Infinitives, Participles, and Aspect

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I hope I haven’t scared too many of you away with our series of posts about logistics and money! 🙂 Even if you don’t want to become a paid subscriber down the road, we hope you’ll continue to

  • read the blog (which will feature new stories and other content as they’re added);
  • visit (which will always have a lot of free “stuff”); and
  • tell your friends, colleagues, and students about us if you like what you see – or if you think they’d enjoy being part of the project.

We’d like to welcome our new subscriber David H, who has contributed two excellent stories to the project. Check out

Best of all, from our point of view, is that the minor errors in the stories (and we’re sure you’ll find them if you look closely) do not prevent communication or understanding.  Of course, if you’ve ever used a non-native language in conversation, you already know this principle, but some of our more perfection-focused colleagues may need to have the experience for themselves.  We’ll look at the process of editing user-submitted stories in a series of posts next week.

Today, as promised, we’ll return to Language and Story – specifically, to the ways that Tres Columnae will handle participles and infinitives. As you can probably guess, we’ll be looking at them through the lens of verbal aspect – specifically, with what’s known as “markedness” or “unmarkedness” for completion of the action to which they refer. We’ll say that imperfective-aspect participles and infinitives are not marked for completion (that is, the action they refer to isn’t necessarily complete; it might be, but it might not be) while perfective-aspect participles and infinitives are marked for completion (that is, the action they refer to is complete at the time of the sentence in which they occur).  The Latin future system is quite complicated, and we’ll have more to say about it another day.  Today, though, let’s agree that future participles and infinitives are marked to indicate that their action has not yet begun at the time of the sentence in which they occur.

The tense (or, as we’ll say, the aspect) of participles, in particular, has been a hot-button issue recently on the AP-Latin listserv, where (as it so often happens) people are worried about the “proper” or “literal” translation of perfect deponent participles. (Both the AP Latin Teachers’ Guide and the AP Latin Course Description are actually quite clear about what’s required for such a “proper” or “literal” translation, but for some reason, people ask every year.) Given a word like amplexus, they wonder, would it be acceptable to translate it as “embracing” (which preserves the voice but not the “tense” or aspect), or would students be required to translate it as “having embraced” (preserving both voice and aspect)? If you click on either of the links above and search for “participle,” you’ll find the official answer … but that would apparently spoil the fun of asking and speculating. 🙂

For us at Tres Columnae, the translation question is an interesting sidelight, but the underlying issue about aspect is central to what we are doing. How can this be? First, Tres Columnae is not an Advanced Placement® curriculum; it’s designed for learners at the novice and intermediate levels of proficiency, and it does not contain any of the passages specified on the AP® Latin syllabus. Second, while the AP® teachers are concerned about translation, translation is not our primary aim – nor our primary method of assessment for either comprehension or grammatical analysis – as it is for the current version of the AP® Latin Examination. That doesn’t mean that we’re opposed to translation; it just means that translation isn’t our primary emphasis, as I’ve said before.

So, while the “correct translation” issue is interesting but peripheral, we are quite interested in the voice and aspect of participles, infinitives, and other non-finite verb forms. As a perfect or perfective-aspect participle, amplexus is “marked for completion”; it implies that its action was completed before the main verb in the sentence (or clause) in which it appears. Since the root meaning of amplector, according to Lewis & Short, is to “wind or twine round” something, Vergil’s routine use of the perfective-aspect participle makes a lot of sense: it’s not that the embrace was completed before the main verb, but the process of winding the arms around the other person.  As soon as we move from focusing on “proper translation” (or “acceptable translation”) to focusing on how the language is actually working, the situation is much less complicated!  Then, if we want or need to develop a proper or acceptable translation, that falls naturally into place.

Now consider these three almost identical sentences:

  • Valerius, haec verba loquēns, ē sellā surrēxit. (imperfective)
  • Valerius, haec verba locūtus, ē sellā surrēxit. (perfective)
  • Valerius, haec verba locūtūrus, ē sellā surrēxit. (future/not yet begun)

In all three sentences, Valerius did two things: he spoke and he stood. Our narrator even used the same verbs both times!

  • In the first sentence, the actions were probably simultaneous: he stood while still speaking (or, in any case, the speaking isn’t marked as complete; perhaps the narrator neither knows nor cares about the temporal relationship).
  • In the second sentence, the speaking clearly happened before Valerius stood.
  • And, of course, in the third sentence (where the participle is marked as occurring in the future), Valerius stood up before he started speaking.

Rather than talk endlessly about “sequence of tenses of participles” or “the relative tense of participles in regard to the main verb of a sentence,” we can simply focus on the aspectual distinctions and the marking.  It seems to make things much clearer for everyone.

The same principle applies, of course, to infinitives, both by themselves and in ōrātiō oblīqua, but we’ll look at specific examples next time.

intereā, quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • My hope is that aspect makes participles and infinitives much less complicated for learners – but do you agree?
    • If not, do you think we’re oversimplifying?
    • Or are we actually making things more complicated?
  • Another hope, of course, is that we’re keeping our focus on the Latin rather than on the “proper translation.”
    • That way, I believe, we’re only asking the learner to do one or two things (understand and analyze a Latin sentence).
    • Adding translation to the mix requires the learner to do several more things (express this understanding and analysis in another language – and do it “the way we expect”).  The more things involved, the more potential for error and confusion … and the harder it is to find out where the error happened.
    • If you happen to speak a non-standard English dialect – or if you don’t speak the same dialect of “translationese” as your teacher – your understanding and analysis may be perfect, but your expression may be “wrong” … or you may have a problem with understanding, or with analysis.
    • But there’s no way to tell if the only thing you see is a “wrong translation!”
  • Can you see how translation, if you use it, is more effective after understanding has occurred than it is when it’s used as the one-and-only tool for understanding?
  • Even if you can accept this in theory, do you want more practical examples?
  • And, if so, do you want examples with participles, with infinitives, or with a mix of the two?

Tune in on Monday for some posts with such examples. And in the meantime, grātiās maximās omnibus legentibus! Tres Columnae is for you, and we want to know if something seems particularly effective – or particularly problematic – to you. So please keep reading, keep telling your friends, and keep those comments and emails coming.

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 2:25 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Justin, I haven’t had time to keep up with the blog here, but you did something SO GENIUS and SO SNEAKY here in this post that I just have to comment, because it raises one of the most interesting questions about Latin that there is: the imbalance in the particle system. Except for deponent verbs (you very sneaky person!!!), Latin verbs are skewed. If you want a perfective participle, it is PASSIVE, and if you want an imperfective participle, it is ACTIVE – because there is a perfect passive participle (but not a perfect active participle, something equivalent to the Greek aorist active participle) and there is a present active participle (but not a present passive participle, although there are some good arguments for regarding the so-called future passive participle as a present passive participle, exactly because of the imbalance in the system, where you WANT/NEED a present passive participle).

    So, my take on this is to observe that Latin speakers face an incredible pressure when they choose a participle: should they choose based on voice (present ACTIVE or perfect PASSIVE), or should they choose based on aspect (IMPERFECTIVE active or PERFECTIVE passive).

    When we translate into English, we mangle Latin participles, and this is no more clear than when we attempt to obey the voice of Latin participles. Often Latin speakers choose the participle NOT because they want the voice, but because they want the aspect, and they will use whatever voice is available to them: if they want perfective, they have no choice but to use a passive participle; if they want imperfective, they have no choice but to use a present participle.

    Sorry for the rant here, but it is something fascinating and weird and wonderful about Latin, and a huge pitfall for any English translation.

    By choosing a deponent example, you did something really ingenious: you showed that voice is actually transformed in the participle system, and harnessed to aspect in very strange ways. Hence the Latin speakers making use of loquens (even though it is an “active” form… so much for the mantra about deponent verbs not having active forms, eh? DOH!)… why? Because they want the ASPECT of loquens… regardless of the voice.

    Profound stuff. One of my favorite things about Latin. And it is a dimension of the language completely squashed by an approach which emphasizes English translation as the goal and measure of what we are doing with Latin. Hence my loathing for English translation. The Latin system here is a thing of real beauty and curiosity, and entirely different from English. The problems posed by Latin voice are a huge dilemma in English translation in general, but nowhere more so than in the oddly skewed world of the participle system.

    • Laura,
      Gratias maximas! I’m glad you enjoyed the post so much. The more Latin I read qua Latin, rather than qua encoded English, the more I see weird and wonderful things like what you mentioned. Think of all those “Greek usage” perfect participles in Vergil (the ones with “retained objects” or “accusatives of specification” with them). I wonder if they really are deliberately Hellenizing, or if in fact they might represent a common (or, at least, not uncommon) feature of the language in actual use. What do you think?

      I had an interesting thought, sparked by a student’s question, in regard to the perceived difference (for a native speaker) between a cum clause (with subjunctive) and a postquam clause (with indicative). Before I tell you what I told Anne, I wonder if you have any thoughts….

      • Oooh, on that one, I do not have so much to say about postquam… but I do have a little sermon about cum plus the subjunctive versus cum plus the indicative (which is used far more commonly in Latin than people suspect; I think that is what you are getting at, contrasting the moods…? I think it’s easier to do that with the same subordinating conjunction, seeing how, with that conjunction, it’s still user’s choice about which mood to use); anyway, I’ll just paste it in my little cum sermon here (it’s the little grammar blurb for one of the fables in my Bolchazy book, which nicely had both a cum plus indicative and cum plus subjunctive in the same fable) – I’ll paste in the text of the fable, too.
        The following fable gives you a good opportunity to compare the use of cum with both indicative and subjunctive verbs. The first time you see the word cum in this fable, it happens to introduce a subjunctive verb: vitula, cum bovem arantem cerneret, contempsit, “the heifer scorned the ox, since she saw he was pulling a plow.” The cum clause with the subjunctive verb thus explains the reason why the heifer made fun of the ox. In effect, the subjunctive verb puts us into the mind of the heifer, so we can see the reason why she treats the ox as she does. The second cum that you will see in the fable introduces an indicative verb: cum immolationis dies affuit, bos per pascua vagabatur, “when the day of the sacrifice arrived, the ox was wandering through the fields.” This cum clause simply provides information about when something occurred. If you are translating into English, you might translate cum as “when” for indicative verbs, and translate it as “since” or “because” for subjunctive verbs. The real goal, however, should not be to come up with formulas for English translation, but rather to get a feel for the difference in meaning between the indicative and subjunctive moods in Latin. This is not a distinction we make in English, so it can be difficult to grasp, but getting a feel for the Latin subjunctive is an essential step in learning the language, regardless of what words you use to translate the word cum into English.
        Mollis et lasciva Vitula, cum Bovem agricolae aculeo agitatum et arantem cerneret, contempsit. Sed, cum immolationis dies affuit, Bos, a iugo liberatus, per pascua vagabatur. Vitula vero, ut immolaretur, retenta est. Quod cum Bos conspicatur, subridens ait, “Heus Vitula, ideo non laborabas: ut immolareris!”

      • Laura,
        Thank you so much for this! My line of explanation to Anne (who is one of my most brilliant students ever, and asks the most insightful questions. What I said to her on Friday, when she asked about cum clauses (with subjunctives) vs. postquam with indicatives [they haven’t yet seen cum clauses with indicatives], was

        • The textbook says cum means when, but it really means with or under the circumstances that;
        • The indicative with postquam would imply that the two events just happened in sequence; the subjunctive implies some kind of causal or other connection; and
        • it’s impossible to translate this, but the distinction is pretty clear.

        She was satisfied … and I was thrilled because I’d never been able to articulate the distinction before. I’m glad I hadn’t lost my mind! 🙂

  2. P.S. I should probably have mentioned – the biggest problem with cum is that it DOES NOT MEAN WHEN, even though we translate it that way in English. It means WITH… even when it is a subordinating conjunction.
    We do that sometimes in English, too, using with in a quasi-temporal sense – With the heat wave continuing, the rivers are running dry. But years and years of rendering cum as “with” when it’s a preposition and as “when” when it’s a conjunction makes us start to think it is two separate words… but it is not. It is just CUM.

    • Thanks for this, too! So often, when we look at Latin as encoded English, we fall into the trap of “two different words” that are really the same word. The preposition cum and the conjunction cum can’t be the same word because we translate them differently … and no doubt ut with indicatives and ut with subunctives are different words, too! 😦 I really don’t have an issue with translation, if that’s what people want to do, but I do wish people would remember that the Latin text is primary, and the translation is derivative … not vice versa!

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