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Knowing Grammar vs. Knowing how to read...

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Knowing Grammar vs. Knowing how to read...

Postby Rindu » Thu May 23, 2013 10:22 pm

....plus, a specific question, which I'll start with first.

What is the use of the ablative in this sentence?

Italiae incolae prīmī Aborīginēs fuērunt, quōrum rēx Sāturnus tantā iūstitiā fuisse dicitur ur nec servīret quisquam sub illō nec quidquam suum proprium habēret, sed omnia commūnia omnibus essent.

I'm reading through Lingua Latina as a way to brush up on my Latin after a four year hiatus, and I'm breezing through it, having studied Latin for several years and going to grad school for it. However, I often find myself unable to identify the grammatical constructions involved, yet I know exactly what things mean. Clearly the relative clause above means "whose king Saturnus is said to have been so just that..." or, more literally, "...is said to have been with such great justice..." (which sounds ridiculous). The funny thing is that, as I read, I didn't parse the grammar; my first reading was the way I first translated it here, and then I had to go back and try unpacking the grammar to make sure I "really" understood it.

The sad thing is, that's the way Latin is taught. You don't officially understand something unless you can explicate all the grammatical nuances of the text, which seems like a slow and inefficient way to develop reading comprehension. On the other hand, having been taught Latin that way, I can't with confidence say that it isn't actually useful--perhaps I've climbed the ladder and can now throw it away.

What do you think? Do I really need to be able to ID grammatical constructions?
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Re: Knowing Grammar vs. Knowing how to read...

Postby Qimmik » Fri May 24, 2013 2:41 am

rēx Sāturnus tantā iūstitiā fuisse dicitur

This is what Allen & Greenough call "descriptive ablative or ablative of qualify" (sec. 415).

more literally, "...is said to have been with such great justice..."


This construction is usually translated using the English preposition "of": "is said to have been [a man] of such great justice"

With regard to your larger question, I think you have to read enough so that you internalize the rules, and don't have to think about a particular rule each time you encounter an instance of it. You have to force yourself to do this at first. Eventually, if you read enough, you will get there. (I find, though, that especially with ancient languages, there are always passages that stump me, and that I have to think about in terms of grammatical analysis. Sometimes I'm gratified, however, to find out in annotations that the analysis of these passages is disputed.)

Unfortunately, the best Latin author for assimilating the variety of constructions that Latin is capable of in a relatively simple style is Caesar, who seems to have been banished from the first and second-year classroom because he's so boring. But if you hack your way through Caesar for a while, you can pick up the ability to read naturally, without focusing on every point of syntax.

I would also recommend reading Cicero, Livy and Tacitus. Reading Latin poetry is a somewhat specialized skill, but once you acquire it (it involves tricks like anticipating that the noun at the caesura will be modified by an adjective at the end of the verse, for example), I think, Vergil and Ovid, and even Horace and Catullus, are actually easier than many prose writers. Ovid is dazzling and often outrageously funny. Everyone has their favorites, though.

I would also recommend getting beyond made-up Latin as quickly as possible and engaging with works written by native speakers. You should equip yourself whenever possible with good commentaries which can not only help with understanding the grammar but also the background of the texts.

Those are some thoughts of my own. I'm not a professional, but I started studying Latin in 1958 when I was 12, studied it through high school, majored in Classics in college, and have been engaged with the language throughout my adult life.
Last edited by Qimmik on Fri May 24, 2013 11:33 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Knowing Grammar vs. Knowing how to read...

Postby Markos » Fri May 24, 2013 5:49 am

The sad thing is, that's the way Latin is taught. You don't officially understand something unless you can explicate all the grammatical nuances of the text, which seems like a slow and inefficient way to develop reading comprehension. On the other hand, having been taught Latin that way, I can't with confidence say that it isn't actually useful--perhaps I've climbed the ladder and can now throw it away.

What do you think? Do I really need to be able to ID grammatical constructions?


I think grammatical analysis does more harm than good in learning a language. That is to say, it does do a little good, if used very sparingly in the initial stages of learning. But certainly one should throw it away as soon as possible. You can never go wrong if you focus on meaning over form.

When I read Greek now, I have to try to FORGET all the meta-language I was taught, since it interferes with fluency and ultimately it betrays the text no less so than does a translation.
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Re: Knowing Grammar vs. Knowing how to read...

Postby Qimmik » Fri May 24, 2013 7:32 pm

Personally, I'd be lost without familiarity with the grammatical rules, even though I believe I can read most Latin texts without analyzing each sentence as I read. Knowing the rules comes in handy for me when I reach something that stumps me--being able to analyze it grammatically usually helps me figure it out. (This is especially true in reading poetry, where the language is frequently extremely compressed.) But that's just me, and I recognize that others may experience the act of reading differently.

One other point about ancient texts: many of them haven't been well preserved. Sometimes I find I do have to read using grammatical analysis to some extent to help me along in passages that are just barely intelligible. Propertius is a good example of this. And there are other texts where understanding each sentence is an achievement.
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