Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Latin Word Order Doesn't Matter..."

I hear repeatedly from my students that they have been taught that Latin word order does not matter. I gasp and reply that Latin word order makes all the difference!

A little bit of background first -- I teach Latin II, III, IV, AP Latin Literature, and AP Latin: Vergil. Strange to say, I have not taught Latin I in well over a decade! I regularly get my students from four different Latin I teachers and then lead them upward as far as they are willing and able to go.

I have come to the conclusion that I will have to approach these teachers and address this issue as a fundamental understanding of the Latin language. Since I am not known particularly for my tact, I will have to proceed gently and bring up the subject at the appropriate time.

I tell my Latin II and III students (when we complete our Compositio Hodierna) that the Romans did not have punctuation, did not underline their words, did not have bold print or italics, but relied upon word order to show emphasis and contribute to the meaning.

An example readily made itself available today as we began our reading of Caesar's De Bello Gallico in Latin IV. After encouraging my advanced students to read and translate in Latin word order (left to right, NOT hunting for the subject and verb, as I am so accustomed to do), we came across in the very first paragraph,

Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit.

When a student asked, "Why did the sentence begin with an accusative?" and scratched his head, I, remembering the conversation I had had with Latin II just the class period before, seized the opportunity to discuss the meaning and importance of Latin word order. I told them that the most important positions in the Latin sentence was the first and last words and that everything in between simply filled in the meaning. So, in our sentence from Caesar, the emphasis was on "the Gauls" and what happened to them (dividit), not so much on the names of the actual rivers, although that information was still important.

I have frequently had this conversation with my AP students when we are analyzing poetry, but I have never really taught this to my lower level students for whom this information is just as important. Now if I can just tell the Latin I teachers who send me their students...

11 comments:

Mike Salter said...

Thanks, interesting post. I've found that, as I've gotten more experienced and more used to reading Latin "naturally" (that is, left to right and more or less without stopping, rather than the jigsaw-puzzle technique I used until embarrassingly recently), I'm much more sensitive to the subtleties and significance of Latin word order.

I still say to my Year 8 students (beginner class - I'm in Australia so the terminology's different from America) that word endings are more important that word order in Latin, but I keep tongue in cheek when I do so, and try to gradually disabuse them of the notion by about Year 10...

ginlindzey said...

I agree with you 100%. But you knew I would! I was searching for Ecce/quia links and stumbled back to your blog instead. An enjoyable diversion.--ginnyL

Anonymous said...

To enable students to develop a good understanding of Latin word order, it is also very important to teach them good skills in word syllabication and word accent. Pronunciation too. This way students can learn to recognize, even hear, the syntactic units as they read left to right. Hunting for subject-verb becomes a less critical procedure. But these skills are underemphasized in the recent text methodologies. Why do you think this is so?

Anonymous said...

I found your post very interesting. I am just a beginning Latin student, so naturally I have been taught to read endings and that word order is flexible, which is why the endings are important. I've also been taught that the order can greatly emphasis the meaning--such as using a pronoun would, for example.
This jigsaw method of reading that some have mentioned seems to be what most learners do in the beginning. I like to say I'm fairly apt at reading left to right for some of the sentences I've come upon. It's definitely a nice feeling to be able to read left to right, while catching endings and order, and being able to read the sentence with ease.

Anonymous said...

i dont agree , surely the endings decide what it means . look at latin poetry .

Anonymous said...

It seems that at a certain point in learning Latin, it becomes harder to translate the sentences into English than to simply understand what they mean in Latin. Certainly the Romans did not hunt around the page for subjects and verbs: they read left to right.

Les Publica said...

Excellent, excellent. Yes, the word order is flexible, because of the noun case system, but that allows layers of meaning that aren't possible in English. There are poetic effects possible in Latin that are simply not possible in English, at least since Middle English, nor in any of the living Romance languages, with the possible exception of Romanian.

I love Latin poetry!

Anonymous said...

If you love Latin poetry, you should consider learning Greek. There are some unbelievably powerful images in Greek epic poetry as well as in their Tragedies.

Anonymous said...

Ad poetry: But poetry is the furthest from natural language as it can be. Surely you'll tell me that litteral(classical) latin is somewhat "synthethic" and not-everyday too.. but still the prose is much more closer to it than poetry, where the word order is governed mainly by metrics.

Anonymous said...

As a first year university Latin student who has taken it since grade six, I didn't cover the real importance of word order until latin 4 and 5 AP. At that point it becomes something viewed as a secondary thing to look at which requires way more effort than reading just the words does for example. I wish that as a beginning student we are taught to understand word order cues in the same way we're taught to look for endings and phrases - it would make higher level reading much less laborious especially when doing analysis and criticisms.

Anonymous said...

Word order as far as conveying the MEANING of the sentence absolutely does not matter according to other Latin scholars and my own studies. Word order for emphasis, ease (for more complex sentences), and beauty, on the other hand, surely would. Cicero and Caesar, for instance, would have crafted the words of their speeches and literature for the purpose of style and force. While scrambling a Latin sentence will make for a harder less interesting read, it can most definitely still be understood by the sheer nature of the inflected endings.