) of the interplay between tense and aspect in their language.

We’ll get to the longer fābula in our next post; today we’ll look at the introduction of the imperfect tense in contrast to the two tenses that are now “old friends.”

So picture the pictures that accompany this little fabella:

  • hodiē Valeria librum legit.
  • heri Valeria alium librum lēgit.
  • trēs diēs Valeria illum librum legēbat, quod liber erat longissimus.
  • hodiē Caeliōla cum Medūsā lūdit.
  • heri Caeliōla cum Medūsā lūsit.
  • quattuor diēs Caeliōla cum Medūsā nōn lūdēbat, quod aegra erat. Caeliōla in cubiculō quattuor diēs aegra dormiēbat.
  • hodiē Valerius epistulam dictat.
  • heri Valerius aliam epistulam dictāvit.
  • duōs diēs Valerius epistulās nōn dictābat, quod ad urbem Pompēiōs iter faciēbat.

As usual, there’s a brief explanation of the new verb form:

quid novī?

You probably noticed some different and unusual verbs in the third sentence of each paragraph:

legēbat, lūdēbat, dictābat, faciēbat, dormiēbat

They all described continuing action (imperfective aspect) that happened in the past:

  • It took three days for Valeria to finish the book – she kept reading it for three days.
  • There was a period of four days when Caeliola couldn’t play with Medusa.
  • There was a period of two days when Valerius couldn’t dictate any letters … and when he was traveling to Pompeii.

The Latin term for these types of verbs is verbum temporis praeteritī inperfectī. English speakers often call them “imperfect tense verbs” for short.

Our dear and faithful reader Elizabeth was afraid that students might confuse imperfective aspect with the imperfect tense, and I can certainly understand her concerns! I hope this explanation, and the others that follow it, will help prevent any confusion. But please, as always, let me know if you think we need to amplify anything! Anyway, as usual, we’ll continue with a self-assessment:

  • On our traditional scale from 1-5, how comfortable do you feel with the idea of the verbum temporis praeteriī inperfectī?
  • How comfortable do you feel with recognizing verbs like this?

Of course, we’ll continue with another explanation of how these verbs are formed.

quid novī?

Let’s take a closer look at the verba temporis praeteritī inperfectī we’ve seen:

  • trēs diēs Valeria illum librum legēbat, quod liber erat longissimus.
  • quattuor diēs Caeliōla cum Medūsā nōn lūdēbat, quod aegra erat. Caeliōla in cubiculō quattuor diēs aegra dormiēbat.
  • duōs diēs Valerius epistulās nōn dictābat, quod ad urbem Pompēiōs iter faciēbat.

Compare them, for a moment, with the partēs prīncipālēs of the verbs:

  • legēbat is a form of legō, legere, lēgī, lectum
  • lūdēbat is a form of lūdō, lūdere, lūsī, lūsum
  • dormiēbat is a form of dormiō, dormīre, dormīvī, dormītum
  • dictābat is a form of dictō, dictāre, dictāvī, dictātum
  • faciēbat is a form of faciō, facere, fēcī, factus

Since these are imperfective aspect verbs, they’re formed (as you would expect) from the imperfective stem, the present infinitive.

  • verba prīmae coniugātiōnis change the –āre into –ābat.
  • verba secundae coniugātiōnis change the –ēre into –ēbat.
  • verba tertiae coniugātiōnis change the –ere into –ēbat. Of course, verba tertiae coniugātiōnis with –iō, like faciō, keep the -i and end with –iēbat.
  • What we call verba quārtae coniugātiōnis (but remember, the Romans only recognized trēs coniugātiōnēs) change the –īre into –iēbat.

As usual, there’s another self-assessment:

On our traditional scale from 1-5, how comfortable do you feel with forming verba temporis praeteritī inperfectī?

And you can probably imagine the exercises in which we’ll

  • sort verbs by tempus and aspectus;
  • make imperfect forms of familiar verbs;
  • change present-tense verbs to imperfect, and vice versa;
  • change perfect-tense verbs to imperfect, given the principal parts; and eventually
  • choose the right verb (present, imperfect, or perfect) for the sentence.

And then it will be time for the first real story with all three tenses, the one we’ll see in our next post.

But you may be wondering why we haven’t said anything about the translation of imperfect tense verbs. Please keep a few things in mind:

  • At Tres Columnae, we’re not opposed to translation per se, but we don’t think it needs to be the exclusive emphasis, or even the primary emphasis, of a Latin learning program.
  • We believe translation is a rather high-level skill – especially when a given concept (like progressive aspect past action) is expressed very differently in the two languages involved.
  • We consider translation to be a task of synthesis or creation, one of the highest possible levels of learning in Bloom’s and Marzano’s taxonomies.
  • Before you can synthesize or create with “something,” we believe, you need to be able to identify, recognize, apply, and analyze that “something” pretty well.

So, after our learners feel quite successful with the exercises, there’s a brief note about English connections:

quid novī?

We know that verba temporis praeteritī inperfectī express a continuous or imperfective action in the past. Did you notice the different ways we represented this idea (what in English is a “past progressive tense” verb) in the last exercise?

  • The angry spectator kept beating Quartus Vipsanius.
  • The horse was kicking Cnaeus.
  • Valeria and Caelia kept on talking about the wedding for two hours.
  • The servant walked and walked to Caelius’ house.

Over the years, Latin teachers and students have had a lot of disagreements about whether it’s approprate to represent a verbum temporis praeteritī inperfectī with a “simple past tense” English verb if it’s clear that the aspect is progressive. For example, with a sentence like

Sabīna Rīdiculum tōtam noctem agitābat

Some would say it’s appropriate to say “Sabina chased Ridiculus all night,” while others would say it’s better to say something like “Sabina was chasing” him or “kept chasing” him.

At Tres Columnae, we understand both sides of this argument, but we aim for a Third Alternative as usual. As you know, we won’t ask you to “translate the sentence into English.” If we need to clarify your understanding of the aspect of the sentence, we’ll ask an understanding-type question:

  • utrum Sabīna Rīdiculum semel an identidem agitat?

You’ll choose identidem for obvious reasons!

If we need to clarify your recognition of the tense and aspect of a verb, we’ll ask you:

  • cuius temporis est verbum agitābat? with choices of praesentis, praeteritī inperfectī, praeteritī perfectī.

You, of course, will choose praeteritī inperfectī for obvious reasons!

And then comes the story, which we’ll look at in the next post. At the moment, though, quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you think the explanation of tense and aspect is comprehensible to a learner? Or is it too complex … or too simple … for the learners you know?
  • Even if you’re a passionate devotee of translation, can you see how postponing it for a bit might help your learners be more successful with it?
  • And what do you think of our note about translating the imperfect? Over the years, that’s been an area of real conflict, as many of our faithful readers know.
    • English, of course, can and often does express a progressive action (“I walked all day”) with a simple past tense verb.
    • In Latin, that same progressive action would be expressed with a verbum temporis praeteritī inperfectī: tōtum diem ambulābam.
    • So is it reasonable, or even acceptable, to “translate” that ambulābam into English by saying “I walked”? That’s where the arguments begin!
      • If you’re committed to what’s sometimes called “literal” translation (that is, the attempt to represent linguistic structures as well as ideas as closely as possible), you’d tend to say “No! You need to express the imperfective / progressive aspect of ambulābam with an imperfective / progressive English verb! Stop being careless and imprecise!”
      • But, depending on your own conception of English grammar – and possibly on your own dialect of English – you might well say “Yes! It’s obvious that this I walked took a long time, since you said all day right there! Stop being pedantic and silly!”
    • We simply refuse to join that argument at Tres Columnae, and we hope both sides will respect our position.

Tune in next time for the first actual story that employs all three tenses. And in the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i think the problem time aspect is more or less difficult for student as in connection with their native language.for me as english teacher of romanian students it was very difficult to make them understand the problem in english.on the other hand latin in our country is studied only in high schools and abruptly the text book pass to fragments from classical and poetry without a minimal vocabulary for a spoken language .in my oppinion latin should be learned as oother foreign language.it is easier for a student of 16 18years to learn a sentence as i lost my pen than caesar won the battle against vercingetorix the king of gallia.they couldn t fill a necessity of spaking something like this.it is useful for them to know to say hello or bye and to use this between them.i hope you understnd what i wanted to say.

    • Mimi, I do understand and absolutely agree! At Tres Columnae, we are planning to build that everyday, spoken-language vocabulary into our stories and other materials. We’re also planning to have a large number of interesting, engaging, connected stories (and other material) in Latin for students to read. That way, by the time learners do get to those classical authors, they should have the knowledge and skills they need to understand and appreciate them.
      Thanks again for reading and contributing to the project! It’s wonderful to have the international perspective that you bring.

  2. […] of the project that I deliberately haven’t featured until now except in a few posts, like this one from February and this one from early March, about the grammatical elements. As I mentioned then, I deliberately […]


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