Particularly in terms of word-order in sentence.

I doubt, for example, if we would hear sentence like this:

"Tarda solet magna in rebus adesse fides" (Ovid)

where we have Tarda and fides gapped by the entire sentence.

But the scope of this question is not restricted merely to examples as the above. Rather, I'm even more interested in basic movements in sentence: the order of subject, verb, object. Was it more prevalent to use the SVO/SOV in daily spoken language than in writing?

When reading Latin, I was charmed by that magical flexibility of word-order; However, it turns out to be quite a headache when one is trying to translate a spoken language of daily life into Latin. Especially, in situations when people are angry or in hurry. In those cases, I wonder if several kinds of order would "sound" [not sure to whom though] odd/"too poetical".

I've read that the order might be used to stress out certain words or the idea behind the sentence. Yet, it seems there is a lot of gray area - especially when translating into Latin where this kind information given by the word order cannot be given in the source language that does not share this flexibility.

  • 1
    Written Latin is extant; spoken Latin isn't. :)
    – C Monsour
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 14:40
  • @CMonsour, My question is indeed "problematic". It's somewhat blurred and open in nature. One can take it as a question relevant to the historic times; i.e accounts of Romans writing about this subject of spoken language issues (like "deterioration"). Another one, might say, having present-times in mind, that we just have to start real-speaking to find that out. However, I venture to say here that "imposing"/"dictating" a system from above (such by translating living scenes - which is the context of the Q), might have it's influence: bi-directional living-process.
    – d_e
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 15:14
  • My theory, by the way, is that we indeed could hear sentence like Ovid's in spoken language - but up to a certain time in history... doubtly in Ovid's age. that's another aspect of that interests me, namely language evolution.
    – d_e
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 15:20
  • Spoken Latin is, of course, extant, but that's not the point here. We obviously don't have a corpus of, say, recorded every-day-life Latin from the first centuries (on either side). Comedy is typically, and I suppose for good reason, considered a decent source for close-to-real-life spoken Latin.
    – Batavulus
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 14:36
  • @Batavulus Do you mean "extinct"? "Extant" seems like the opposite of what you're trying to say.
    – Agnes
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 11:54

1 Answer 1


This type of "unsual" word order is often called scrambling. This term includes when modifiers are detached from what they modify (or vice versa) and where grammatical heads and their complements are displaced from their "expected" positions. How much scrambling languages allow depends on the language, the genre, and the type of scrambling. Even English has scrambling, but not to the degree allowed in Latin.

From what Devine and Stephens say in their books on word order and discontinuous syntax, there seems to have been a definite difference between Latin poetry and prose in terms of how much and what type of scrambling was acceptable. There was also a variation over time between Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) and Livy (4/59 BC – AD 12/17).

The fact that the genre and time period are relevant in understanding how much scrambling was acceptable suggests that spoken Latin would also have had less scrambling than written Latin, but that what was acceptable would also have varied with time.

Scrambling in itself is apparently not unusual in certain types of languages, particular in those classified as non-configurational. Surprisingly, the ones I have read most about have only oral traditions, strongly suggesting that scrambling is not an artifact of written language. These languages heavily disfavor or forbid dependent relationships between words, and therefore individual words have more independence with respect to word order. This is similar to what is allowed for prepositional phrases in English, which generally have great freedom in word order.

The languages that do have extensive scrambling accomplish this by a relatively heavy reliance on head marking, dependency marking, cross-referencing, and paratactic arrangement of words.

Based on what Devine and Stephens say in their books, I think that the phrase you cited in your question, "tarda solet [magnis] rebus inesse fides," is not of a type that would have been particularly unusual in oral Latin language, especially in older time periods. However, it does strike me as having a certain style that is more normal for maxims, which usually contain more archaic styles of speech. Delaying the word "fides" till the end seems to signal that it is "tail" material and therefore already given information in terms of the discussion, even though the maxim itself would be removed from the normal flow of conversation. In other words, the maxim, in using this order, signals that something about how faith works has already come into the conversation that the listener should reflect upon.

The type of scrambling that would not occur in oral Latin would be scrambling representing obsolete stages of Latin. I can't remember examples from Latin, but I think Devine and Stephens say that scrambling adjectives out of prepositional phrases before the preposition was limited to verse in Ancient Greek, such as in θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας (swift, unto the ships)(Homer's Iliad 1.12. It appears fairly frequently in Homer, which we believe to have originally been orally performed poetry. The paratactical style of the language also comes across quite strongly in Homer, where clause after clause are often linked with particles that do not signal a syntactic dependency, but only a semantic one.

I also think that Latin verse uses specific effects that were probably absent in normal speech, such as using interlocking adjective-noun phrases: saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram (Virgil, Aeneid, 1.5) "on account of the mindful anger (memorem iram) of cruel Juno (saevae Iunonis)". Or using the scrambling to mimic real world actions, such as in quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa (Horace, Odes, 1.5) "what graceful boy (gracilis puer) (is embracing) you (te) amidst many a rose (multa rosa)?", where the words referring to the boy and the roses embrace the word referring to the girl.

  • Re your example from Homer, my understanding is that the prepositions were originally adverbs, and during the Homeric period they were still in the process of becoming prepositions. For that reason, their position in the sentence was still very flexible.
    – user3597
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 15:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.