How We’ve Been Wrong About Latin Word Order

Anyone who knows anything about Latin will agree that the language is SOV (Subject-Object-Verb). In more friendly terms, this means that Latin how Yoda speaks resembles it does. This common understanding is just one basic assumption that drives a lot of decisions and discussions. Yet, how certain are we that Latin is as SOV as we think…

Scholars have been analyzing Latin for a long time, so research on word order isn’t hard to find. Like all good Wikipedia articles, there’s a ton of citations and sources to dig through in the one on Latin word order. Here are some fun facts from this 1918 article I accessed on JSTOR looking at SOV frequency of esse, main clauses, and subordinate clauses in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico I & II, and Cicero’s De Senectute:

  • For esse in main clauses, Caesar used SOV order just 10% of the time; Cicero at 33%.
  • In subordinate clauses with esse, both authors used SOV order about 62% of the time.
  • For all other verbs in main clauses, Cicero used SOV order 66% of the time; Caesar 90%.
  • For all other verbs in subordinate clauses, Caesar used SOV order 68% of the time; Cicero just 8% of the time!

Those stats are all over the place. One thing that stands out above all else, though, is that neither author wrote 100% in SOV order. That should mean something right there. However, the data doesn’t stop there! Pinkster (1990) shares many facts about Latin word order, summarizing Linde (1923), this time looking specifically at main clauses across literature:

  • Caesar uses SOV order 84% of the time.
  • Sallust, 76%
  • Augustine, 42%
  • Cicero, 3354% (depending on work)
  • Varro, 33%
  • Egeria, 25% (yeah I had no idea, either, but read here)

Cicero is interesting for the range of SOV use across his own writing, as far as how far below Caesar he was, even at the highest use of SOV. I was so interested in these stats that I began doing a bit of counting on my own using much smaller samples of just a paragraph or so. Surely, if SOV were preferred, it would have shown up more in smaller samples, right? Wrong. I opened up, clicked on some authors, and counted both main and subordinate clauses in SOV order:

  • Cato De Agri Cultura praefatio, 76%
  • Caesar De Bello Gallico V 1.1-1.9, 73%
  • Cicero Pro Caelio 1, 63%
  • Petronius Satyricon 1, 60%
  • Livy De Urbe Condita I 1, 54%

Results from those very small samples (e.g. 20-30 clauses each) are certainly higher than some averages Linde recorded, but nowhere near supporting the idea that Latin is as SOV as we thought. Think about it; that sample from Livy was as low as nearly half, and that of Cato edging beyond 3/4. That’s hardly enough consistency to qualify Latin as SOV! Still, there’s more data to be found. I decided to look at some poetry for comparison, which I expected to be much, much lower given the constraints of meter. The figures below represent all clauses that I counted, again both main and subordinate, that appear in SOV order:

  • Virgil Eclogues I-III, 38%
  • Catullus I-V, 34%
  • Virgil Aeneid (lines 1-50), 31%
  • Ovid Metamorphoses I (lines 1-50), 20%

This particular sampling shows that the masterful Virgil wrote in SOV order less than 40% of the time. However, poets are bound by meter. This is a good comparison when looking back at the prose authors. If SOV word order truly were as desirable as we’ve thought, wouldn’t writers of prose—with complete freedom unbound by meter—be using it waaaaaaaaaaaaaay more often than the data shows?! Yes. Yes, they would, but the numbers aren’t compelling enough to support that. Sure, it seems that Caesar had a major affinity towards SOV. Other writers, not so much, and Cicero—THE Cicero—had much lower SOV order than one might expect for the model of golden age Latin. If Cicero wrote in SOV order—at most—about half the time, we need to reorient our thinking.

The facts are clear: historically, most authors haven’t written even mostly (75%+) in SOV order. So, where is the idea of SOV coming from?! Honestly, I thought it might be textbooks brainwashing us into expecting SOV at every turn—perhaps with the primary goal of students reading Caesar—so I looked into a few of those. However, reality paints a slightly different picture:

  • Cambridge Latin passages, Stages I-VI, 72%
    • Like Caesar, nearly EVERY verb was last except for forms of esse
  • Ecce Romani I-VI, 65%
  • LLPSI (Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata) I-VI, 63%

Although the numbers are indeed on the higher side, textbooks still aren’t close to 100% SOV. Cambridge certainly sticks out as mirroring the style of Caesar, but its Latin hasn’t really been regarded as the best among critics, anyway. In fact, I’ve seen LLPSI praised most for its Latinity, yet it has the lowest average of SOV. BTW, at this point, if anyone is trying to cite word order as lack of Latinity, those claims just don’t hold up!

Regarding Latinity, there certainly has been a stigma against using Latin in any word order other than SOV, although it should be clear by now that there’s no reason. Still, I haven’t come across anyone speaking or writing exclusively in an English-like word order, either (i.e. 0% SOV)! Even when Englishlike word order is used as a strategy for making Latin more comprehensible, the percentage of SOV is actually a lot higher than we think. Curious, then, I did a quick analysis of the VERY BEGINNER novellas (i.e. 20-40 unique words) I’ve written. To be honest, I expected Rūfus lutulentus to be super low because I intentionally used English-like word order as a comprehension strategy. Surprisingly enough, it matches the SOV writing of Egeria, and isn’t far away from Cicero’s lowest use (33%) of that word order! Here are the percentages of SOV, which reflect the same range of all the Latin I’ve looked at for this post, whether BC, AD, or modern textbook Latin:

25% – Rūfus lutulentus
44% – Rūfus et Lūcia: līberī lutulentī
55% – Syra sōla
54% – Pīsō perturbātus
86% – Rūfus et arma ātra

What Next?
My hope is that current authors will worry less about word order as a rule, instead using Latin’s flexibility to be more comprehensible, emphasize certain words, and expose students to the inflected endings that create meaning rather than fixed patterns that don’t really exist in the literature outside of Caesar. I also hope more teachers will feel more confident speaking in whatever order Latin flows out. After all, even authors who had time to edit their writing didn’t largely prefer SOV order. Moreover, no one insisted on SOV exclusively, and some of the best were very, very far away from writing in that style.

Suffice to say that, at least according to the data I’ve found, most Latin authors didn’t even mostly use SOV. Therefore, Latin is NOT as SOV as we’ve thought.


3 thoughts on “How We’ve Been Wrong About Latin Word Order

  1. This is really useful information and can makes us feel better about not sticking to 100% SOV when not using esse.

    But, SVO is no the only alternative to SOV. How often is the pattern OVS or VOS (suspense or shock in holding the subject to the end)? I would suspect SVO occurs more often than the other two, but it’s a guess, not research-based. And how much more often, I’m not willing to hazard even a guess.

    Thanks for putting so much time into the research!

  2. This makes me wonder what other possible linguistic influences may have been present. Did all authors get raised in Latio? From where did their mothers hail (mother tongue/dialects)? Did any authors get raised a portion of the time in more than one province? Or perhaps forced to study foreign languages for diplomacy? Etc. Do we know enough of these authors to study the reverse; linguistic forensics? Might give us clues to the proto-phonecian dialects and language.

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