Word order in Latin

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Latin differs from languages like English in that it uses many noun cases which are declined in such a way that they are nearly all different from each other, and even proper nouns such as names are declined.

For example, the ending of the common Roman name Marcus is different in each of the following sentences due to the different cases in which it is used (the name Cornelia remains undeclined):

  • Marcus hits Cornelia. (Subject-Verb-Object, the most common permutation of expression in English)
  • Cornelia hits Marcum. (SVO)
  • Cornelia gives Marco a present. (Subject, Verb, [indirect object], [direct] Object, so SVO as well.)
  • Cornelia shouts: "Marce, Marce, come! It's time for your difficult language homework." (SVO)

Declension by case means that word order can be more variable in Latin than in English and other languages—because a reader or listener can discern the case of a word, it is not necessary to adhere to a strictly defined order.

The ordering in the following sentences would be perfectly correct in Latin and no doubt understood with clarity, despite the fact that in English they're awkward at best and senseless at worst:

  • Cornelia hits Marcus. (OVS)
    • But which means: Marcus hits Cornelia.
  • Marcum hits Cornelia. (OVS)
    • But which means: Cornelia hits Marcum.
  • Marcum Cornelia hits. (OSV)
    • But which means: Cornelia hits Marcum.
  • Marco gives Cornelia a present. ([indirect object], Verb, Subject, [direct] Object, so VSO)
    • But which means: Cornelia gives Marco a present.

Nonetheless, the SOV permutation was the most frequent in Classical Latin, except where—in poetry, for example—the ordering was often changed for the sake of rhythm or emphasis. Ordinary prose, however, tended to follow the pattern of Subject, Indirect Object, Direct Object, Adverbial Words or Phrases, Verb. Adjectives usually directly followed nouns, unless they were nouns of beauty, size, goodness, or truth, in which case they preceded the noun being modified.

However, some Latin writers use word order to add emphasis to certain words in a statement. In Virgil's Eclogues, for example, he writes, "Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori!". (Love conqueres all, let us yield to love!)

It is possible to construct a poem with a completely regular rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables through careful arrangement of the right words in the right order, a feat rendered virtually impossible in English. An example of this form of poetry is the dactylic hexameter.

It should not be believed, however, that Latin word order is completely free. The Romans never wrote in such a free manner. In fact, the placement of words within a sentence, particularly in writing, would have significant meaning. Unfortunately, many students of Latin are never taught this distinction, and instead, they follow the ill-founded idea that word order does not matter. This has led many, including people who should know better, to misunderstand (or be unable to read) many famous examples of Latin.

Many Slavic languages, such as Russian and Polish—though not Bulgarian—also have many noun cases, making variable word order possible as in Latin.

See also

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