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What Is the Latin Word Order?

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Question: What Is the Latin Word Order?
One of the most commonly asked questions about Latin syntax is "What is the word order?" In an inflected language like Latin, the order of the words is less important than the ending in terms of determining how each word functions in the sentence. A Latin sentence can be written subject first followed by the verb, followed by the object, just as in English. This form of sentence is referred to as SVO. The Latin sentence can also be written a variety of other ways:
  • English: The girl loves the dog. SVO
  • Latin (1): Puella canem amat. SOV
    (2): Canem puella amat. OSV
    (3): Amat puella canem. VSO
    (4): Amat canem puella. VOS
    (5): Canem amat puella. OVS
    (6): Puella amat canem. SVO
Answer: Although the Latin word order is flexible, conventionally the Romans adhered to one of these forms for a simple declarative sentence, but with many exceptions. The most common form is the first Latin one above, SOV, (1): Puella canem amat. The ending on the nouns tells their roles in the sentence. The first noun, puella 'girl,' is a singular noun in the nominative case, so it is the subject. The second noun, canem 'dog,' has an accusative singular ending, so it is the object. The verb has a third person singular verb ending so it goes with the subject of the sentence.

Word Order Provides Emphasis

Since Latin doesn't require word order for basic comprehension, the fact that there is a fallback word order suggests that there is something word order does that the inflection doesn't do. Latin word order is varied to emphasize particular words or for variety. Postponement, placing of words in unexpected positions, and juxtaposition are among the ways in which Romans achieved emphasis in their sentences, according to an excellent, public domain online Latin grammar, A Latin Grammar, by William Gardner Hale and Carl Darling Buck. First and last words are most important in writing. Speech is different: When talking, people emphasize words with pauses and pitch, but regarding Latin, most of us are more concerned with how to translate or write it than how to speak it.

"The girl loves the dog" is, superficially, a pretty boring sentence, but if the context were one where the expected object of her affection was a boy, then when you say "the girl loves the dog," the dog is unexpected, and it becomes the most important word. To emphasize it you would say (2): Canem puella amat. If you had mistakenly thought the girl despised the dog, it would be the word love that required emphasis. The last place in the sentence is emphatic, but you could move it to an unexpected spot, at the front, to highlight further the fact that she actually loves it: (3): Amat puella canem.

Further Details

Let's add a modifier: You have a lucky (felix) girl who loves the dog today (hodie). You would say in the basic SOV format:

  • (7): Puella felix canem hodie amat.

An adjective modifying a noun, or a genitive governing it, generally follows the noun, at least for the first noun in the sentence. Romans often separated modifiers from their nouns, thereby creating more interesting sentences. When there are pairs of nouns with modifiers, the nouns and their modifiers may be ringed (chiastic construction ABba [Noun1-Adjective1-Adjective2-Noun2]) or parallel (BAba [Adjective1-Noun1-Adjective2-Noun2]). Assuming we know that the girl is lucky and happy and the boy is the one who is brave and strong, (nouns A and a, adjectives B and b) you could write:

  • (8): fortis puer et felix puella (BAba parallel)
    strong boy and fortunate girl
  • (9): puer fortis et felix puella (ABba chiastic)
    boy strong and fortunate girl
  • Here is a variation on the same theme:
  • (10): Aurea purpuream subnectit fibula vestem (BbAa) This is a so-called silver line.
    golden purple ties brooch garment
    A golden brooch ties the purple garment.
    It is a line of Latin written by a master of Latin poetry, Vergil (Virgil) [Aeneid 4.139]. Here the verb precedes the subject-noun, which precedes the object-noun [VSO].

Hale and Buck provide other examples of variation on the SOV theme, which they say is actually rarely found, despite its being the standard.

If you've been paying close attention, you may have wondered why I threw in the adverb hodie. It was to present the sentence ring that the subject-noun and verb form around their modifiers. Just as the adjective goes after the emphasized first word, so the modifier of the verb precedes the emphatic final position (Noun-Adjective-Adverb-Verb). Hale and Buck elaborate with the following useful rules for modifiers of the verb:

a. The normal order of the modifiers of the verb and the verb itself is:
1. Remoter modifiers (time, place, situation, cause, means, etc.).
2. Indirect object.
3. Direct object.
4. Adverb.
5. Verb.

Remember:
(1) Modifiers tend to follow their noun and precede their verb in the basic SOV sentence.
(2) Although SOV is the basic structure, you may not find it very often.

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