Especially when speaking a second language, I am forced to frequently say something like "Pardon me?" or "What was that?" or "Excuse me?" when I fail to understand or hear what a speaker says. I'd like to know what was used in Classical Latin to express one's remorse for not understanding while asking the other speaker to repeat himself.

A quick search for "pardon" in L&S provides many options, but I can't tell if any of them apply to this situation. John Traupman offers ignosce mihi for "Excuse me," but I'm not sure if that can be used in the situation I'm describing here (as opposed to accidentally inconveniencing or harming someone).

So how do I say "Pardon me" in Classical Latin, to politely apologize for not understanding and imply a desire for the other speaker to repeat himself?

  • I find euphemisms don't usually translate well to other languages.
    – andy256
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


The closest to this idiomatic phrase I could find was:

quaeso, quid narras?
sorry, what are you saying?

Terence, Phormio, act 5, scene 8

Which, in this particular dialogue, is not quite “sorry, I didn’t hear that, could you repeat it?” but more a rhetorical “excuse me, what on earth are you saying?” However, it does seem that quaeso + verb of speaking/repeating/telling certainly does encapsulate that casual, almost throwaway “excuse me/pardon/what was that?” that we use in English.

Another similar example is the following:

dic dum, quaeso, mi, es tu Myconius?
excuse me, tell me, are you from Myconos?

Terence, The Mother-in-Law, act 5, scene 3

This is very different from ignosce mihi which is often used more like “pardon me, I’ve done something I really hope you will overlook”. Here it is used in a casual way like the quaeso above, yet the tone/meaning is slightly different:

tunc tunc—ignoscite (nolo, quid faciam?) sed sum petulanti splene—cachinno
then, then - excuse me (I don’t want to, what can I do?) but I have a cheeky temper – I cackle

Persius, Satires, 1


quisquis es, ignoscas; in nullam lumina partem
gurgite ab hoc flexi studioque operatus inhaesi

whoever you are, please forgive me; I haven’t taken my eyes off this pool so intent am I on fishing [and therefore can't help you in your search]

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.864–5


Since posting my original answer, I came across the following two examples that you might find useful for your context (speaking a second language).

Phormia: cena “dubia” apponitur

the “problematic” meal is set before you

Geta: quid istuc verbist?

what sort of expression is that?

Terence, Phormio, act 2, scene 2

Hanno: whispers something in an aside

Milphio: quid ais tu?

what are you saying?

Plautus, Poenulus, act 5, scene 2 (This is actually a very funny scene where Hanno, a Carthaginian, speaks Punic and Agorastocles pretends to translate for his master, Milphio)

I don’t think either phrases are particularly polite, but perhaps if you just added a quaeso, it would soften it?


There are quite a few options, of varying degrees of politeness. A few are:

Peto (te) quod dicis iterare is a bit wordy; peto ut hoc iterares is neater.

Veniam abs te peto, sed sermonem non cepi would be very polite.

Quid dixisti? is rather abrupt.

  • 2
    A note on peto te: peto "ask" with accusative is marked as "ante- and post-classical" in Lewis and Short; standard classical usage would be peto a(bs) te, and with an ut clause rather than an infinitive, as in your second example. A more colloquial phrasing might be something like Itera, amabo te.
    – TKR
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 16:54
  • 1
    Thanks! Do you have sources for these showing their use in Classical Latin? Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 17:43
  • @Nathaniel You can easily find them in any comprehensive lexicon. I prefer Smith's which, though 140 years old, is very reliable
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:17
  • 1
    Hmm, okay. I don't really even know where to begin looking there. Including links to the relevant page numbers would be really helpful. For example, books.google.com/books?id=jeQIAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA536 points to page 536 of Smith's English-Latin dictionary (the page number is indicated in the "PA536" part at the end). Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:27
  • 2
    The desired register/variant is a question for the OP of course, but the question does ask "what was used in Classical Latin".
    – TKR
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:49

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