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A little note about Latin word order

Salvete omnes,

Today I wanted to post a little note about word order for those of you who've learned some Latin in the past but may have heard a few misconceptions. There is a bit of a myth to is circulated by a lot of teachers (myself included) that "Word order doesn't matter in Latin" which is true, but also false. There are a few things to keep in mind during reporting.

First of all: The basic sentence structure is composed of a few things, Subjects, Verbs, and Objects. Latin often builds sentences around this. There is a rhyme to it. Some of Caesar's writing was analyzed and this was produced:

SOV: 63%

OSV: 21%

OVS: 6%

VOS: 5%

SVO: 4%

VSO: 1%

So, following this model, we've tried to make transitive sentences (those with a direct object) reflect these basic sentence structures, (excluding the last one, as it's so infrequent).

Prepositional Phrases (e.g. in Italia) can usually go wherever they need to, they shouldn't be split up, by doing things like 'In Ego habito America', or 'America habito in'.

Adjectives are often found next to what they modify. So try to keep to 'Ebrius psittacus in villa sedet' instead of 'psittacus in villa sedet......................................... ebrius' We've also opted to keep certain phrases, like Novum Eboracum set as exactly that, not Eboracum Novum, it drastically cuts down on alternate translations.

Some pronouns are flexible in placement (before or after a noun), some are really not. Check wikipedia's page on Latin Word Order for specific examples.

Non should precede it's verb. 'Non habito in America', not... 'habito in America non'.

Ego, Tu, Vos, and Nos, are excellent for emphasis, but if you're going to include them, it's better to place them before their verb, and not after (except in questions)

Speaking of questions, Question words, like Quid, Quomodo, and the suffix -ne should be at the beginning of a sentence. Exception being when you have a vocative first, i.e. 'Livia et Corinna, ubi sedetis?' not 'sedetis ubi'.

When you see something like 'Natus est' this is in fact, not an adjective with a present tense form of sum. But actually an entire verb form in itself. So we typically will keep them together and in that order to save you from later confusion. It's deliberate, and not that we're attempting to get you to make mistakes.

Latin names are just Latin names, I've seen literally (I mean that in the literal sense) about 800 reports trying to use Mark, Marce, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and more variations of Stephanus than I can count. If you're name was William, and I called you Billy, you might argue that it's not your name. The same is true for Marcus and Stephanus, their names are... Marcus and Stephanus. Marce and Stephane are in the Vocative case, which means they are being addressed specifically. No Stephane isn't the hip Roman way of saying Stephanie.

The whole "there are no rules" stereotype stems a bit from poetry, where rules were often broken to help the line fit a specific meter. But everyday speaking would not have been like that, as evidenced by prose writers of varying skills. I am trying my best to accommodate personal style (i.e. preferring OSV over SOV or what have you) but it takes time.

So in conclusion, if your answer isn't accepted across multiple lessons/skills maybe consider doing it the way we've set in place. There may be a legitimate reason for it. I've learned more about Latin word order and sentence structure from rapidly correcting hundreds of sentences at a time than I did earning my bachelors. So thank you very much for the practice ; ).



September 21, 2019




Thanks. This clarifies a lot.


Thank you for the clarification on Latin grammar in regards to Duolingo's grading; this will definitely go into my notes.


Generally a very helpful order for most things! Like you already said: everyday speaking wouldn't have been like that. The vulgar Latin, which was spoken on the streets of course wasn't comparible to many things one could read. That of course makes more sense when one thinks about the fact that materials to write upon were expensive, which is why everything was to be thought through properly (also always have in mind that an author generally wanted to become known still by later generations and therefore become immortal by his work). Of course expecially in poetry the 'normal rules' had to be broken to fit the metres, stilistic devices and steering of the readers attention. But the last two are also an important fact in written prose Latin, especially for the orators but even for letters (since also they are stilistically composed). Depending on the position of the word in the sentence it has a different 'attention' it gets. Of course the word used in the beginning of each sentence is the most stressed one but also the end stays better in mind. Cicero's simple 'accipere quam facere praestat iniuriam!' is best translated with 'it is better to suffer than to do an injustice', but trying to do it with his emphasis without violating english word order is 'suffering rather than doing an injustice is better'. It still isn't the right order but you see how the sense changed and now imagine that on a whole text like that. 'Thanks to' the many forms, cases and times Latin has, there is still a word order, but it isn't as fixed as it would be in many modern languages. The author can steer attention much better and show much more clearly how he wants his point of view to come across. For getting the state exam (comparable to a Master) in Latin and Ancient Greek, Germany still has 'style courses' where we have to translate German to Latin/Greek. First course is about main clauses, second about subordinate clauses and third about translating a whole text from Cicero. That way one has to know all the rules by heart first and then be able to get the whole meaning across. It was by far the hardest bit about the studys but it is very interesting - and it loosens your thinking about the word order. ;)


Thank you for sharing this behind-the-scenes explanation!


Dear Colin:

I certainly agree with your concrete suggestions and I see why they are practical (assuming that psittacus ebrius is just as fine as ebrius psittacus--a few adjectives, mostly quantitative, do statistically precede their noun in prose but I don't think it's a general rule). But I do have my doubts about your more theoretical observations at the end.

I don't think we can assume that Classical Latin art prose reflects Latin speech. Caesar was writing in a specific genre with his Commentarii and it may well have had its own rules and traditions. Moreover Caesar's word order differs notably from Cicero's statistically; there must be reasons for this.

It is certainly possible for speech in flexible word order languages to be less rule-driven than art prose. This is indisputably true in Russian and has been well-studied. Even adjectives in Russian speech can pop up rather far from their noun (afterwards and as an afterthought). Given how little we know about Latin speech in Roman times, I think the 19th-century generalization (prose = normal, poetry = exception) is not very well-founded.

The final point I would make is that it's easy to overlook the pervasive orality of ancient Greco-Roman culture. People listened much more than they read: books were difficult to read; virtually everyone read aloud to themselves in any case. Poetry is not a word puzzle--it was comprehensible when read aloud to contemporary audiences.


What can you expect from a language that was mostly spoken by angry drunk parrots?


I didn't say poetry was a puzzle, but bent rules to fit meter. In English poetry does weird things and is usually still intelligible, but it can be exhausting to speak that way.

In modern Romance languages, the adjective is usually placed with its noun, I don't see why Latin would be drastically different from its descendents in this way. Additionally, from a purely duolingo standpoint. If you opt to split noun adjective pairs in poetic fashion, the possible sentence translations jump from 100s to 1000s.


No, Colin, you did not say that poetry was a puzzle (and I really did not mean to put words in your mouth). But you did just say "English poetry does weird things". Weird strikes me as inappropriately pejorative. Isn't Duolingo intended to help students develop the skills they need to understand all Latin, including poetry?

Common speech, like poetry, often preserves archaisms. (English examples: "ill-gotten gains"; "the down-trodden"). Poetry often draws on regionalisms and other off-the-beaten-track corners of speech, but poets rarely make things up out of whole cloth.

I'm really struck by your saying "In English poetry does weird things and is usually still intelligible, but it can be exhausting to speak that way." Is the goal of Duolingo Latin really to teach people to speak Latin? Or is it to teach people the skills they need to read any Latin as Latin--without translating it into English? It hadn't even occurred to me that this might actually be a valid question.

I do certainly understand your point about multiple sentence translations. But that just points out a limitation of the platform.


What I mean about "English poetry does weird things" is not meant to be pejorative, it means that English poetry can descend from common or expected word order in favor of style or rhyme. It breaks traditional grammar rules, just like Latin would. A fluent English speaker would more than likely be able to understand it, but someone with English as a second language might feel very confused.

With so little of the course released, we haven't a specific goal in mind, there is a little bit of conversational Latin, some more traditional reading type stuff. I'm not saying we'll never get to teaching Latin meter, but not here, in the first few sections.

Furthermore, Latin poetry is an entirely different beast than prose. It would be like introducing foreigners to English first by using Shakespeare, because it is technically modern English. And while Shakespeare's works are beautiful, as are Virgil's or Horace's, they're not exactly the best place to start for beginners.


This is so helpful! Thank you!


Thanks so much for your hardwork to make Latin on Duolingo fun and in order.


Regarding "non" and verbs, all of the sentences I've noticed here with "non", a main verb and an infinitive have been written like "In sella sedere non potes." ("You're not able to sit on the chair.").

Is writing something like "In sella non sedere potes." A) equivalent, B) not recommended, or C) perfectly valid but with a different meaning (e.g., "You're able to not sit on the chair [if you so choose].")?


It changes the emphasis but it's acceptable. I'm always on the lookout for sentences to update.


Thanks for this. I am somewhat disappointed in Duolingo's approach to Latin because there is no explanation of grammar. Learning intuitively is all well and good but there's a piece of the experience missing. I think this is particularly a problem with Latin because it's not about learning to order dinner and the like - we're basically going for a reading proficiency here. Just my opinion - perhaps others don't find this bothersome.


There is an explanation of grammar. You have to click the Lightbulbs. The course is still in beta, so we haven't included all of them yet.


Thanks. I wasn't aware of that.


They are easy to miss. Be sure to pass it on when you see someone else asking about grammar.


Why do they behave differently on different platforms? IOS doesn't have any lightbulbs at all in Latin, and other languages often have completely different text depending on what version of Duolingo you're using.


That’s true, on the other courses they have the lightbulb. Maybe it’s just not available as a beta feature?


Only a few of the courses have them in the app. From the courses I joined it is only the German course. Other courses need a web browser (it can be a mobile one).


Which version of Duolingo are you using? I found that the grammar lightbulbs worked fine in the web version but were bizarrely missing completely from the iOS app. I didn't even realize there was any instruction available until I switched over to get access to keyboard input.


I noticed that as well, is it a bug on Duolingo’s side or does it have to do with our software? Whenever I have questions, I’ve just been switching over to the web browser version to check the lightbulbs.


I don't seem to have the lightbulbs on my IPhone Duolingo app. I hope this is resolved soon. It's vexing.


Only few courses have them in mobile apps. For most courses one has to use a (mobile) web browser. It is annoying even for course constributors (at least for us in the Czech course). Maybe the Latin course will cause some motion to implement them for all courses, but who knows.


Different clients show the lightbulbs for different courses. I spent several months going through my first course (French) without having any idea that any explanatory text existed at all because back at that time (a few years ago) the lightbulbs didn't show up for the French course in the iOS client. (They added them at some point, though, so they're there now.) One day I happened to try out the web client and was very surprised to discover them!

It would be nice if the Latin course could get them in the iOS client too. I rarely use the web interface for Duolingo.


If I change the word order and see how I generally feel about the sentence. This could be nonsense too.. but there seems to be some kind of empathetic order in Latin too: the first and second places have more stress than the final one. (sorry about the messy examples, I don't know how to add space in dl)

I Poenus navem habet - we learn that the Carthaginian has a ship

II Poenus habet navem - stresses that the Carthaginian has a ship

III Habet navem Poenus - there is a ship, a Carthaginian one

IV Habet Poenus navem - the Carthaginian has a pathetic boat

V Navem habet Poenus - The Carthaginian has a proper ship

VI Navem Poenus habet -The Carthaginian too has a ship


This is super helpful! This is going to be hard for me to memorize though...


I was taught that the first word in a sentence has the most emphasis and the last word has the second emphasis.


Is the frequency of OSV because of relative clauses? OSV word order is very rare among the languages of the world, so I'm curious about that.


In this book I was able to find this


Thanks, this was super helpful!


> 'psittacus in villa sedet......................................... ebrius'

Sounds like Ovid to me :p


Excellent summary, quite helpful ...


Glad that cleared a lot of things :D Thank you :D

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Thanks for clarifying!


Thank you! this helps a lot.


Very interesting. Thank you.


Very interesting.


I wonder why this and other important topics from you are not still stickied.


German and Latin seem to share a peculiarity to place the informational weight at the end of the sentence (where the verb is found). This causes a lot of problems for German learners or interpreters. I came a across this note and found it interesting.

Masataka Ishikawa

Diachronic Syntax and Information Packaging: Remarks on Unstressed Pronouns in Old Spanish


14 It is traditionally assumed that the last element in the sentence is the most emphatic/emphasized one in Latin. Although on cannot automatically associate "emphatic" with "focal" (or "rhematic"), it seems that sentence-final position is most likely to have been the choice for a "focus slot" to carry 'new information/mor informational weight' in Latin as well (cf. Allen and Greenough 1931, Wheelock 1963, and Lathrop 1980).


Wow, thank you so much!


I don't know what to think when people argue about this topic. Look around us. Many languages (as far as I know) has main word order. I really hope this misconceptions will be gone forever. Thanks Colin so very much. Wonderful work as always.

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