To a rather outstanding @Penelope's answer, @Unbrutal_Russian comments:

... Latin is very imprecise as a whole by the standards of modern European languages, and was pretty imprecise even by Greek standards except where precision was purposefully developed, e.g. in law. I felt the need to comment on this becase "Latin is a supremely precise and logical language" is a notorious language myth that even among the latter stands out as being especially far from the truth

while I believe to have some imprecise feel of how Latin is "pretty imprecise", I would like to have more precise or rigorous knowledge about this. Specifically, following the discussion there, I don't think that a synthetic languages such as Latin are inherently less precise (though, as noted in the answer, I guess some modern complex thought is indeed easier rendered in serial language - but I see that as a separate issue).

How does the imprecision emerge? by the lack of articles? words with broad meanings? or other mechanisms that make ambiguity more common in Latin?

In short I ask on what objective measure(s) we can say Latin is "imprecise" compared to other languages if at all?

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    (1) @ManuelCauãRebouças, maybe. that's why I ask for any "objective" measures; To clarify, I'm not referring to the grammar or inflexion itself which might make a language littler harder to learn, but not imprecise . Not unfrequently I encounter a Latin sentence where I know each and every word (at least that what I thought) but I can't make sense of the sentence nevertheless .sometimes it is because lack of a particular sense of word. e.g acies can mean sight/eyes which is far from the military connotation I had in mind, or clamores to applause rather than shout/protest.
    – d_e
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 7:03
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    (2) @ManuelCauãRebouças, Also some really monstrous verbs in Latin that can mean many things. Maybe this is shared also in other languages, and I'm little bitter on Latin (thought this makes it attractive if I can use that term) just because. Also while writing the question, I had in mind that Lucretius also complain on Latin (and Asteroides now adds many others!) to which I'll add Kepler that also complained about Latin thus: "lectio efficitur morosissima, praesertim in Latina lingua, quae caret articulis, et illa gratia quam habet graeca, cum per signa literaria loquitur."
    – d_e
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 7:11
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    (3) @ManuelCauãRebouças that said, there are aspects where Latin can be seem more precise indeed. for example the distinction between suum and ejus which is missing in some languages.
    – d_e
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 7:15
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    How does one objectively measure whether any language is ‘precise’ or ‘imprecise’? All languages are essentially capable of expressing the same things in the same level of detail, just using different tools. Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 20:08
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    Just personal opinions. I think the better interpretation of "Latin is imprecise" is "Latin is not a completely precise language" instead of "Latin is more imprecise than other languages". Many people (according to my own observation) with no knowledge of Latin believe that Latin is a perfect standard without any ambiguity, whereas it is not. Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 10:41

1 Answer 1


The context of the comment, combined with my own intuition, makes me think this comment was referring mainly to vocabulary. As a random example of a Latin word that is not notably "precise" compared to modern European languages, consider mūs, which can refer to both mice and rats, as well as (when qualified) some other animals. The genus Mus has a very specific definition, but this is a creation of modern scientists, not an inherent property of the Latin word that is the source of the genus's name.

I believe the overall number of words attested in "Classical Latin" is not enormous compared to other languages; and I have also encountered an idea that the attitude of Classical Latin authors towards the formation of new Latin words was less permissive than in other languages (such as Greek).

Here is a passage from Frederic Taber Cooper's Word formation in the Roman Sermo Plebeius (1895) that gives this explanation (although I am skeptical of a number of aspects of Cooper's account of the nature of "sermo plebeius", a controversial topic, it seems to me that the data is valuable in any case):

In the prisca Latinitas the vocabulary was a somewhat limited one, as was natural among a people whose time was largely divided between simple pastoral pursuits and local warfare. They inherited, however, from the common Indo-Germanic stock abundant facilities for forming new derivatives and compounds at pleasure. When the schism arose between the classic and plebeian speech, the latter naturally retained these facilities, and, if we may take Plautus as a criterion, availed itself of them with characteristic license. The literary language here presents a marked contrast [...] under the formalizing influence of classicism, Word-Formation, in common with all other linguistic growth, came to a standstill, at the very time when Rome was most in need of a wider vocabulary. The consequent inferiority which Latin, in this respect, shows to Greek has been frequently acknowledged by Roman writers; Gellius dwells at length upon the difficulty of properly rendering Greek compound words, either by a single word or a periphrasis, while his citation of the diverse attempts of the early grammarians to render προσῳδίαι, by notae uocum, moderamenta, accentiunculae, uoculationes, aptly illustrates the inaptitude of the language for technical expressions. Lucretius, Cicero, and Seneca, in turn complain of the lack of a philosophic terminology: yet philosophy is but one instance of the many avenues of Greek thought opened to the Roman mind only by deliberate coinage of the necessary vocabulary. The same difficulty confronted the medical writers; Celsus expressly deplores the superiority of the Greek language, while both he and his successors adopt the expedient of introducing Greek medical terms in their writings, usually accompanied by an attempt at translation or paraphrase. The ecclesiastical writers were still more hampered, owing to the wider gulf which separated their teachings from the daily life and thought of classic Rome. In spite of the industry of Tertullian, who is rightly regarded as the creator of ecclesiastical Latin, his successors, like Hieronymus, often felt the poverty of the language, in contrast with the richness of the Greek and Hebrew, which they were striving to interpret.

There were, as Cicero himself has pointed out, three ways in which the deficiencies of the vocabulary could be supplied; either by the transfer of a Greek word bodily into the Latin, by the use of an existing Latin word in a new sense, or by the formation of a new word. But in the classic period the use of foreign words was felt to be contrary to good taste and was accordingly avoided as far as possible, while unusual expressions, either archaisms or neologisms, were severely discountenanced. Even Cicero, who did more than anyone else toward giving currency to new formations, introduced many excellent and sorely needed words with hesitation and apology. Quintilian, while admitting that new words must occasionally be risked, says frankly that even when received into the language they brought little credit to their author, and if rejected led only to ridicule; and Gellius, still more emphatic, declares that new and unknown words are worse than vulgarisms.

This extreme attitude, however, had become untenable long before the time of Gellius; a point had been reached where growth of vocabulary was essential to the life of the language. But it was a natural consequence of such conservatism that no process existed for forming a literary vocabulary possessing distinctive features which might stamp it as a cultured product; no scientific nomenclature corresponding to the -ologies, -isms, and -anas of our own language; there was not a single suffix which could be regarded as distinctly classic, and which was not comparatively more abundant in authors of inferior Latinity.


I can't think of any good objective measurement of the "imprecision" of Latin speech. You could look at vocabulary size, however, that is a rough proxy and is difficult to measure. Kingshorsey's answer to this previous Q&A indicates that "The Oxford Latin Dictionary has about 40,000 entries". There is some discussion on other measures of Latin and Greek vocabulary size here: vocabulary size of classical Latin and Attic Greek (Textkit)

  • Thanks for an interesting answer. Vocabulary size can perhaps be a rough gauge, but I maintain it is better not to be taken alone without frequency. As Latin might have "longer tail" (i.e., many words with very few occurrences - this in natural in every language of course, but it might be more pronounced in Latin) . I would ask how many words suffice to cover, say, 80% of the classical corpus text?
    – d_e
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 11:01
  • "The Oxford Latin Dictionary has about 40,000 entries". By comparison the Oxford English Dictionary has "approximately 301,100 main entries. Supplementing the entry headwords, there are 157,000 bold-type combinations and derivatives; 169,000 italicized-bold phrases and combinations; 616,500 word-forms in total, including 137,000 pronunciations; 249,300 etymologies; 577,000 cross-references; and 2,412,400 usage quotations". Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 12:30
  • @d_e I don't see any reason why Latin would have a longer tail Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 20:24

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