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I'm new to Latin (in the first semester), and recently found myself tripped up when reading a text from another student in my class, which was:

ille liber mihi nunc bonum est

Whether it was lack of context on their part or knowledge on mine, I found myself scratching my head at 'liber'. Is it 'free', 'child', or 'book'? I later discovered they meant 'book', but it left me wondering if there was a general rule for this sort of thing? How do you know which meaning is being conveyed in a context-free environment?

I've heard of other students having similar problems with various other words as well so I figured it's best to know now!

Thanks in advance all!

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Unfortunately, there's only one good way to know, and your teacher isn't giving it to you!

All vowels in Classical Latin are either "long" or "short". Long vowels were quite literally pronounced for longer, and also with a slightly different quality: long i was pronounced roughly like in English "beat", while short i was more like English "bit". Most instructional books will mark the long vowels with a line above them (ā ē ī ō ū ȳ) and the short vowels with the absence of that line (a e i o u y).

This is a fairly important distinction, since it distinguishes e.g. "old woman" (ānus) from "anus" (anus), or "one circle" (circus) from "multiple circles" (circūs), or "here" (hīc) from "this" (hic), or "mouth" (ōs) from "bone" (os), and so on. It's also crucial for poetic meter, and for getting the accent right. If your instructor hasn't mentioned it, I'd suggest bringing it up, and/or reading a bit about it on your own.

In this particular case, liber means "book", while līber means "free". You can also tell them apart in other cases, because "book" uses the stem libr-, while "free" uses the stem līber-: for example, "of the book" is librī, while "of the free person" is lībe.

Telling the difference between "free" and "children" is harder; the word for "children" comes from "free", so they look exactly the same. But "children" is only ever used in the masculine plural, so it always looks different from "books": "books" are librī, while "children" or "free men" are lībe. And if you're ever in doubt, that form almost always means "children"; if it's meant to be "free men", the context will make it clear.

  • Thank you so much <3! I knew about the long and short vowels but sometimes they're omitted, I suppose that's what caused the confusion. – Hannah Jun 2 at 18:07
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    @Hannah Unfortunately many texts don't use them, which can be a huge headache for beginners (and even for experienced readers). – Draconis Jun 2 at 18:09
  • This is a good answer. For the record, I have never used texts with vowel lengths marked, nor was I ever offered any, neither in high school nor at university. (Except for the e in inifinitives, but only in vocabulary lists.) – Cerberus Jun 2 at 19:31
  • @Cerberus Yeah, I only had vowel marks for the first couple years of study, but I don't think I ever would have gotten a sense for meter without them. (Or for things like us/ūs and a/ā in declension.) – Draconis Jun 2 at 19:44
  • Regarding your last sentence, I just came across III.14.3 of the De bello civili, where Caesar needs to mention both children and free men in the same sentence: qui de servis liberisque omnibus ad impuberes supplicium sumit et ad unum interficit. 'He [Bibulus] exacted punishment on all the slaves and free men, all the way down to the children, killing every one.' Through juxtaposition with servis (and use of que as the conjunction), C. hints that liberis is meant to be taken as 'free men,' and then he uses impuberes to mean 'children.' – cnread Jul 4 at 4:20

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