New to Latin, I can't help but wonder about the following:

Every text I found online claims that since words are inflected (enough) to indicate the roles they play in a sentence, word order has no syntactic importance in Latin, but does it really not matter? Is inflection really sufficient to unambiguously specify what a word does in a sentence?

1) What if you have a compound sentence:

A young man has a friend that has a dog.

Translated into Latin, with proper declension (singular nominative, and assume the nouns are all masculine), we can tell that the adjective "young" doesn't modify "a friend" or "a dog", but if I place it in a random place in the sentence, how can we tell that it modifies "a man" instead of "that"? (If "that" can't be modified, how about "... a good friend ..."? How do we know "good" isn't modifying "a dog"?)

2) Even if you have only a simple sentence, there can still be a problem. Consider:

After visiting my best friend, I ride my broken bike to a store to buy a green apple.

We have "best", "broken" and "green". If I understand the grammar correctly, "friend", "bike" and "apple" are all accusative. Assuming they are all masculine. How do you match the adjectives with the nouns?

And there are also two genitive"my"s, just to make things more complicated.

Btw, by "new to Latin" I mean "a few days into Latin, having read a few Wikipedia articles and some other intros I found on the web, barely able to decipher a Latin sentence with the help of Google translate and Wiktionary", so please be gentle if you use Latin examples in your reply. And please forgive my impatience. I am more curious about the linguistic features of Latin than concerned with its practical uses.


1) "Young" in your sentence will be in the nominative case agreeing with the nominative case of "man", but both "friend" and "dog" will be in the accusative, which excludes "young" modifying "friend" or "dog", since only adjectives in the accusative can modify them in your sentence.

Actually, the free word order in those languages that allow it, functions within a clause or a predicative word-group and words from one clause or group aren't inserted into another one. Don't overact as for how free the word order can be, language is needed to make others understand what you say, the free word order only helps it by highlighting this or that part of the sentence, the speakers are absolutely aware of the situations when the sentence can become ambiguous and they avoid that.

Consider the sentence "My neighbour is my friend" (Vicinus meus est amicus meus), in Latin all the nouns and possessive pronouns in it are nominative masculine. What's the use of messing it up by putting the words, say, this way: "*My my is friend neighbour" (Meus meus est amicus vicinus)? Can you think of at least a single reason somebody would say it that way?

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  • So "free word order in those languages that allow it, functions within a clause or a predicative word-group". Got it!! As to the second part of my question, I guess the answer is "the adjectives should always stay with the nouns they modify"? Same for the genitives? And a new question about your answer: why is amicus not accusative (amīcum instead of amīcus)? – icehenge Sep 24 '14 at 13:24
  • @icehenge - Sorry, but your guess is wrong, inside a clause, especially in Latin poetry, it's a usual thing to separate an adjective or a genitive from the words they modify, like "Beautiful (nom. pl.) were sitting near the river girls (nom. pl.)". As for amicus, it's a predicative in that sentence, and predicatives in Latin are always in the nominative case, the accusative case is used mostly after transitive verbs, after some prepositions, and in some constructions, every Latin grammar describes when each case must be used. – Yellow Sky Sep 24 '14 at 13:47
  • Just googled around and found "predicate nominative". I guess I need to relearn my English grammar as well. Next time when someone asks "who is it?" I will say "it is I" ;) Thanks for the wonderful example! Going back to my original question, I guess (trying again) the answer is "you can move the adjectives around, as long there is no ambiguity"? So there is no way for me to indicate syntactically (ie. by inflecting it in a certain way) that the adjective "green" modifies "apple" so that people can tell even if I put it in front of "bike"? – icehenge Sep 24 '14 at 14:19
  • @icehenge - I should say your example about the bike and the apple is very unsuitable for this discussion. First, in Latin 'bike' and 'apple' are of different genders, and second, in Latin that sentence is compound, so 'bike' and 'apple' are in different clauses ("I ride my bike so that I buy an apple). Google "Latin purpose clauses" to learn about that. – Yellow Sky Sep 24 '14 at 14:46
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    By the way, @Icehenge, if you want to satisfy the pedants you can pretend that English is Latin and say It is I. People who speak English and don't care about pretending it is Latin have been happily saying It is me for centuries. – Colin Fine Sep 24 '14 at 17:21

Short answer: of course, word order matters in Latin but differently from languages like English.

Technical answer: rather than being vaguely classified as a free word order language, Latin is often referred to as a "discourse configurational language". Latin word order is strongly driven by so-called "information structure" (involving notions like "old information", "new information", "focus", "emphasis", etc).

To take an introduction into the topic, I recommend you to take a look at the chapter on "Word order" in "Latin Grammar" by Panhuis (NB: this author wrote a doctoral dissertation on the pragmatic functions of Latin word order). After that, you can take a look at the more recent extensive monographs by Devine & Stephens (generative perspective) and by Spevak (functionalist perspective). Good luck!

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You're right, word order does sometimes matter, but even then, it was subject to stylistic variation.

As an example, Sallust in his book on the War with Catiline had this colorful description of the conspirators (rough word-by-word translation in parentheses)

quicumque (whoever) [as a] inpudicus (shameless person), adulter (adulterer), ganeo (glutton), [with their] manu (hand), ventre (belly), pene (penis) …

So this passage matches up the perpetrator (adulterer, glutton) with their instrument (hand, belly, penis), and although there seems to be an ongoing discussion whether the text has been mangled a bit (e.g. here), it seems pretty clear that the instruments were never in the same order as the perpetrators, but were either in exactly the reverse order (as a Chiasmus) or in some other altered order, for reasons of style. The reader was supposed to reconstruct the correspondence from the meaning of the words, without an explicit syntactic hint.

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  • @microthrion Thanks! Very interesting example! – icehenge Sep 26 '14 at 12:30

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