In medieval Latin active perfect forms started to use the auxiliary verb habere with perfect participle. Thus amavi would be replaced with amatum habeo. These two constructions must have coexisted for some time. Was there any semantic difference between the two or were they always completely interchangeable?

At least Italian seems to have inherited both versions. In passato prossimo we have ho amato and in passato remoto we have amai. Is the possible semantic difference between the two perfect tenses in medieval Latin similar to the one in Italian or other Romance languages? I am much more familiar with Latin than Italian, so "The difference is the same in both languages" does not fully explain the difference to me, but I am also interested in comparing these two languages.

  • 2
    Spanish also has separate tenses seemingly deriving from each form: amavi, amavisti, amavit --> amé, amaste, amó (past indefinite, similar to Greek's supine) // amatum habeo, habes, habet --> he, has, ha amado (present perfect). I don't know whether the origin is Medieval Latin or some later mutual influence with Italian when a part of southern Italy was under Spanish rule, though
    – Rafael
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 18:11
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    French has the same distinction -- j'aimai vs. j'ai aimé -- though the former tense is only used in literary language.
    – TKR
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 23:29

2 Answers 2


To my understanding, there is indeed a difference!

Latin's "perfect" tense is a fusion of two separate tense-aspect combinations: the "present perfective" (an action that was completed before the present, and affects the present) and the "past aoristic" (an action that takes place in the past, where the duration doesn't matter). The two forms look the same, but are semantically distinct, and it's sometimes useful to make that distinction.

In post-Classical Latin (and presumably Classical-era Vulgar Latin too), the "habeō-perfect" was invented to distinguish them. It seems to have evolved out of constructions like litteram scriptam habeō "I have a letter that's been written" → "I have written a letter", and involves a verb in the present, marking an action in the past. In other words, it's definitively present perfective, not past aoristic.

So as time went on, this construction took over to represent the present perfective, with the "perfect" forms like scripsī representing past aoristic (also called "preterite" or "simple past" to distinguish it).

This is what we eventually see in the Romance languages: Italian, for example, uses ho amato (< habeō amātum) for past actions affecting the present, and amai (< amāvī) for past actions with no connections to present events. In Italian the distinction is now weakening, and is somewhat turning into a "recent past" tense and a "distant past" tense—but it's evident where that distinction must have originated.


Note: Not a direct answer, but...

According to A.G. Rigg, 'Morphologoy and Syntax' in Mantello and Rigg, eds, Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide (Washington, DC, 1996), 85:

In Classical Latin the past participle is sometimes (though rarely) used predicatively after habere: domitas habere libidines, "to have one's desires tamed," i.e. "to have tamed one's desires." From this it is an easy step to the French Je l'ai tué, "I have killed him." English developed I have killed him in the same way, not from French influence but from the senses inherent in have and the past participle. When Medieval Latin uses such constructions (habere plus perfect participle to form a transitive perfect tense), it is probably in imitation of the vernacular rather than of the rare Classical Latin construction.

However, I'd say the more common medieval 'analytic' forms involved a shift in the way the passive voice might be written:

                 Classical                  'Medieval'
present          scribitur                  scriptus, -a, -um est
perfect          scriptus, -a, -um est      scriptus, -a, -um fuit
pluperfect       scriptus, -a, -um erat     scriptus, -a, -um fuerat
future perfect   scriptus, -a, -um erit     scriptus, -a, -um fuerit

present          scribatur                  scriptus, -a, -um sit
perfect          scriptus, -a, -um sit      scriptus, -a, -um fuerit
pluperfect       scriptus, -a, -um erat     scriptus, -a, -um fuisset

Compare Rigg, ibid.:

In Classical Latin the perfect passive is formed by esse and the past participle (iussus est, "he was ordered"); in Medieval Latin the verb esse sometimes regains its literal tense, so that amata est can mean "she is loved"; consequently, to form the past, past tenses of esse are needed (amata erat/fuit); this is a natural consequence of the adjectival nature of the past participle.

When reading post-classical texts, then, one must be careful about this shift. In particular, one must watch for ambiguity in three cases:

  1. Classical perfect indicative vs ‘medieval’ present indicative → scriptus, -a, -um est;

  2. Classical perfect subjunctive vs ‘medieval’ present subjuctive → scriptus, -a, -um sit; and

  3. (as is regularly the case) ‘medieval’ future perfect indicative and ‘medieval’ perfect subjunctive → scriptus, -a, -um fuerit.

And, certainly, a 'medieval' author might use both the medieval and classical form in one and the same work. Whether that is because there is some special distinction that can be drawn between the two uses is hard to say. But I doubt that there was a universal, but unstated, distinction that all authors drew upon. (Indeed, I'd be inclined to wonder if the different uses might not be attributable to what we might call palaeographical reasons.)

Finally, another avenue of inquiry might be the adoption of the Greek periphrastic in, e.g., the Vulgate:

Et ecce: eris tacens et non poteris loqui usque in diem, quo haec fiant... (Lc 1:20)

The Latin construction of the Greek periphrastic is a present participle + some tense of esse (present, imperfect, or future). But I don't know, off-hand, what connection the above analytic forms have to the adoption of this type of periphrastic construction....

  • Would you describe these "medieval" passive forms as the norm for medieval writing? The headings seem potentially misleading, given that my experience with medieval writers shows most of them using "classical" forms.
    – brianpck
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 14:41
  • No, I'll edit to put 'Medieval'. However, they do become quite common in scholastic texts in the high/late middle ages, at least in legal and philosophical texts (which is what I'm most familiar with). As I said, however, the same author, in the same text, can use both the classical and 'medieval' forms.
    – jon
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 16:57
  • Thanks! This is an illuminating answer. However, it does not exactly answer my original question, so I will not accept it. I hope the bounty you are likely to get will compensate for that.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 21:54
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta -- Yeah, I kinda figured this wasn't precisely what you were looking for. But it seemed close enough to mention it, and it was hard to squeeze it all into a comment!
    – jon
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 0:46

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