Annus Horribilis: Latin for Everyday Life

Annus Horribilis: Latin for Everyday Life

by Mark Walker

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Carpe diem with this guide to the Latin language
What do "quid pro quo" and "habeas corpus" mean? Why do plants have Latin names? Why do families, towns, countries, and even soccer teams have Latin mottoes? What do the Latin epitaphs in churches say? What are the words of Mozart's "Requiem?" These are just a few of the topics


Carpe diem with this guide to the Latin language
What do "quid pro quo" and "habeas corpus" mean? Why do plants have Latin names? Why do families, towns, countries, and even soccer teams have Latin mottoes? What do the Latin epitaphs in churches say? What are the words of Mozart's "Requiem?" These are just a few of the topics covered in this comprehensive guide to Latin for the layman. With wit and clear language, the Latin phrases and words that surround us and compose our contemporary vocabulary are exposed and decoded. Entertaining and informative, this study proves that Latin is anything but dead.

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Annus Horribilis

Latin for Everyday Life

By Mark Walker

The History Press

Copyright © 2010 Mark Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6259-2



Have you ever done something ad hoc or on a quid pro quo basis? Do you get paid per annum or pro rata? Have you ever been caught in flagrante and been in need of an alibi, an alias or an alter ego?

If you think you don't know any Latin, think again. In fact, though you might not realise it yet, you already know thousands of Latin words. Here are just a few them:


These are all real Latin words that any ancient Roman would recognise. And you thought learning Latin was going to be tough!

The reason this book is subtitled Latin for Everyday Life – with the emphasis on Everyday – is because there really is that much Latin in modern English. But why should our language, so remote in time from that of Ancient Rome, contain great chunks of Latin? In order to answer that question a quick sketch of Latin history is called for. That's the purpose of this chapter, before we move on to Chapter 2 and actually start learning some Latin. So here goes.


Virgil (70-19 B.C.);

Publius Vergilius Maro was arguably the finest exponent of the Latin language. His most famous work is The Aeneid, a national Roman epic modelled on both Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and rivalling both.

Latin was originally the dialect of the region of Italy called Latium (modern Lazio), but as a result of the military and political dominance of Rome it soon spread throughout Italy and then to all the provinces of the Roman Empire, right round the Mediterranean into the Middle East and Africa and as far north as Hadrian's Wall. Throughout this vast geographical area, Latin was the language of law, administration, commerce and literature.

Although in the East it didn't entirely displace Greek, which was already well established as the lingua franca (literally 'Frankish language') of that region, in the Western Empire Latin was rapidly adopted as the principal language of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Gaul (France and Belgium). This is the origin of the so-called 'Romance' languages as we know them today: 'Roman' was what people in these territories called their spoken tongue, whereas 'Latin' gradually came to be reserved for the more formal written language – though no distinction was made between the two for many centuries.

To illustrate the process of change from Latin to the Romance languages, just take a look at the most common verb in any language, 'to be' – esse in Latin. This is essere in Italian, ser in Spanish, and être in French. In the table below it is conjugated in Latin then Italian, Spanish and French:

Latin Italian Spanish French

sum sono soy je suis
es sei eres tu es
est é es il/elle/on est
sumus siamo somos nous sommes
estis siete sois vous êtes
sunt sono son ils/elles sont

The family resemblance is clear at a glance. (It's worth noting in passing that both Italian and Spanish can dispense with the personal pronouns 'I', 'You' etc. just as Latin does.)

By contrast, 'to be' in English conjugates like this:

I am
you are
he/she/it is
we are
you are
they are

As we've already noted, the Romance languages developed from the spoken form of Latin – the sermo cotidianus or daily speech – which was not necessarily the same as the written form that has come down to us in the remnants of Latin literature. Take, for example, the Latin word for horse: this is equus in literary Latin. Compare this with the Romance language words for 'horse':

Latin Italian Spanish French
Cavallo Caballo Cheval

Clearly, equus is not the source word. But Latin has another word for 'horse', a slang word meaning 'pack-horse' or 'nag': caballus. This slang word was presumably the one in common use on the streets of Rome, hence the one that found its way into the spoken Romance languages, while equus only survived in polite literature. English gets 'chivalry', 'cavalry' and 'cavalier' from caballus, via French, but 'equine' and 'equestrian' from Latin.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Latin continued to be the official language of the Catholic Church (in the Byzantine territories of the East, Greek was still used). Christian Latin thus spread into Germany and Scandinavia and was reintroduced to the British Isles where it had all but disappeared following the withdrawal of Roman forces. This Church Latin, exemplified by Jerome's Vulgate Bible (Chapter 9), had a somewhat different syntax and vocabulary to Classical Latin, although Christian scholars still studied pagan authors such as Virgil.

Erasmus (c. 1469-1536)

Dutch Latin scholar Gerhard Gerhards (Erasmus) not only produced editions of numerous Classical Latin texts by Pliny and Seneca among others, he also wrote copiously in Latin about Latin. His most famous work is Moriae Encomium ('In Praise of Folly'), published in 1511.

Classical Latin itself was rediscovered by secular Europe during the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the writings of Roman authors such as Cicero and Seneca began to be widely circulated and proved highly influential in the new climate of open-minded intellectual curiosity. Throughout Europe, Latin became the language of science and scholarship, a fact that greatly facilitated the dissemination of learning. For example, Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) used Latin for his system of biological classification (Chapter 6); because all his scientific peers understood Latin, his system was quickly taken up by botanists and biologists everywhere, regardless of their native tongue.

Thus Latin in its spoken form has evolved into the Romance languages of today; in its written form, however, it was preserved largely unchanged by the Church and was then taken up by secular scholars during and after the Renaissance.


Although Latin was introduced to Britain by the Roman conquest in the mid-first century A.D., it did not long survive the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century: an indication that it had failed to displace the native languages in the British Isles, as had happened elsewhere. In the centuries that followed, the Church and its missionaries gradually reintroduced Latin to Britain. But in the meantime a native literary tradition had begun to flourish, most famously exemplified by the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf which was probably composed in the eighth century, a time when, according to the Venerable Bede, there were five languages spoken in Britain ...

... Anglorum videlicet, Brettonum, Scottorum, Pictorum et Latinorum, quae meditatione Scripturarum ceteris omnibus est facta communis

... namely those of the Angles, the Bretons, the Scots [i.e. the Irish], the Picts and the Latins, which latter language is shared among all the other races for contemplation of the Scriptures

Bede (c.672/3–735)

The Venerable Bede was a Northumbrian monk and scholar who wrote elegant, precise Latin in a simpler, more direct style than his Classical predecessors. His Historia Ecclesiastica earned him the title 'Father of English History', since it recounts the major events in British history from the Roman occupation to his own time. The book is also full of vivid and dramatic stories, making it an excellent if overlooked example of Latin prose.

Later, King Alfred (871–899) strived to establish a distinctly English literary culture after the depredations of the Vikings had all but wiped out scholarly communities in many regions. But the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 achieved what the Vikings had failed to do: native British literature was exterminated.

As a result of the Norman conquest, the nascent English language was forced to abandon its literary pretensions, becoming nothing but a poor spoken relation to French, the language of the conquering dynasty for centuries afterwards. Naturally all official business in Norman England was now conducted in Latin.

Gradually as the conquerors became naturalised English reemerged, only now in a much altered form. Thanks to the Normans and their mix of spoken French and written Latin, English had absorbed a huge influx of Latin and Latin-derived words, a process that was greatly to its benefit. This revitalised English showed its new expressive power in the works of Chaucer and Spenser and, ultimately, of Shakespeare.

After the Renaissance, English also took in many words directly from Latin as deliberate borrowings when new terms were needed for technical and scientific developments. This process is still ongoing: recent examples include 'satellite', from the word satelles (satellitis in the genitive case) meaning 'attendant' or 'bodyguard' and the ubiquitous 'video', which is simply 'I see', the first person singular of the Latin verb videre.

Partly as a result of historical accident and partly by design, then, modern English is a distinct oddity among European languages: it belongs to the same Germanic family as those of Scandinavia and Germany, but it has far more Latin-derived words than German-derived ones. This mixed heritage provides English with a fertile source of synonyms: for example, we can choose between the Germanic 'come' and the Latin-derived 'arrive'; or we can say 'brotherly', from the Germanic 'brother' (German brüder), but we can also say 'fraternal', from the Latin frater. Modern English owes much of its worldwide success to its Latin inheritance.

Recommended reading:

T. Janson A Natural History of Latin

Oxford University Press

An accessible survey of the development of Latin from its earliest times to the present day.

Virgil (trans. Fitzgerald) The Aeneid

Everyman's Library

A splendid English translation that captures the majesty of Virgil's stately Latin hexameters.

Bede (ed. Garforth) Historia Ecclesiastica (selections)


For those with enough Latin, F.W. Garforth's selection from Bede includes historical background, illustrations and explanatory notes on the text.



Cicero (106–43 B.C.)

Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the greatest Roman orators and statesmen. Many of his speeches for the law courts and the Senate have been preserved. These are in the grandest style of Latin oratory, a far cry from the sermo cotidianus, the daily speech of everyday Romans. But he also left many letters, addressed to his friend Atticus or to members of his family (including his freedman Tiro). These are far more chatty in tone, giving us a unique portrait of Cicero the man rather than the statesman of his speeches.

When inspecting inscriptions in stone or reading literary quotations it's easy to forget that Latin was once a vehicle for conversation – just like any modern language. All the written remains of old Latin added together represent only a fraction of that 'real' Latin, the language now lost to us because it is no longer spoken. True, there is the Latin of the Catholic Church which, even in the twenty-first century, occasionally gets a public airing when Popes are inaugurated or laid to rest, but such Church Latin (Chapter 9) has both a distinct pronunciation and a distinct vocabulary – when we think of 'proper' Latin, we naturally think of how Cicero or Julius Caesar might have talked.

Classical Latin, then, means the language spoken from, roughly, the beginning of the first century B.C. through to the end of the first century A.D. This was the period of Latin's literary greatness, from the comedies of Plautus and Terence to the late, great work of the historian Tacitus.


A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V (X Y Z)

• I and V (i and v) serve both as vowels and consonants. They are consonants when they appear before a vowel, otherwise they are vowels

• J/j is unknown in Classical Latin, it was invented later to represent consonantal–i (a 'j' is just 'i' with a curl at the base)

• K is only found in Kalendae and a few archaic words, otherwise C is used

• V is consonantal–u, not a separate consonant

• W does not exist (sounds the same as consonantal–u)

• X, Y, Z were only used in words borrowed from Greek (e.g. Xenophon, Zeno)

It's cheering to note that most letters of the Latin alphabet are pronounced in much the same way as English – we did inherit our alphabet from the Romans after all. Sadly Julius Caesar didn't leave behind any recordings of his speeches, so how do we know how he spoke? Evidence comes from a variety of sources. Classical Latin writers on language and grammar such as Varro and Quintillian discuss the subject in their books. Furthermore, analysis of Latin poetry, with its emphasis on long or short vowels and heavy or light syllable quantities, reveals much about how Roman writers expected their words to sound when read aloud. The main points to note are:

1. Consonants

• c is always hard as in cat, never soft as in cider. Hence, Caesar would have been pronounced Kaesar, whence German Kaiser and Russian Tsar

• g is always hard as in get, never soft as in gentle

• consonantal–i sounds like y as in yet

• n before c, g, or qu is like ng in sing

• r is always rolled

• t is always hard as in ten, never soft sh as in potion

• v is consonantal–u and is always w as in wall, not v as in very. Hence, Caesar's famous saying Veni, vidi, vici ('I came, I saw, I conquered') is pronounced Wayny, weedy, weeky

Doubled consonants are pronounced separately, as strictly speaking should ch, th, ph:

• cc like book-case

• ch like ink-horn, not chain

• th like hot-house, not this

• ph like tap-house, not f as in philosophy

(in practice it sounds odd to say p-hil-oso-p-hia, so the normal English pronunciation is acceptable for such familiar words)

2. Diphthongs (two vowels pronounced as one

• ai as in aisle

• au ou as in house

• ei as in rein

• eu e-oo all in one breath

• oe oi as in toil

• ui like we

3. Vowels

Vowels can either be short or long depending on certain conventions and context, for example femina (nominative case) has a short 'a' as in 'cat', but femina (ablative case) has a long 'a' as in 'father'. Thus the difference between the nominative and ablative form of the word would have been clear to a Roman thanks to this distinct pronunciation, though we who usually deal only with written Latin are easily confused!


In case you meet an ancient Roman, a Pope, or a fellow Latin student:

1. Saying 'Hello'

salve! (if addressing just one person)

salvete! (if addressing more than one person)

salve literally means: 'Be well!'. Remember that 'v' is pronounced 'w': sal-way

• these are the imperative forms of the verb salveo, salvere, 'be well/in good health'

• can also be used to say farewell


ave! (singular)

avete! (plural)

This means 'Hail!' as in:

ave atque vale, 'Hail and farewell' (from a poem by Catullus)

ave Caesar! morituri te salutant, 'Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute you' (gladiators' salute)

Ave Maria gratia plena, 'Hail Mary full of grace' (hymn)

ave and avete are the imperative forms of the verb aveo, avere, 'fare well'


salvus sis (addressing a man)

salva sis (addressing a woman)

• literally means: 'May you be well'

sis is the subjunctive (expressing a wish or desire) form of the verb sum, esse ('to be')

2. Asking & Saying Your Name

Q: quid nomen est tibi?

A: nomen est mihi ...

'What's your name?'

'My name is ...'

tibi and mihi are dative case of the personal pronouns ego ('I') and tu ('you'). Literally the Latin means 'What name is there to you?' 'There is a name to me ...' i.e. 'What name do you have/possess?' 'I have/possess the name ...'

nomen, genitive case nominis, from which we get the English words 'nominate', 'nominal' and 'nomenclature' (a system of names)

3. Saying 'Goodbye'

vale! (singular)

valete! (plural)

• literally means: 'Be strong!'

• these are the imperative forms of the verb valeo, valere

bonum vesperum 'Good evening'
bonam noctem 'Good night'

bonum and bonam are the same word, two forms of the accusative case of the adjective bonus, -a, -um. Because vesper, vesperis, 'evening', is masculine gender, accusative case, the adjective must also be masculine accusative: bonum. But nox, noctis, 'night' (English 'nocturnal') is feminine accusative, so the adjective also becomes feminine accusative: bonam.

4. Asking 'How are you?

ut vales? 'Are you well/strong?'
quid agis? 'What are you doing?'

Possible replies:

optime, et tu 'Very well (literally: best) and you?'
valeo 'I am well'
bene maneo 'I remain well'
non male 'Not bad'
satis bene 'Well enough non ita bene 'Not so well' pessime 'Terrible' (literally: 'worst')


Excerpted from Annus Horribilis by Mark Walker. Copyright © 2010 Mark Walker. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Walker is the author of Amida and Annus Moribilis and the former editor of the Gramophone Film Music series and the Musicals Good CD Guides series.

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