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I turn to the "First Latin Books," in order to find what is said to students at that most critical period in their study of the language, — the beginning. I remember well how I was taught at Phillips Exeter Academy — of revered memory — to attack a Latin sentence. "First find your verb, and translate it," said my teacher. "Then find your subject, and translate it. Then find the modifiers of the subject, then the modifiers of the verb," etc., etc. Well, I had got more than four years beyond Exeter before I learned to read Latin with any feeling but that it was a singularly circuitous and perverted way of expressing ideas, which I could not expect to grasp until I had reformed my author's sentences and reduced them to English. Since my time, however, better ways may have come into vogue. So I turn to the books of two scholarly gentlemen of my acquaintance, — practical teachers, too, — namely, Mr. Comstock, of Phillips Andover Academy, and Dr. Leighton, of the Brooklyn Latin School. On page 233 of Mr. Comstock's "First Latin Book," and pages 211 and 212 of Dr. Leighton's "First Steps in Latin," I find distinct rules, essentially the same, for the operation in question. The former begin as follows: — “a. In every simple sentence, find and translate
  • (1) The subject.
  • (2) The predicate.

Here is a new departure, an entire revolution since my day. I was taught to find first the predicate. A change so radical, a method so exactly the opposite of the old one, ought to lead to results the opposite of the old; namely, to the power to read Latin easily instead of with difficulty. So, with a cheerful heart, I take up a simple sentence in the fourth oration against Catiline, 3.5, and try my new method.

Haec omnia indices detulerunt. I look for my subject. Fortunately, it lies right at hand. It is haec, nom. pl. Next I translate it, these; or, since it is neuter, these things. Then I proceed to find the verb, which, again is obvious, viz., detulerunt, in 3d person pl., agreeing with the subject haec. Perhaps I have caught from somewhere the happy idea of not looking words up in the dictionary until I have tried my hand at them. So, very properly, I set out with the simplest meaning I can think of, viz., brought. Now I am well started: These things brought. Next I look for the modifiers of the subject, and find omnia. I build it on, and have now "all these things" for my subject, — all these things brought. Next I look for the modifiers of the predicate, and I find indices, witnesses, acc. pl., object of the verb. Everything is straight. All these things brought the witnesses. I pass on, and when I come to the class-room, and the teacher calls on me, I read out, All these things brought the witnesses, prepared to parse it to the last word, — only to be told that I am entirely wrong.1

Now, a Roman boy of my age, and much less clever than I, if he could have smuggled himself into the senate that day, would have understood what those four words meant the instant Cicero uttered the last of them, detulerunt. What is the difference between us? Each of us, he and I, knew substantially the meaning of each word, each of us could inflect, each of us knew all the syntax required. Yet I missed the idea, while he got it. Wherein did he beat me? Why, simply here: I, following the direction of my teachers, first found my subject, and settled on haec. The Roman boy did not know whether haec was subject or object. He only knew it as haec. I knew that detulerunt was the verb, and so did he when it arrived. I knew that omnia agreed with the subject haec, while he only surmised that it belonged with haec, whatever that might prove to be. I knew that indices was the object, while he only felt that indices was subject or object, and that it was the opposite of haec omnia (apposition being out of the question), being object if that should turn out to be subject, and subject if that should turn out to be object. Then he heard detulerunt, and with that word everything dropped into place as simply as, in Milton's sentence following,

… the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views,

the last word resolves our momentary suspense in regard to the relation of orb and artist; which relation would have been precisely reversed, had we found such a word, e.g., as "glads."

Let us try the method further. Mr. Comstock goes on (the italics are in part my own): —

  • In a Compound Sentence translate each principal clause as though it were a Simple Sentence. If there are Subordinate Clauses, translate them in the order of their importance. A Subordinate or Dependent Clause is one which, just as in English, limits some part of the Principal Clause (as described in 42, page 12). A clause introduced by a Latin word meaning if, who, which, because, since, although, when, after, while, etc., is Dependent, and should be left until the meaning of the Principal Clause has been obtained.
  • c.
  • In a Complex Sentence, first translate the Principal Clause as a Simple Sentence; then translate the Dependent Clauses according to directions given above (b).

But what is the order of their importance, and how am I to start? With the connective, I presume. We will suppose it to be ut. But how shall I translate it? There are some half-dozen or more "meanings": in order to, so that, when, as, considering, although. Which does it have here? I cannot tell. No more could a Roman. But the difference is, that a Roman did not want to tell which one of its forces ut had here, but waited until something in the rest of the sentence, perhaps twenty, perhaps fifty, words away, informed him; while I am bidden, so to speak, to toss up a cent, and start off upon a meaning, with the odds heavily against me; possibly to find my mistake and go back and correct it, more probably to add error on error in order to "make sense," and so to get the whole thing into a hopeless muddle.

1 If the example chosen is not a happy one, any teacher of young pupils — any college teacher even, I fear — could, with a few days' watching of a class, come up on examples that will satisfy him that the habitual method, no matter how high the teacher's aims, tends to bring about a laxity of scrutiny which constantly leads into blunders as bad as the example here given.

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    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 4.3.5
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