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The Basics of Latin Verb Tenses

written by: John Garger•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 2/6/2013

Like English, Latin has six tenses. However, all of Latin’s tenses are formed with inflections, making their identification more difficult for English speakers. Read an overview of all six tenses here.

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    The tense of a verb indicates when the action takes place. Generally, actions take place in the past, the present, or the future. However, in both English and Latin there are six tenses each with its own specific use and construction. In fact, the word “tense" is related to the Latin word “tempus" which literally translates as “time."

    The basic tenses found in most languages include the past, present, and future. Latin and English examples include:

    Past: I walked (ambulabam)

    Present: I walk (ambulo)

    Future: I shall walk (ambulabo)

    Without any more information, it is possible to understand when the action of a sentence takes place from the verb or verb phrase alone. But as mentioned above, both Latin and English have six tenses, not three. In fact, both languages have three tenses for past actions, one tense for present actions, and two tenses for future actions. The six English tenses with examples are:

    Present (I walk)

    Past (I was walking)

    Present Perfect (I walked)

    Past Perfect (I had walked)

    Future (I shall walk)

    Future Perfect (I shall have walked)

    Latin has the same tenses but some are known by slightly different names:

    Present (ambulo)

    Imperfect (ambulabam)

    Perfect (ambulavi)

    Pluperfect (ambulaveram)

    Future (ambulabo)

    Future Perfect (ambulavero)

    The most prominent differences are in the naming of the past/imperfect, present perfect/perfect, and the past perfect/pluperfect tenses. Typically, the tenses of both languages function similarly with some subtle but important differences. Also, while English uses auxiliary words to identify a verb’s tense, Latin uses only inflections, or the changing of the end of a word to indicate its function in a sentence. One exception is the formation of the inflected forms of some passive voice Latin verbs. In these cases, two words are required to properly form the verb. However, these pairings are for inflective purposes; they do not serve as auxiliary words.

    One of difficulties many beginning Latin students have with learning Latin verbs is a lack of academic knowledge about their own native language. The average English-speaking student is unaware of the intricacies of the English language and its unique aspects that separate it from other languages, especially the Romance languages. Although English borrows many words from Latin, Greek through Latin, and Latin through French, English is a Germanic language and it shares more in common with its ancestor languages in construction than with the Romance languages, which are all descendants of Latin. English-speaking students often try to make Latin fit into their conceptualization of what language is and often struggle with the more sophisticated, yet simpler, method of forming sentences with inflections.






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