Latin and the Subjunctive

When one attempts to translate a Latin author, or a Greek one with a parallel Latin text, one will invariably be faced with how to understand the Latin subjunctive.

In a number of ways it operates similarly to the contemporary French subjunctive. It does not work like the Greek one.

Latin translators often have a tendency to translate the Greek aorist with a subjunctive. So if one is translating a Greek text and using the Latin parallel as a proof-text, it is important to understand the Latin subjunctive.

The following quotation details some of the problems though the source no longer can be traced. (I have done some edits in the process as well).

“If the subjunctive were still fully active in English, learning Latin would much easier because English speakers would have something in their own language to build from, but unfortunately the English subjunctive is now largely a “schoolbook” form with little relevance to the spoken language. In other words, “If this be true, . . .” now sits on a dusty shelf in the Museum of Good English—horrendum dictu!—so you’ll be learning as much about your own tongue as the Romans’…

With no clear counterpart in English—no single English word (such as “might,” “may,” “would”) can cover the Latin in any way that’s even remotely comprehensive—the Latin subjunctive has to be identified in form and usage independent of translation. Thus, you must learn to match the subjunctive form to its use and then disregard both, rendering the Latin subjunctive as an English indicative or in a way that accords with the proper English expression of a particular construction.

From the perspective of English speakers, one of the hardest features of Classical Latin to learn is that there is no infinitive of purpose (e.g. “I went to the store to buy bread”). Instead, the Romans use the subordinate conjunctive ut/ne + the subjunctive mood to express purpose. This has a counterpart in English: “I went to the store so that I might buy bread.”

e.g. Milites miserunt qui dicerent . . ., “They sent the soldiers to say . . .” (literally, “They sent the soldiers who would say . . .”). If the purpose clause contains a comparative adjective or adverb, quo is used: Scutum deiecit quo celerius fugeret, “He threw away his shield in order to flee more quickly.” Note that relative clauses of purpose are often associated with verbs of motion and that the rules for sequence of tenses apply…

The subjunctive is often seen in clauses embedded in indirect discourse (Indirect Statement, Indirect Question, Indirect Command). This has less to do with the sense of uncertainty which originally defined the subjunctive than with the ancient Romans’ habitual use of the mood in various types of subordinate clause. That is, by the Classical Age the Latin subjunctive had begun to lose its association with specific

functions (prohibition, volition, potentiality, etc.)—the job of relating the particular connotation of a clause had devolved on specific adverbs like cum, dum, ut, etc.—and this mood ended up serving as little more than a way signalling that a clause is dependent. In other words, the subjunctive had become the mood of “general subordination.”

INDICATIVE: These are the men who did it (the very ones who did it);
SUBJUNCTIVE: These are men who would do it (they didn’t actually do it, but they could have).

INDICATIVE: He is the man who did it (and he actually did it);
SUBJUNCTIVE: He is the sort of man who would do it (but he might not have done it).

In other words, it describes the character rather than the actions of the antecedent, which is how the construction got its name.”

The subjunctive as a subordinate clause is an important concept to grasp. The book, Latin: An Intensive Course, explains this clearly:

“In most subordinate clauses in which the subjunctive is used, a system called sequence of tenses occurs. That is, if the verb of the main (independent) clause is in a primary tense, the verb of the subordinate (dependent) subjunctive clause must be primary. This is called primary sequence. Likewise, if the verb of the main clause is in a secondary tense, the verb of the subordinate clause must be secondary. This is called secondary sequence.

In primary sequence, the present subjunctive regularly denotes an action which occurs at the same time as that of the main verb or will occur at some time subsequent to that of the main verb. The perfect subjunctive denotes an action which occurred prior to the time of the main verb.

In secondary sequence, the imperfect subjunctive regularly denotes an action which occurs at the same time as that of the main verb or will occur at some time susequent to that of the main verb.”

The book supplies this concept in a more visual way. Click here to see it.

The following link has a dedicated page for those trying to understand the subjunctive as a subordinate. It has over 70,000 hits – a demonstration of how many others have found this mood worth more studying.

Of course the subjunctive can be used as a jussive, volitive, hortatory or purpose related, but the subordinate clause is something many English speakers are not prepared or looking for and it appears quite frequently.

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