Latin Words and Grammar

How to Ask Politely in Latin

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Guest post writ­ten by Peter Bar­rios-Lech, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Boston.

Introduction: What Is Bradley’s Arnold?

This semes­ter, for the first time in four years, I’m teach­ing Latin Prose Com­po­si­tion, or, more accu­rate­ly, the “Trans­la­tion-of-pas­sages-of-Eng­lish-prose-into-a-Latin-prose-that-accords-with-the-norms-of-the-Clas­si­cal-Peri­od.” This is a ven­er­a­ble exer­cise in the Anglo­phone world, whose chief guide was a text­book first pub­lished in the mid-19th C. by the then rec­tor of Lyn­don, Eng­land, Thomas Kerchev­er Arnold. Arnold’s first text­book, Greek Prose Com­po­si­tion, had made his lit­er­ary for­tunes, and the Latin coun­ter­part to this book seems to have proved equal­ly pop­u­lar (and per­haps equal­ly lucra­tive). Yet the Rec­tor of Lyn­don did not live to see what proved to be the most pop­u­lar ver­sion of his Latin man­u­al, a revi­sion under­tak­en by George Granville Bradley, a Dean of West­min­ster Abbey. This revi­sion, appear­ing at the end of the 19th C., and now (affec­tion­ate­ly?) called Bradley’s Arnold, has been the sta­ple of the Latin Prose Com­po­si­tion Class­room ever since. You can read the whole inter­est­ing his­to­ry of this text here.

Now, Bradley’s Arnold (revised by Pro­fes­sor of Latin at Liv­er­pool, Sir James Fred­er­ick Mount­ford, in 1938; then again for Bolc­hazy-Car­duc­ci, by Don­ald Sprague, in 2005), is a clas­sic of the GT (Gram­mar Trans­la­tion) Method, which takes for grant­ed that teach­ing of Latin should hap­pen through gram­mat­i­cal analy­sis of Latin sen­tences. Indeed, as Bradley, in the intro­duc­tion to his revi­sion writes, the “log­i­cal analy­sis of lan­guage is by this time gen­er­al­ly accept­ed as the only basis of intel­li­gent gram­mat­i­cal teach­ing, whether of our own or of any oth­er lan­guage” (pp. v‑vi). This is not the place to engage in a debate on the best means to learn Latin gram­mar; a top­ic which could per­haps become the focus of a series on this very site.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Latin prose com­po­si­tion: Books and Method

Bradley (And Arnold And Mountford And Sprague) On The Latin Imperative

At any rate, despite some ini­tial reser­va­tions, I was con­vinced by a good friend and col­league to use Bradley’s Arnold in my own class. And so, as my stu­dents and I were trudg­ing duti­ful­ly through the burn­ing remains of besieged cities and wit­nessed cir­cum­stances treach­er­ous to the repub­lic, we came across the fol­low­ing passage.

140. The imper­a­tive mood is used freely in Latin, as in Eng­lish, in com­mands and entreaties, in the sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar and plural.

  • Ad me veni! Come to me.
  • Audite hoc! Hear this.

141. But, espe­cial­ly in the sin­gu­lar, where one per­son, an equal, is addressed, there are many sub­sti­tutes for so peremp­to­ry a mode of speak­ing. For exam­ple, instead of scribe we might say:

  • tu quae­so (obse­cro) ad me scribe
  • cura ut scribas (see 118)
  • scribas velim (see 121)
  • scribe sis (si vis=please)
  • fac scribas (see 125 Note)

(Bradley’s Arnold, p. 93, 2005 Bolc­hazy-Car­duc­ci edition)

Context Matters

The authors raise an impor­tant point. The addressee – the per­son whom we’re address­ing – plays an impor­tant role in what we say and how we say it. “Give me five bucks for a hot dog” is fine if direct­ed to an inti­mate friend – when you find your­self hun­gry and short of cash at the ball park – but will not do when addressed to some­one you know less well. You might want to avoid ask­ing your boss for a sta­pler at the office, but feel more com­fort­able mak­ing the same request of your co-work­er. When email­ing a pro­fes­sor for a rec­om­men­da­tion, you’re less like­ly to ask direct­ly: “Dear Prof. X.  I need a rec­om­men­da­tion. Please write me one in the next month.” Much more like­ly are you to make use of one of many avail­able scripts, for instance, “begin by point­ing out a pre­vi­ous con­nec­tion to the pro­fes­sor, explain the sit­u­a­tion, and then ask as nice­ly as pos­si­ble for recommendation.” 

Cicero Asks Tiro To Take Dictation

Latin­ists have recent­ly been study­ing these things with inter­est­ing results. We now know more about the soci­olin­guis­tic dimen­sions of Latin, or how the iden­ti­ty of the addressee and speak­er affect­ed what was said, we under­stand bet­ter Cicero’s let­ter writ­ing prac­tice, specif­i­cal­ly, what kinds of scripts were avail­able to him in mak­ing cer­tain kinds of weighty requests, and how the great man asked for some­thing nicely. 

Which brings me back to the Bradley’s Arnold pas­sage. It’s most­ly right, but it gets some things quite wrong (not fault of the authors; our knowl­edge of Latin has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last four decades). So, in Sec­tion 140 (The imper­a­tive mood is used freely in Latin, as in Eng­lish, in com­mands and entreaties), the authors are cor­rect. Latin speak­ers did use the present imper­a­tive for almost every­thing, from the most peremp­to­ry com­mand (tace!, “shut up!”) to the most abased entreaty (parce, pre­cor! “spare me, please!”).  But as the two exam­ples indi­cate, the present imper­a­tive is like a chameleon, tak­ing its col­or from the imme­di­ate con­text. So we find the first exam­ple (tace) put in the mouth of a mas­ter address­ing a slave in Plau­tus (Cur­culio v. 131). The sec­ond is Horace’s hum­ble request of a god­dess (Horace Odes, 4.1.2).

But like I said, the pas­sage miss­es the mark on oth­er points. Thus, sis does not mean please (explain­ing why would require anoth­er post). In fact, the oppo­site:  accord­ing to J.N. Adams – a world expert on Latin social vari­a­tion, bilin­gual­ism, and more – “where­as obse­cro, quae­so and amabo usu­al­ly tone down a remark, sis and age can be described as ‘inten­si­fiers’.” And so I just can’t imag­ine Cicero telling his dear amanu­en­sis Tiro to take down a dic­ta­tion with scribe sis, unless, that is, the great man hap­pened to be in a real­ly bad mood that day. I haven’t stud­ied things like fac scribas and cura ut scribas in Cicero’s let­ters, but the rel­e­vant forms in Roman com­e­dy sug­gest to me that these are no more and no less polite than the present imper­a­tive (scribe):  that is, they were rather neu­tral ways of get­ting a request across.

Now, what did Cicero do if he had to impose and want­ed to do so polite­ly? As Eleanor Dick­ey shows, the bar­ris­ter from Tus­cu­lum used velim ut facias and quae­so ut facias for minor requests (such as ask­ing for a response to a let­ter), but reserved rogo ut facias and peto ut facias for more bur­den­some ones.

Asking A Friend For Five Dollars In Latin

So, want to ask a friend for five bucks in Latin? You could say quae­so, da mihi quinque thalaros (See, again, Eleanor Dick­ey on the word order of quae­so and the relat­ed words for please, here). Or why not velim ut mihi des quinque thalaros or quae­so ut mihi des quinque thalaros. But you prob­a­bly won’t want to say da sis quinque thalaros, unless you didn’t real­ly need the mon­ey in the first place.

Still, what is the dif­fer­ence between cedo mihi quinque thalaros and da mihi quinque thalaros? And between da amabo, da obse­cro, and da quae­so?  In the next post, I’ll turn to these ques­tions, in a dis­cus­sion that I hope will be of inter­est espe­cial­ly for those who cul­ti­vate spo­ken Latin.


Peter Bar­rios-Lech is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Boston.


If you’re inter­est­ed in writ­ing in Latin, Bradley’s Arnold is a great tool! You can pur­chase the book here.

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech is an Associate Professor of Classics at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts. His research interests touch upon a variety of areas of ancient literature, e.g. Roman and Greek drama, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and reception. Drawing from his research into colloquial Latin, he incorporates spoken Latin regularly into his teaching method. In the summer, he heads up the Latin immersion course Conventiculum Bostoniense.
Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

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