The word infans means basically "speechless", as the connection to the verb fari immediately suggests. One specific meaning of this word is a small child (III in the linked L&S entry). I assume that it mostly refers to a child that has not started speaking yet. Can it also refer to a child that has already started speaking, or does it refer exclusively to non-speaking children?

On etymological grounds it seems obvious that it has to refer only to children who don't speak yet, but there is a risk of etymological fallacy and I want to figure out how well the etymology is to be trusted here. Any examples of infans used for a small but speaking child or any other relevant experiences with the Latin word would be welcome.

  • 1
    I never knew the roots of the word infant. Thanks! Also, it's hard to define what it means to "start speaking". Are they speaking when they babble? When they have a limited vocabulary of say ten or so words? Or is it only when they possess a degree of proficiency that you would say they have started speaking?
    – ktm5124
    Oct 24, 2017 at 16:26
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    @ktm5124 It's vague, and I don't see any way around it. The question is whether speaking is really used to define what being an infans means, whatever that might mean in practice. I was initially going to write "mute" instead of "non-speaking", but then I realized that the typical child produces sound at all ages, it's just the genre that changes gradually.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Oct 24, 2017 at 16:28
  • I see. I don't see it as a problem at all. I think it makes the question more interesting, as a good answer will likely address that point. I would also be curious to know whether Romans considered babble words or single-word sentences an example of fari.
    – ktm5124
    Oct 24, 2017 at 16:39
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    Etymonline says, without reference, says that the "Romans extended the sense of Latin infans to include older children," leading to such words as French enfant (=child). It would be nice to see a concrete passage and a more accurate timeline, though!
    – brianpck
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:25
  • @brianpck Interesting! I suspected there could have been such an extension, but I had nothing at all to support it. Etymonline is some evidence, but it would indeed be nice to have that corroborated with classical passages (assuming "Romans" means classical).
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:33

1 Answer 1


In the Oxford Latin Dictionary (which only covers Classical Latin):

An infant, little child (strictly, one not yet able to talk).

The use of "strictly" in the parenthesis implies that even in Classical Latin the definition wasn't always applied strictly. The dictionary cites two examples from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum:

(used expressly of older children) PASTORINO INFANTI DVLCISSIMO QVI VIX ANN XVII MENS X CIL 10.4802


Also, in Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet's Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine:

Comme la période dans laquelle l'enfant est considéré comme incapable de parler finit à sept ans (cf. Quint. 1, 1, 18), on conçoit que infans ait pu désigner l'enfant dans le sens ordinairement réservé à puer. Columelle dit ab infante, Celse ab infantibus dans le sens de a puero, a pueris. De plus, infantes formait couple avec parentes.

Meaning that:

As the period during which the child is considered incapable of speech finishes at the age of seven (cf. Quint. 1, 1, 18), it may be seen that infans was able to designate a child in the sense ordinarily reserved for puer. Columella says ab infante, Celsus ab infantibus in the sense of a puero, a pueris. Moreover, infantes was contrasted with parentes.

In volume I of Le Robert's Dictionnaire historique de la langue française:

En latin classique, infans a designé l'enfant en bas age, puis le jeune enfant; il a remplacé en bas latin puer, puella « enfant de 6 à 14-15 ans » et liberi « les enfants, par rapport aux parents ».

In other words:

In Classical Latin, infans designated a child of a very young age, then later a young child; in Late Latin it replaced puer, puella "child of 6 to 14-15 years of age" and liberi "children in relation to their parents".

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    Nice answer. Welcome to the site!
    – ktm5124
    Oct 24, 2017 at 20:42

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