The problem with pronouns in Latin

Latin is a heavily inflected language. Inflection is a process of word formation by which the word is modified according to its grammatical category. For verbs, inflection (called conjugation), means that the ending (and in some instances the stem) of the verb will change according to tense (e.g. present or future), voice (active or passive), person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) or number (singular or plural).

English is different. English relies heavily on pronouns to identify who is performing the action of a verb. For example, let’s take the verb “to warn” in the present tense. To conjugate this English verb, I need to use a series of different pronouns to express whoever is the subject of the verb – there is only one small change (in the 3rd person) to the ending of the verb itself:

1st person singular: I warn
2nd person singular: You (sg) warn
3rd person singular: He/she/it warns
1st person plural: We warn
2nd person plural: You (pl) warn
3rd person plural: They warn

Latin is completely different. Latin has no need of a personal pronoun to express whoever is doing the action of the verb. The same verb in Latin will conjugate as follows:

1st person singular: moneo
2nd person singular: mones
3rd person singular: monet
1st person plural: monemus
2nd person plural: monetis
3rd person plural: monent

One of the most important things for new students of Latin to grasp is this fundamental difference, for it has varied and complex effects upon their ability to read and translate the language competently. To become a confident Latinist, a student must break the habit of reading from left to right and learn to prioritise finding the verb (usually, although not always, at the end of the sentence).

The habit of reading from left to right is extraordinarily difficult to break and students will usually revert to it when under pressure, despite “knowing” their verb endings. For example, a novice will naturally tend to translate the sentence “puellam monemus” as “the girl warns”. But the -mus ending on the verb tells us that it actually means “we warn”, therefore the sentence translates as “we warn the girl”: the fact that the girl is the object, not the subject of the verb, is also something that can be deduced from its case ending, but that too tends to go out of the window when a novice is faced with a sentence such as this – and that’s precisely because we naturally read from left to right. No other reason, really.

It seems to me that the authors of virtually all the Latin reading courses that have made it through the traditional publishing process are either in complete denial about this fundamental difference between English and Latin, or they are utterly deluded in their apparent belief that it really isn’t that difficult for children to let go of the habit of reading from left to right – even though it’s a routine they have been trained into doing habitually from the age of 4 or 5 and is therefore deeply ingrained. Reading from left to right is, for every child – however hesitant a reader – a custom which will have slipped entirely into their unconscious mind; no child picks up a book and starts reading a sentence from the middle or the end.

In my criticism of published reading courses I am thinking in particular of courses such as The Cambridge Latin Course and the much more recently published Suburani, which is so markedly CLC 2.0 that I’m surprised its creators haven’t been sued by Cambridge for plagiarism. Both courses use subject pronouns from the outset (and throughout) as a prop for students to hang their understanding upon. Since pronouns – when used as the subject – appear at the beginning of the sentence, students are actively encouraged to continue with their natural instinct of reading from left to right. This, to be brutally frank, is simply disastrous for their potential as future Latinists.

Here are just a couple of examples from the very first few pages of Suburani (and therefore part of students’ early introduction to reading Latin stories):

ego multum cibum habeo (“I have a lot of food”): what is ego doing there? Why not force students to look at the ending of habeo instead?

tu psitaccum habes (“you have a parrot”): what is tu doing there? Don’t get me started on why the students are learning the Latin for “parrot” in their first few lessons. It may not surprise you to know that it doesn’t come up very often and it’s certainly not a word they will need at GCSE or are likely to need at A level.

ego cibum vendo (“I am selling food”): sigh.

tu amicum habes (“you have a friend”): etc etc. You get the idea.

In all of the above sentences both ego and tu could be removed in order to force students to look at the verb ending. So what are they doing there? It seems to me that they serve no purpose other than to encourage students to read from left to right – excactly the opposite of what they should be doing. This more than anything is my fundamental objection to how courses such as these are designed; I have plenty of other objections too, but this is the one that irks me the most. The authors of these courses are so determined to prove their misguided belief that students will learn how to read Latin via some kind of process of osmosis that they are prepared to lull them into a false sense of security by guiding them to approach Latin sentences in entirely the wrong way. From day one.

In my final few years at the chalkface and as we hurtled into lockdown, I was faced with the prospect of converting all my Latin lessons for online learning and the need to put work on screen. On our return to school I did not have enough text books to go around and was told that they could not be shared between bubbles. Since I had to get all of the stories up onto the screen, this, I decided, was the time to grasp the bull by the horns and edit all the cartoons and the stories in the Cambridge Latin Course to remove all the pronouns and therefore force students to look at the verb endings. I made other fundamental changes too, but this was the one (I believe) which has had the most tangible impact on students’ understanding. One of the most exciting things was the moment when I realised that students were so well-drilled in the process of finding the verb and translating the inflected ending that a strange consequence arose: when first introduced to sentences that had a noun for a subject like “puellae monent” (“the girls warn”), students often translated it as “the girls, they warn” then looked puzzled. Hallelujah. Once it was explained to them (and reiterated several times) that when a sentence contains a subject such as “the girls”, this replaces the pronoun (they) in their translation, there was no problem.

The habit of reading from left to right is so ingrained that it remains something which students need to be reminded of constantly. Once drilled in inflection, however, I find that even with the weakest students, all I need to do is point at the verb ending and they immediately adjust their translation to reflect the verb ending. This gentle process must be repeated again and again. It comes after weeks, months, years of drilling them on their verb endings. All of my students, even the weakest in the class, were able to write down their verb endings from memory and could tell me what they meant. The biggest chaellenge remained breaking that reading habit, but at least my refusal to let them rely on the subject pronoun has given them a fighting chance. By the time students reached the end of Year 8 and the start of Year 9, the habit was all but broken.

That’s how long it takes and that’s how important it is.

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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