Medieval Latin, Syntax

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Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law, and administration. Despite the clerical origin of many of its authors, medieval Latin should not be confused with Ecclesiastical Latin. There is no real consensus on the exact boundary where Late Latin ends and medieval Latin begins. Some scholarly surveys begin with the rise of early Ecclesiastical Latin in the middle of the 4th century, others around 500, and still others with the replacement of written Late Latin by written Romance languages starting around the year 900.


  • Indirect Discourse, which in Classical Latin was achieved by using a subject accusative and infinitive, was now often simply replaced by new conjunctions serving the function of English "that" such as quod, quia, or quoniam. There was a high level of overlap between the old and new constructions, even within the same author's work, and it was often a matter of preference. A particularly famous and often cited example is from the Venerable Bede, using both constructions within the same sentence: "Dico me scire et quod sum ignobilis" = "I say that I know (accusative and infinitive) and that I am unknown (new construction)". The resulting subordinate clause often used the subjunctive mood instead of the indicative. This new syntax for Indirect Discourse is among the most prominent features of Medieval Latin, and the largest syntactical change.
  • Several substitutions were often used instead of subjunctive clause constructions. These did not break the rules of Classical Latin outright, but were an alternate way to express the same meaning, avoiding the use of a subjunctive clause.
    • The present participle was frequently used adverbially in place of qui or cum clauses, such as clauses of time, cause, concession, and purpose. This was loosely similar to the use of the present participle in an ablative absolute phrase, but the participle did not need to be in the ablative case.
    • Habeo (I have [to]) and "Debeo" (I must) would be used to express obligation more often than the gerundive.
      • Given that obligation inherently carries a sense of futurity ("Carthage must be destroyed" at some point in the future), this anticipates how the Romance languages such as French would use "habeo" as the basis for their Future Tenses (abandoning the Latin forms of Future Tense). While in Latin "amare habeo" is the indirect discourse "I have to love", in the French equivalent "aimerai" (habeo > ayyo > ai, aimer+ai) this has become the Future Tense, "I will love", losing the sense of obligation. In Medieval Latin, however, this was still indirect discourse and was not yet used as simply a Future Tense.
    • Instead of a clause introduced by ut or ne, an infinitive was often used with a verb of hoping, fearing, promising, etc.
  • Conversely, some authors might haphazardly switch between the subjunctive and indicative forms of verbs, with no intended difference in meaning.
  • The usage of sum changed significantly: it was frequently omitted or implied. Further, many medieval authors did not feel that it made sense for the perfect passive construction "laudatus sum" to use the present tense of esse in a past tense construction, so they began using fui, the past perfect of sum, interchangeably with sum.
  • Chaos in the usage of demonstrative pronouns. Hic, ille, iste, and even the intensive ipse are often used virtually interchangeably. In anticipation of Romance languages, hic and ille were also frequently used simply to express the definite article "the", which Classical Latin did not possess. Unus was also used for the indirect article "a, an".
  • Use of reflexives became much more loose. A reflexive pronoun in a subordinate clause might refer to the subject of the main clause. The reflexive possessive suus might be used in place of a possessive genitive, such as eius.
  • Comparison of adjectives changed somewhat. The comparative form was sometimes used with positive or superlative meaning. Also the adverb "magis" was often used with a positive adjective to indicate a comparative meaning; and multum and nimis could be used with a positive form of adjective to give a superlative meaning.
  • Classical Latin used the ablative absolute, but as stated above, in Medieval Latin examples of nominative absolute or accusative absolute may be found. This was a point of difference between the ecclesiastical Latin of the clergy and the "Vulgar Latin" of the laity, which existed alongside it. The educated clergy mostly knew that traditional Latin did not use the nominative or accusative case in such constructions, but only the ablative case. These constructions are observed in the medieval era, but they are changes that developed among the uneducated commoners.
  • Classical Latin does not distinguish progressive action in the present tense, thus laudo can mean either "I praise" or "I am praising". In imitation of Greek, Medieval Latin could use a present participle with sum to form a periphrastic tense equivalent to the English progressive. This "Greek Periphrastic Tense" formation could also be done in the past and future tenses: laudans sum ("I am praising"), laudans eram ("I was praising"), laudans ero ("I will be praising").
  • Classical Latin verbs had at most two voices, active and passive, but Greek (the original language of the New Testament) had an additional "middle voice" (or reflexive voice) which was used (inter alia) to express when the subject is acting upon itself, for example "Achilles put the armor onto himself" or "Jesus clothed himself in the robe" would use the middle voice. Because Latin had no middle voice, Medieval Latin expresses such sentences by putting the verb in the passive voice form, but the conceptual meaning is active (similar to Latin deponent verbs). For example, the Medieval Latin translation of Genesis states literally that "God was moved over the waters" ("spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas", Genesis 1:2), but it is just expressing a Greek middle-voice verb: "God moved [himself] over the waters".
  • Overlapping with orthography differences (see below), certain diphthongs were sometimes shortened: "oe" to "e", and "ae" to "e". Thus "oecumenicus" becomes the more familiar "ecumenicus" (more familiar as this later form, because religious terms such as "ecumenical" were more common in medieval Latin). The "oe" diphthong is not particularly frequent in Latin, but the shift from "ae" to "e" affects many common words, such as "caelum" (heaven) being shortened to "celum", or even "puellae" (girls) being shortened to "puelle".

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