Does Latin Help With Italian?

If you have ever learned, or are learning, Latin, and plan to learn Italian, you may have wondered if knowledge of Latin might make it easier to learn Italian. In this post I will answer the question: “in which ways are Latin and Italian similar?” and I will explain how knowledge of Latin might help you in your learning of Italian. 

Knowledge of Latin helps with learning Italian, because there are many lexical and grammatical similarities between the two languages: many individual Latin and Italian words are very similar because they share a root. Latin and Italian are also similar in their verb conjugations and rules surrounding gender and number.

Keep reading to find out more in detail why familiarity with Latin helps with learning Italian.

Many Latin and Italian words have roots in common

If you already know the meaning of a number of words in Latin, this is likely to help you understand the meaning of a number of words in Italian. In fact, many Latin and Italian words have the same, or a very similar, root, because those roots were preserved in the transition from Latin to Italian, therefore they look and sound very similar.

Latin wordLatin word rootItalian word rootItalian wordEnglish word
Tabula Tab-Tav-TavolaBoard/ plank
StudereStud-Stud-StudiareTo study

As you may have noticed, although Latin and Italian word roots are mostly similar or the same, word endings are different most of the time. This is because, in Latin, word endings can change depending on a word’s case, gender, number and, for verbs, the specific verb conjugation. Similarly, the endings of Italian words can change depending on gender, number, and in the case of a verb, conjugation.

Gender agreement

If you have learned, or are learning, Latin, you will no doubt have had to get your head around the fact that Latin words are either masculine, feminine or neuter in gender. This can be an added difficulty for a native English speaker, since words in English don’t have a gender.

If you have done any translation from Latin, it is likely that you will have looked up a word in the Latin dictionary and found out what its gender is, which tells you about how that word varies for the different cases, and how the adjectives and pronouns that refer to it have to change to agree with it in gender. This gender agreement between a word and parts of speech that refer to it is very helpful when translating, because it helps you to understand what refers to what in a sentence.

As an example, consider this passage from Julius Ceasar’s De Bello Gallico, which has the word “Gallia”, Gaul, in it, which is feminine in gender:

Gallia est omnes divisa in partes tres (Latin)
La Gallia è, nel complesso, divisa in tre parti (Italian)
Gaul is a whole divided into three parts (English)

You can see how, in both Latin and Italian “divisa” agrees in gender with “Gallia”. English is easier than both Latin and Italian, because the word “divided” does not change depending on the gender of “Gallia”.

Consider another, made-up, example:

Mundus est divisus... (Latin)
Il mondo è diviso... (Italian)
The world is divided... (English)

This time, we have the word “mundus”, which is a masculine word, and so “divisus” must agree with it in gender, and is used in its masculine form.

So, through your knowledge of Latin, you will not only be familiar with the idea that words have a gender, but, very importantly, that any adjectives and, in some cases, past participles, linked to that word will have to agree with it in gender.

Julius Ceasar in the Louvre museum (1696 – 1722). Image courtesy of Skitterphoto

Number agreement

The same goes for number (singular or plural): in Latin and Italian, adjectives and, in some cases, past participles must agree in number with the word to which they refer. As we’ll see below, whether the subject of a sentence is singular or plural also influences the verb in that sentence.

Let’s look at the De Bello Gallico example again:

Gallia est omnes divisa in partes tres (Latin)
La gallia e, nel complesso, divisa in tre parti (Italian)
Gaul is a whole divided into three parts (English)

This sentence is about Gallia, (one) Gaul, which is singular, and therefore “divisa” is also singular, both in Latin and Italian whilst, in English, the word “divided” remains unchanged from singular to plural.

Here is another phrase from the De Bello Gallico:

Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae... (Latin)
Tra tutti questi, i più forti sono i Belgi... (Italian)
Of all these, the Belgians are the strongest... (English)

Note how “fortissimi” (plural and masculine) agrees in number with “Belgae”, which is a masculine word in Latin. The same happens in Italian, where “forti” (plural and masculine) agrees in number with “Belgi”. On the other hand, the adjective “strongest” in English does not change depending on whether it refers to a singular or plural noun. So, if you have learned, or are learning, Latin, and plan to learn Italian, you will already have an understanding of how adjectives, pronouns, past participles in some cases, and, as we’ll see below, verbs, agree in number with the word to which they refer.

How do I make a noun plural?

Another complexity of learning Latin is having to memorise, and get used to, how words change depending on whether they are singular or plural.

English does of course distinguish between singular and plural words, but, in the great majority of cases, it does this by conveniently adding an “s” at the end of a word to make it plural, although some exceptions exist, such as diagnosis – diagnoses or leaf – leaves.

In Latin this is not as easy, because the word ending (suffix) changes from singular to plural in a different way, depending on whether that word’s gender is masculine, feminine or neuter. Word suffixes for the plural of words in Italian are similar to Latin, although Italian lost the neuter gender, so it only has masculine or feminine words.

Latin (singular)Latin (plural)Italian (singular)Italian (plural)English translation
Feminine wordSilvaSilvaeSelvaSelveForest/ forests
Masculine wordCampusCampiCampoCampiField/ fields

To complicate things further, both Italian and Latin have a number of exceptions to how plurals are formed. The best way to learn these is through practice and frequent use.

If you already have a knowledge of Latin, and decide to begin studying Italian, you will have learned how the plural endings of nouns change depending on whether that noun is masculine or feminine. Many of the Latin plural endings are the same in Italian.

Verb conjugations

If you have studied, or are studying, Latin you will have been challenged by having to learn a number of verb conjugations. Verb conjugations in English are easier, because there is a much smaller number of changes that has to be remembered within the conjugation of each verb. For example, in the Simple Present tense, the only change is the -s suffix for the third person singular (e.g. “she work-s”).

In Latin, the verb suffixes change within each conjugation, and how they change is different depending on the verb tense and verb mood. There are also a number of exceptions, or irregular verbs, which do not follow a regular pattern within the conjugation.

The Latin and Italian verb conjugations are similar, both in terms of how the verb suffixes change and how many verb suffixes there are to remember. So having learned Latin verb conjugations will help you in your learning of verb conjugations in Italian.

AmoIo amoI love
AmasTu amiYou love
AmatLui/ lei amaHe/ She loves
AmamusNoi amiamoWe love
AmatisVoi amateYou love
AmantLoro amanoThey love

I am planning to learn Italian, should I learn Latin first?

If you have studied Latin in the past, or are currently studying Latin, and plan to learn Italian, your knowledge of Latin will be helpful. However, if your main goal is to learn Italian, learning Latin first, as a way to facilitate learning of Italian, is not necessary. Instead, it is best to learn Italian from the outset.

This is mainly because Latin is a harder language to learn than Italian. Here are the reasons why:

  • Latin is a dead language

Latin is a dead language, in the sense that it is not spoken today as the native language of any group of people. For this reason, Latin is not learned in the same way as modern languages, which are currently spoken. Instead of focusing on activities such as listening and speaking, Latin is learned by analysing written text for its grammar and structure, and the meaning is arrived at through this analysis.

So without knowledge of grammar rules, verb conjugations and declinations, it is unlikely that you will be able to understand any more from a Latin text than the topic that is being discussed. The complexity of the grammar, and the fact that you cannot benefit by listening and speaking exercises makes Latin harder to learn than other languages.

  • Cases make a language harder to learn

In the transition from Latin to Italian, cases were lost, and were replaced by prepositions. Despite being tricky to learn for a native English speaker, prepositions are very useful in flagging the function of words within sentences, making the language more practical and easier to understand.

Without cases, there are not only less suffixes to memorise, but also less analysis involved in understanding the language. The disappearance of cases also brought about a more defined word order in Italian, which means that, when listening to speech or reading, you are, to an extent, able to predict what is coming up in the sentence.

Let’s look at the De Bello Gallico again, to see how Latin cases were replaced by prepositions in Italian:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. 

La Gallia è, nel complesso, divisa in tre parti: una di queste la abitano i Belgi, un’altra gli Aquitani e la terza la abitano quei (popoli) che nella propria lingua si chiamano Celti e, nella nostra, Galli.

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third.

The pronoun “quarum” (“of which”) becomes “di queste” in Italian, and “nostra” (“in our”) becomes “nella nostra”. The presence of prepositions (in this case “of” and “nella”) makes Italian easier than Latin and more directly comparable to other modern languages.

  • Latin has more verb types to learn

This means that more verb conjugations have to be memorised in Latin. In addition to regular and irregular verbs in a number of tenses, Latin also has two classes of verbs which are called deponent and semi-deponent. Deponent verbs have a passive form but an active meaning and semi-deponent verbs have active meaning but a passive form in some tenses.

A Latin learner not only has to remember which verbs are deponent and semi-deponent, but also how they are conjugated!

  • Latin grammar is more difficult in general

The rules of Latin grammar are more numerous and more complex than those of the Italian grammar. An example of this is conditional clauses, with several rules for how these should be formed and combined.

Image courtesy of Arcaion

Final thoughts

Latin has a highly complex grammar, which relies on an advanced use of logic, reflecting the fact that the Romans were logical thinkers, who helped modern civilization by theorising many important concepts for the first time. For example, they laid the foundations for the modern legal system.

Knowledge of Latin can benefit an English speaker in many ways: the study of a complex grammar is a good exercise in logical thinking, and it can help understand more about the English grammar, therefore possibly improving your English as well.

Also, Latin helps with improving vocabulary and understanding the origins of many English words, although we must remember that we owe a lot to the Greeks, as many Latin words first came from them, when they colonised Italy.

As the various Romance languages evolved from Latin, they became easier, more practical and “usable”. Although Latin is the closest to Italian of all Romance languages, the Romance languages are closer to each other than they are to Latin.

So it is important to bear in mind that the advantages that knowledge of Latin can provide for learning Italian can also be provided by knowledge of any other Romance language.