How to Read Scholastic Latin

I’ve just read with great pleasure Dylan Schrader’s Shortcut to Scholastic Latin (Paideia Institute, 2019). It’s a brief, reliable, sometimes even charming handbook for beginners, which I recommend having on your shelf for students, if not for yourself.

I do, however, have one complaint: the book seems to me to target the wrong audience. Father Schrader’s intended audience is someone with a solid intermediate grasp of classical Latin, coming to scholastic Latin for the first time. But, in my many years of training people to read scholastic Latin, I find that such students are rare. What I’ve encountered, overwhelmingly, are students who have quickly run through a beginner’s course in Latin, and now wish to put that knowledge to work on texts they actually care about.

Schrader’s Shortcut will help them, for sure, but I think it is not quite the book they need. They don’t need information about the differences between classical and scholastic Latin, since they barely know classical Latin. They need a shortcut to the most important features of scholastic Latin that they probably didn’t acquire from racing through Wheelock’s Latin.

So what are those features? I’m not going to write a book, but here, as my gift for the holidays, is an attempt at a top-10 list:

1. First and most importantly, constantly look for the logical connectives, in particular:

  • A ergo B / A igitur B : these always mean that B follows from A.
  • A … B enim / A quia B : these almost always mean that A is true because B is true.
  • A … B vero / A … B autem : these very often mean that B is an additional, complementary fact beyond A, and especially that B is a minor premise relative to the major premise that is A. (Don’t be fooled into thinking that vero has something to do with truth.)

2. Relatedly, become accustomed to seeing these connectives as, in effect, the text’s punctuation. Here it helps to be aware that, unlike in English, many of these words tend to be used in postpositive position—that is, as the second word in the new clause. And once sentences start to take form around these words, some otherwise confusing particles can be put into this same framework:

  • quidem autem : this works (much like mende in Greek) to build a construction of the form “On the one hand …, on the other hand….”
  • sicut A … ita B: you’ll see this comparative construction everywhere: just as A, so too B.
  • tum A … tum B / tam A … quam B: these particles build lists: A and B
  • vel A vel B: these particles build disjunctions: either A or B

3. The passive voice. Because logical and causal relationships are nearly everything in philosophy, it is utterly critical (a) to recognize the difference between the active and passive voice; (b) to become proficient at putting subject and object in their proper place when the verb is passive; (c) to bear in mind the common deponent verbs (sequor, loquor, utor, patior…); (d) to be prepared for a verb in the passive voice to be impersonal: dicitur quod …. “it is said….”; (e) to be ready to identify passive infinitives, which are very common.

4. Dependent clauses. This is a large subject, but there are some easy things to look for:

  • cum with a subjunctive verb is extremely common and almost always means since/because….
  • indirect discourse is extremely common and is routinely done in either of two ways:
    • quod + subjective: Quidam dicit quod anima sit forma
      • do not overtranslate the subjunctive here; it is subjunctive just because it is within a dependent clause; its meaning is indicative, i.e. he says that the soul is a form.
    • accusative + infinitive: Necesse est animam esse formam; “it’s necessary that the soul is a form.”

5. Counterfactual conditionals using the imperfect subjunctive. E.g., Si esset divisa, tunc sequeretur…. (“If it were divided, then it would follow…”). This might seem like an advanced bit of Latin that beginners don’t need to worry about for a while, but in philosophical prose the counterfactual is critical and very common.

6. Gerunds made easy. When dico becomes dicendum, it has assumed noun form as a gerund. Things get tricky here, and Schrader is helpful on the intricacies, but for beginners what’s critical are three usages that appear all over the place:

  • modus dicendi : “manner of speaking”; this is the most straightforward use for the gerund; native English speakers who never learned their grammar should note that ‘speaking’ is how we make a gerund in English.
  • dicendum est : here the gerund has obligatory force: “it should be said.”
  • ad dicendum : here the gerund expresses purpose: “in order to say.”

Part of what’s tricky here is that, in these three cases, the gerund plays completely different roles. But if you simply learn these three fairly well defined usages, you’ll be able to get a long way.

7. The omnipresent impersonal verbs. It helps a lot to recognize fluently the following verbs:

  • Oportet quod: it is necessary that
  • Contingit quod: it happens (occasionally: it is a contingent fact that)
  • Accidit + dative: it occurs to someone/thing (occasionally: it is accidental to)

Bear in mind that licet almost always appears as a conjunction, not a verb. It introduces a subjunctive verb and means Although…. (Here again, don’t overtranslate the subjunctive; cf. #4.)

8. Noun vs. adjectives. In scholastic Latin, word order starts to look a bit like the word order in modern European languages. But because it’s never exactly the same, it’s easy to mistake one part of speech for another—that is, to be confused about what’s a noun, what’s a verb, what’s an adjective, and what’s an adverb. There’s no easy rule here—this is the heart and soul of reading Latin—but one common, easily fixable mistake is to confuse nouns and adjectives. So, forma is the noun and formalis is the adjective. In principle, this is pretty easy, but in practice beginners often fail to catch the difference, in part I think just because they aren’t on guard against the mistake.

9. These phrases need to become second nature:

  • secundum x (“according to x”; note that ‘secundum’ only rarely means “second”)
  • quantum ad x
  • inquantum est x
  • propter x

These expressions have shades of meaning, but they all serve a similar function: they bring x into salience as explanatorily relevant.

10. Exploit the compositional nature of Latin. An astonishing number of Latin terms are formed using prefixes such as con-, per-, ab-, ad-, in-, and so on. Learn the connotations associated with each prefix, and become comfortable with the range of meaning suggested by common roots like sisto. Once you’re alert to this sort of thing, expand your reach by attending to cases where common verbs have surprisingly different principle parts, such as fero, tuli, latus. If you can connect latus to fero, and remember that this means “to carry,” you’ll unlock a lot of further composite vocabulary.

Of course, these rules won’t make you fluent in scholastic Latin all by themselves. The only way to achieve that is to practice constantly. I recommend that you find an easy text (Aquinas or Ockham are leading candidates) that has been translated into a friendly language, make a printed copy of the text and the translation (so that you get away from electronic distractions and so you can write notes on the page), and then devote a set time every day (30 minutes?) to working through the Latin and checking yourself against the translation.

Happy Holidays!

4 comments on “How to Read Scholastic Latin

  1. Lloyd Alfred Newton says:

    These are excellent points to master. If I had mastered them years ago when translating Scotus, my task would have been much easier. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Valery Rees says:

    Thank you for this excellent guide. Planning to pass it on with practical examples next term to group members working on Ficino translations – much still applies even though his usage is often closer to classical Latin. Happy holidays!

  3. D Schrader says:

    Great tips! Very well done. I will share far and wide.

  4. J. B. Aitken says:

    Reblogged this on Analytic Anselm and commented:
    I rarely reblog other sites, but this is too good.

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