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Latin as I please

20 August, 2013 0 Comments

Yes, English has cases too!

In the eighth article in this series, Dr David Daintree deals with the preposition and the accusative in both English and Latin.

Prepositions are my theme.  Prepositions are those little words, normally placed in front – hence their name – of the noun they qualify, that link it to the circumambient world by showing its connection to other things in time or space.  I shall start by looking at standard English practice, because if we have a firm grasp of correct usage within our own language it is much easier to transit to a sound grasp of Latin.

Let me begin with an assertion that might surprise you:  all English prepositions govern the accusative!  ‘But surely English has no cases’, I hear you protest.  I must presume to correct you.  In fact all English nouns and pronouns have a distinct genitive (possessive) case, and they have an accusative too, even if all the nouns have lost their distinctive accusative endings.  But pronouns are different.  Most have kept their special forms:  me, us, whom, him, her, them are all genuine accusatives, healthy survivors of the long centuries which we usually still employ with instinctive correctness.  The commonest exception is you, which is identical in its nominative (subject) and accusative (object) forms.  But observe that its obsolete singulars, thou and thee, retain the ancient distinction.

The rule

The rule in English is simple enough, you might think, but many of us make mistakes.  Granted that all prepositions are supposed to govern (i.e. be used in front of) accusatives, how do we explain such commonly-heard remarks as between you and I or he gave it to my wife and I?  The plain truth is that these are simply incorrect.   It is strange, isn’t it, how people who would never dream of saying talk to I or give it to we don’t hesitate to use the wrong form when it is the second in a pair of closely related pronouns.

Now that I have smugly and arrogantly reminded you of the rules, let me summarize them:  the accusative form of a pronoun must be used whenever it is preceded by a preposition.  Test this proposition:  in, on, under, between, with, without, to, from, and all the other prepositions you care to think of, sound just right when they are followed by words like me, him and her, but really silly placed before I, he or she.

If we accept the point as proven it’s now time to move on to Latin.  Here the situation is not quite so simple (surely you’re not surprised!).  For a start, all Latin masculine and feminine nouns – and adjectives too – have special accusative forms that must be known and recognized if we are to read or use Latin properly and without ambiguity.  You cannot just plonk a preposition in front of a word in the nominative case and hope for the best.  You must change the case of the word of the word that follows – but not necessarily into the accusative form.

You cannot just plonk a preposition in front of a word in the nominative case and hope for the best.

Latin prepositions are followed by either the accusative or the ablative.  Most must be followed by one or the other; a small number offer a choice, and change their meaning accordingly.  A simple mnemonic serves to solve almost all our problems:

Put the ablative with de,
cum and coram, ab and e,
sine, tenus, pro and prae.[1]

As a pretty reliable rule of thumb all prepositions not listed here govern the accusative case.  By far the most striking and significant exception is in which can take either case and changes it meaning accordingly.  In with the accusative has a sense of motion and can most commonly be translated as into, or sometimes by againstIn with the ablative indicates a fixed position, so such English words as in or on usually translate it best.

Translator’s nightmare

I should like to close with some remarks about prepositions in general.  In all languages – or at least in those with which the present writer has some slight acquaintance – these wretched parts of speech are of all words the most fickle and mischievous.  The choice of the correct word to use in one language to represent a preposition in another can be a challenge to the good taste, learning and wisdom of a translator.  They are a translator’s nightmare: no preposition in any language exactly corresponds in the range of its meanings to a single preposition in any other language.  They are frequently used inexactly, loosely and eccentrically even by native speakers.

Consider the difficulty a foreigner trying to learn French has in learning to distinguish between en and dans.  Both are supposed to mean in, aren’t they, but when do we use one and not the other?  It is crystal clear to a native speaker, perhaps, but puzzling to me.   And in English, why do we say that something happens on Thursday?  Why not in or at Thursday?  Or why use a preposition at all? The Italians don’t bother.[2] We can say that somebody is at work, or on the job but if he is he might be offered some in-service training!  Prepositions are a minefield for foreigners, and anybody who has ever marked an essay knows that native speakers struggle too, and can make some very funny mistakes.

There has not been much about Latin in this short essay.  I offer it rather as a gentle warning to those who wish to improve their Latin:  be sensitive to context and don’t feel bound to accept simplistic word-for-word equivalences.  Sure, there’s not much room to move when we talk about dogs and cats, mountains and rivers, ships and chariots.  But prepositions?  Now there’s a chance to exercise discretion, style and judgement!


[1] Note that this was composed in the days of the unreformed pronunciation when Latin was spoken as if it were English.  The words that end the lines would have sounded like dee, ee and pree!

[2] We could reasonable say throughout Thursday, but that would extend the meaning somewhat.  Prepositions must be handled with delicacy.

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