What is the best verb to be used in phrases like "I'm sorry, I didn't understand" or "Did you understand?" in Latin? In English one might use "understand" or "get", in Italian perhaps "capire" is the most common choice. But how about Latin? I can see several options, but I don't know what is most natural in conversational Latin: intelligere, capere, cognoscere, cernere, scire, sentire, videre…

This is related to an older question about "Pardon me" when not understanding something. This question is focused on the quest for suitable verbs for all conversational situations, not a phrase for "pardon me, I didn't understand".

  • My old Rosetta Stone Latin course had te non intellexi; repete, quaeso, but that was Rosetta Stone. – Anonym Aug 16 '17 at 1:44
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    I'm not sure if you're thinking specifically of those times when you didn't quite catch what someone said but I thought this question might naturally link to a previous question about saying "pardon, I didn't quite hear/understand what you said": latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1830/… – Penelope Aug 17 '17 at 2:37
  • @Penelope I was thinking of a general verb (or several) to be used in all kinds of conversational situations. I faintly remembered we had had something similar, but couldn't quite remember what it was. That question is certainly relevant. Thanks for the reminder and the link! – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 17 '17 at 11:56

UPDATE & EDIT: My first answer read as though it was simply trying to establish the use of intellegere when what I meant to make clear is that intellegere is by far and away the most frequently-used verb for this type of exchange (based mainly on Plautus and Terence). Next most used is scire and I have added new material to that section below. I have also expanded on casual ways of asking "do you understand?" and added a new verb, callere.

Looking at casual, conversational exchanges, intellegere is the most frequently used, particularly in the negative. For example:

[quid est?] non intellego

what? I don't understand

Plautus, The Ghost, 475

nam prorsum nil intellego

I don't understand at all

Terence, The Self-Tormentor, 775

non hercle intellego

I don't understand by Hercules

Terence, The Woman of Andros, 190

sed parum intellego quid me velis scribere

but I don't quite understand what you want me to write

Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 380

avunculum meum dixisse: "intellexeras nempe?"

my uncle said, "couldn't you understand him?"

Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.12

Scire is the next most used verb to say "I don't understand". Here's a great example, with bonus idiom:

quin nec caput nec pes sermoni apparet. nec quid dicatis scire nec me quor ludatis possum.

Neither head nor foot of your speech is clear. I can't understand what you're saying or what you're playing at.

Plautus, Comedy of Asses, 729-730

An interesting use of scire is to combine it with noscere to emphasise just how much you don't understand:

nec vos qui homines sitis novi nec scio

I neither know nor understand who you guys are

Plautus, The Braggart Soldier, 450. See also Plautus, Pseudolus, 1210

A similar combination of verbs, this time nescire and capere (the only use of capere I found) occurs in Terence, The Self-Tormentor, 955:

nescio nec rationem capio

I don't know or understand the reason

When asking "do you understand?", again intellegere and scire are both often used (satin intellegis?, iam scis?, for example). But tenere is also frequently seen in both Plautus and Terence: simply tenes? in Phormio 210, or satin haec meministi et tenes? in Plautus, The Persian, 183, are just two examples.

audistin? is attested in Terence, The Brothers, to essentially mean "do you understand?"

Lastly, I came across callere being used to mean "to understand", which was new to me and so I add it here. Examples: callemus probe / we understand well (Plautus, The Little Carthaginian, 575) and docte calleo (Plautus, The Persian, 380).


To say non intelligo always seems a bit heavy-handed and instead I think you can pretty much make up this sort of informal adjunct to conversation, much as we do in English. Capio is useful here: Veniam da, sed hoc non cepi is acceptable as 'excuse me, but I didn't understand', or 'I didn't catch that'. You can also use non carpsi in the exact sense of 'I didn't quite gather what you said'.

I can't place specific instances from memory, but this sort of thing is most likely to occur during conversation found in plays. I should think that Plautus in particular has some good examples.

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