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>A Natural History
Translated and adapted into English by
Merethe Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent
Lingua latina: a first acquaintance
Many Latin words are easy to understand. Here is one to start with:
It is easy to guess that this means ‘woman’. It’s the name of several women’s magazines in various countries around the world and is also a brand of perfume. Then there are related words like feminine, female, andfeminist. And it doesn’t take a big leap of the imagination to link it with the French word femme ‘woman’. It’s often that way when yo study languages, particularly one as widespread as Latin.
Latin words are sometimes borrowed unchanged.They also frequently appear as parts of learned or abstract words. English has borrowed large numbers of words from Latin, often via French. And there are even greater similarities with French, Spanish, and Italian, languages which have developed out of Latin.
Anyone who has a large vocabulary in English therefore already knows quite a lot of Latin words, and anyone who speaks Spanish or French knows even more. But it also works the other way round. Anyone who has acquired a basic Latin vocabulary will more easily be able to understand many words in other European languages.
Let’s build up a little more Latin:
This is a bit harder, even if Claire and Clara are English names and clear is a loan from Latin (by way of French). Yet in Latin the word usually meant ‘light’ or ‘bright’, as in English a clear day, but also ‘shining’ or ‘famous’. Sofemina clara means ‘a famous woman’.
This example also shows us that Latin has a different word order from English. An adjective like clara usually comes after the word it goes with. The same word order can be seen in the phrase which is in the title of this section: lingua latina. One can guess that lingua means ‘language’ from the English word linguistics, which means the science of language, or indeed from the word language itself or the French word langue ‘language’. The word latina obviously means ‘Latin’, and so the whole phrase means ‘the Latin language’.
One might query this translation on the grounds that there is nothing in the Latin expression which corresponds to the English word the,or what is called the definite article.But Latin has no equivalent to the or to the indefinite article a/an.A Latin phrase like femina clara can be translated as ‘famous woman’, ‘a famous woman’, or ‘the famous woman’ depending on the context. This is in fact the way things are in most of the world’s languages. The definite and indefinite articles are by and large found in modern western European languages like English, German, and French.
Just a few words in Latin quickly give an idea of what is easy and what is difficult.The words are often already known,or at least you can often connect a Latin word with an English word you already know. But the rules for how you put the words together into phrases or sentences, that is the grammar of the language,are very different from those that apply in a language like English. In this book for the most part I focus on words in the main body of the text, and you can read it without bothering about the word endings or other complications. If you are interested, however, you can find the most important rules in the section entitled ‘About the Grammar’ at the end of the book.
Latin is written with what we have come to call the Roman alphabet, which English and most other European languages have taken over. Our ****** was originally created to write down Latin,and so the letters correspond very well to the sounds of that language. The words we have met so far are pronounced more or less as we would expect.
Obviously,there are still some differences.In the Latin of antiquity the letter c is only used to represent the sound which we indicate with k in words of Anglo-Saxon origin such as kill or king. Due to French influence, we have retained this value for the letter c in words of Latin origin such as clear or castle, but we pronounce it as [s] when followed by e or i.What the Romans never did was to use the letter c to represent an s-sound, so that we pronounce several words that come from Latin in a way that would have surprised the Romans.
For example, we say the word cell with an initial s-sound although it is in fact the English version of the Latin word cella‘room’ which was pronounced with an initial [k]. It is the same with Latin names like Cicero (which the Romans pronounced approximately kickerow), Caesar and Cecilia. In other contexts, the modern pronunciation of Latin in Britain and northern Europe respects the ancient norms and uses the k-sound in all words that are spelled with a c.
Why there should be these differences requires quite a bit of explaining, and we will deal with the question later in the book.It has to do with the way the pronunciation of Latin changed over the centuries. Here I will just concentrate on how the ancient Romans pronounced their language.There is also a difference between English and Latin as far as the vowels are concerned. Latin had only five vowels, represented by the letters i, e, a, o, and u, which had more or less the same sounds as these letters do in modern Spanish or Italian, so that for example Roma, the name of the city of Rome, must have been said in much the same way by the Romans as it is by the Italians who now live there. Similarly, the Romans would not have much trouble recognizing modern Italian or Spanish words like casa ‘house’, tu ‘you’, and luna ‘moon’, whose pronunciation has changed very little in two thousand years. Although the single vowel letters are never associated with the kind of diphthongal pronunciation of the English i in wine or a in fate, there are three sequences of vowel letters which represent diphthongs, namely ae pronounced roughly as English I, oe as in English boy, and au as in English loud. With this knowledge you should be able to pronounce Latin words correctly according to the ancient norms. For instance, the Roman pronunciation of Caesar was very close to the modern German pronunciation of the word Kaiser ‘emperor’, perhaps not surprising since the latter is a Latin borrowing in German.The main rule is to pronounce each letter exactly as it stands and to use the same sound for a given letter in all contexts, as one would do for example with the English letters m or p.
There are relatively few complications. We have already met one in the word lingua. The group gu is pronounced [gw], so that lingua has two syllables. Similarly, the group qu is pronounced [kw], as in the word aqua ‘water’.
This just leaves the question of the stress. In Latin words the stress is always on the second or third syllable from the end. The second last or penultimate is the most common, as in the word latína, but several words are stressed on the third from the end or antepenultimate syllable, like fémina. (You can find the rules for determining the position of the stress in the section on grammar at the end of the book.) Quite often it is possible to guess which syllable is stressed, as the general rule is that the stress in modern loanwords is still on the same syllable. In this book we sometimes use an accent on the words with antepenultimate stress, particularly if the stress of a loanword is different from the Latin one. In the word list at the back, which contains all the words used in this book, there is an accent on all forms longer than two syllables, and if you are uncertain about how to stress a word, you can check it there. In an ordinary Latin text there are no accents, but we use them here to help the reader.