The English sentence 'I heard you play the flute' can have three distinct meanings:

  1. At some point in the past, you played the flute while I was within earshot.
  2. Someone told me that you are able to play the flute.
  3. Someone told me that you regularly play the flute

If I understand correctly, the Latin sentence 'Te tibiā canere audivi' would cover (1). How did Latin authors express the other two senses?

I'm mainly interested in classical Latin, but examples from other periods are of course welcome, as are answers that discuss other verbs than audio.

2 Answers 2


Well, actually™ it's not true that perception verbs are normally used with the Present Participle. This is the natural home of the Accusative with Infinitive (AcI), while Present Participle (AcPP) is less frequent in this use, although its use expands in Late Latin to cover even indirect quotations, previously the exclusive domain in the AcI. Pinkster's 2021 OLS vol 2, p.162:

From Early Latin onward, the accusative and infinitive clause is the regular argument clause with two-place verbs and expressions of perception and cognition, and with two- and three-place verbs of communication (the traditional Latin term for these classes of verbs is verba sentiendi et dicendi (sometimes declarandi)).

It's true that the AcPP is more about direct perception (more vivid, to abuse the poor word some more), and AcI is more about knowledge and reflection. I also feel that AcPP is more colloquial and expressive, like the English "Did you see him (his face etc.) when he was trying to eat that thing?" Still, the default interpretation of AcI is that of direct perception, and a different interpretation will generally require limiting context:

Audīvistīn tū mē narrāre haec hodiē? ('Did you hear me telling about this today?' Plautus, Amphitruo 747)
Intereā intrō īre nēminem videō, exīre nēminem ('Meanwhile I don't see anyone either enter or exit' Terence, Andria 363–4)

Meaning #1 can also be expressed using a temporal clause, synonymous with AcPP: audīvī cum tībiā canerēs.

Meaning #2 "able to play" will be normally expressed using the verb scīre: Audīvī equidem tē scīre tībiā canere. Among other options is didicisse "to have learned". Note that posse isn't properly used of abilities, but of possibilities.

Meaning #3 will generally be expressed differently. You can use:

  1. the verb solēre/solitum esse which is specialised for distinguishing the 'habitual' meaning from 'present-ongoing';
  2. the verb accipere "to receive info, to be told";
  3. an expression with sermōnēs, fāma, rūmor "talk, chatter".

You can also exclude meaning #1 by putting the main verb in an Imperfect tense (Present/Past): audiō tē tībiā cantāre. In fact this is how it's normally used in this meaning. If the addressee isn't playing the flute right now, this fixes the interpretation to #2 or #3, though ambiguous between the two, just as in the case of the English "I hear you play the flute".

Notice also that you can exploit Latin's frequentative verbs to express repetiveness, as I've done with cantāre. A double frequentative (cantitāre) will definitily fix the meaning as #3. Moreover, the interpretation is fixed when the infinitive is Perfect, which seems to be over half the time: audiō illum tībiā cecinisse "they say he performed on the flute".

In general, the Latin verb audīre has a different semantic range from the English "to hear", and includes meanings such as "to give ear to, to attend lectures, to grant a request, to approve", but doesn't seem to be usual in the meaning "to receive information". When used this way, it's usually in the Imperfect tenses, as exemplified above.

  • 1
    Which is the direct object of the main verb in your example audīvī cum tībiā canerēs?
    – Mitomino
    Oct 22, 2021 at 15:52
  • 1
    @Mitomino There's no object at all - it's the intransitive "I heard it when..., I was there listening". Oct 22, 2021 at 16:58

Ad 1: when the main verb expresses sensory perception, such as hearing or seeing, the construction used is normally a participle:

Te tibiis canentem audivi. (canentem agrees with the object te of the finite verb)

Ad 2 and 3: these both have optional that in English, which is a sign that they are to be rendered as an accusativus cum infinitivo, the construction you gave:

Te tibiis canere audivi.

You could express "be able to" more explicitly by adding posse, but in either case it is an a.c.i.

Sensory perception is seldom expressed with an a.c.i., probably sometimes in poetry.

I believe that tibia is one bone or flute made thereof; the common double flute is (usually?) called tibiae (plural).

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