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Chapter 12

RULE 1: The perfect tense shows action completed in the past.

RULE 2: The perfect stem is marked by (a) the addition of a w-sound; (b) the addition of an s-sound; (c) reduplication; and/or (d) the lengthening of the base vowel.

I. Grammar

This chapter marks a large step. You will double the number of verb forms you know and bring into play the verb's third principal part representing the perfect active system. We will study the nature of the perfect system, how the perfect stem is generated and how the various perfect tenses are formed and translated. Make sure you understand each step along the way.

A. The Nature of the Perfect System

The name perfectum was given to this tense system by ancient grammarians who saw its defining character as "completed action," as opposed to the in(per)fectum (the present tense-system including the imperfect). Perfectum means "thoroughly (per-) done (-fectum)"—our word perfect meaning "in a faultless state" is only first attested widely in the fourteenth century CE. The distinction between im(per)fectum and perfectum underlies all Latin indicative past-tense verbs.

Consider the following: "When I was taking a shower [imperfect], the phone rang [perfect]." The imperfect verb (was taking) involves on-going, incomplete action in the past, while the perfect verb (rang) describes one-time, completed action. The perfect tense also conveys a sense of having impact on the present or being true up to the present time, a connotation the imperfect or simple past does not have, e.g. "I fell (= simple past) down yesterday [connotation: but I'm here and still alive]" as opposed to "I have fallen (= perfect) down just now [connotation: and may have broken my leg]."

B. The Perfect Base

While Wheelock is correct that the different conjugations do not affect the perfect system as they do the present, that applies only to the conjugation of verbs (i.e the process of attaching endings to the base). The different conjugations do, in fact, affect how the perfect bases are formed which exhibit distinctive and somewhat "regular" patterns according to conjugation. But it is true that thematic vowels do not play a role in the perfect system the same way they do in the present system, nor are any of the perfect tenses formed differently according to different conjugations.

Because the perfect base cannot always be predicted from the present stem, it must be memorized for each verb (the third principal part). However, many perfect bases follow a predictable pattern falling into three general categories, along with a group of "mixed" formation:

1. "Regular" perfect forms. Each conjugation has a "regular" way of forming the perfect base. In all but third conjugation, this entails adding a w-sound (Latin v) to the end of the present base, cf. Eng. -ed:

lauda- > laudav- (amav-, cogitav-, errav-, servav-, tolerav-, vocav-, etc.)
mone- > monu-, where u represents a w-sound (debu-, docu-, habu-, valu-, etc.)
audi- > audiv- (examples from verbs which will be covered later: sciv-, nesciv-)

Third conjugation verbs use -s- as a perfect marker so often that it's possible to say that -s- is the perfect marker in third conjugation:

duc- > dux-, where dux- = *duc/s/- (mis- = *mitt/s/-, scrips- = *scrib/s/-, vix- = *viv/s/-)

2. Lengthened vowel. Some verbs, mostly from third, third -io and fourth conjugations, form their perfect base by lengthening the vowel in the base of the verb:

ag- > êg- (vên-, invên-, cêp-, fêc-, fûg-, vîd-), cf. Eng. come > came, take > took, write > wrote.

3. Reduplication. A few verbs form their perfect base by "reduplicating" the first consonant sound in the base, i.e. "doubling the sound," a sort of syntactic stuttering:

da- > ded- (examples from verbs which will be covered later: tang- > tetig-, curr- > cucurr-, pell- > pepul-, disc- > didic-)

4. Mixed Formation. Some verbs use a combination of the forms above to create their perfect base:

sent- > sêns- (s-marker from third conjugation + lengthened vowel)

and among other verbs we will learn later:

intelleg- > intellêx- (s-marker from third conjugation + lengthened vowel)
trah- > trâx- (s-marker from third conjugation + lengthened vowel)
iung- > iûnx- (s-marker from third conjugation + lengthened vowel)

Some verbs borrow a certain way of forming their perfect bases which is distinctive to a conjugation other than their own:

remane- (II) > remans- (as if from III)
possum (irreg.) > potu- (as if from II)

and among other verbs we will soon learn:

iube- (II) > iuss- (as if from III)
rapi- (III -io) > rapu- (as if from II)
pet- (III) > petiv- (as if from IV)

Some irregular verbs derive their perfect bases from other verbs (a process called "composite conjugation") and show a conflation of different bases:

*es- (sum, esse) > fu-

and among other verbs we will eventually learn:

fer- > tul- (the perfect base of tollo)
toll- > sustul- (the perfect base of sub-tollo)

If the categories above help some of you memorize verb forms and, more importantly, later recognize perfect forms, please use them. If not, ignore them and simply memorize perfect bases. It's important to learn to recognize a verb form which exhibits, for instance, reduplication or a w-sound as likely to be perfect [although there are exceptions: iuvo, vivo, nanciscor, titubo], because these are the very things which signalled the perfect tense to the Roman ear, just as when English speakers hear an -ed or a different (usually longer) vowel in a verb base, it's our signal that the verb is past tense [but note that there are exceptions in English, too: wed, bed, tread, etc.].

C. Formation and Translation of the Perfect Tenses

Latin perfect-tense verbs are formed by adding distinct endings representing the three different perfect tenses (perfect, pluperfect, future perfect) to the perfect base of a verb which is obtained by dropping the -i from the end of the third principal part of the verb.. This process is somewhat simpler than forming a verb in the present-tense system, inasmuch as perfect-tense verbs have only two elements (base + ending) and are in general less often irregular. You must memorize the endings for the three perfect tenses and learn the simple process of adding them to the perfect base. That the endings for the pluperfect and future perfect closely resemble the imperfect and future forms of the verb esse makes their memorization all the easier.

Only one set of forms presents any real problem: the -erunt in the perfect vs. the -erint in the future perfect. If the future perfect endings followed the future forms of sum strictly, the future perfect should have -erunt in the third plural, but because -erunt serves as the third-plural ending in the perfect, the future perfect ending was regularized to -erint along the lines of -eris, -erit, etc.

The translation of these forms is also relatively easy. It's best to begin by laying out all the tenses of the Latin verb on a timeline [ where time flows from left to right]:

Imperfect [-1]
Present [+0]
Future [+1]
Pluperfect [-2]
Perfect [-1]
Future Perfect [+.5]

In light of this, consider the example of Oedipus:

PRESENT [+0]: Today I am putting out my eyes with my wife's brooches.
IMPERFECT [-1]: Because I married my own mother.
PERFECT [-1]: And we have had four children together.
PLUPERFECT [-2]: But before that I had killed my father.
FUTURE [+1]: So I will go to Athens and be translated into heaven (according to Sophocles).
FUTURE PERFECT [+.5]: But before arriving there, I will have wandered around Greece for many years.

Thus, the perfect and imperfect tenses happen at the same time (-1, i.e. one step back in time) but describe the past in different ways, entailing what linguists call different "aspects" of the verb. As we have noted before (see Chapter 5), the imperfect shows continuous, habitual or incomplete action in the past; the perfect tense shows stopped or completed action in the past. The perfect tense, then, covers a number of different English usages and can be translated in various ways: saw (the simple past), did see (the affirmative form of the past tense) and has/have seen (the perfective which shows special impact on the present).

The pluperfect tense represents "two steps" back in the past—in order to have a pluperfect verb form, there must be a past reference point from which the pluperfect ("more-completed") shows action happening even further back in the past—"I didn't do my homework yesterday [yesterday = reference point in the past] and I hadn't done it the day before either [the day before yesterday = two steps back in time]." The future perfect shows action prior to the future: "By the time I will turn in my homework on Tuesday, I will have missed the Monday deadline by a day."

Also, note the order in which the tenses are presented. Putting the present and perfect tenses into a symmetrical arrangement is designed to facilitate their memorization:

  Present System [+0] Perfect System [-1]
Ground Zero [+ 0]
Present [= +0] Perfect [= -1]
Imperfect [= -1] Pluperfect [= -2]
Future [= +1] Future Perfect [= +.5]
One step backward in time [-1]
One step forward in time [+1]

D. The Principal Parts of the Verb

You are now responsible for memorizing the four principal parts of all Latin verbs which we have encountered through Chapter 12. We will immediately begin using the third principal part (representing the perfect active system) of all the verbs we know. And while Wheelock does not introduce until later the concept and use of the fourth principal part (representing the perfect passive system), you are responsible for memorizing this form for each verb we have learned up to now and will learn in subsequent chapters. Otherwise, when we finally get to perfect passives, you will have to do a great deal of memorization along with mastering the use and function of the perfect passive system. On balance, it's better to start memorizing now the fourth principal parts of verbs rather than later to have to embrace both form and function at the same time.

Note that each principal part conveys essential information about the Latin verb:

• The First Principal Part (the first person singular present indicative active) is the "dictionary form," the form under which one looks up the verb in the dictionary or, in this case, the back of the book.

• The Second Principal Part (the present active infinitive) dictates into which conjugation the verb fits, important information for determining how the future tense, in particular, is formed.

• With the removal of the final -i, the Third Principal Part (the first person singular perfect indicative active) shows the perfect stem from which all (active) perfect forms are created.

• And finally the Fourth Principal Part (the perfect passive participle) represents the perfect passive, "having been X-ed". [You are not responsible for anything more than memorizing the Latin form of Fourth Principal Part, but if you can translate it now even in a basic English form, you will be just that much further ahead when we encounter its use later.]

E. Handout

Click here for a worksheet on perfect forms.

II. Vocabulary

deus: Di (nominative plural) and dis (dative/ablative plural) are contracted forms used widely in Latin.

libertas: As a third-declension noun ending in -tas/-tatis, this word must be feminine in gender (see Wheelock, page 32, note 2).

Asia: Note that in antiquity this name referred to the area we now call Turkey. Because the Romans had little idea of the scope or nature of the huge land mass now called Asia, the name was extended to the entire continent.

Caesar: Note that like all nouns in Latin names decline and therefore must be assigned to a declensional category. Caesar belongs to the third declension.

III. Sentences

Practice and Review

14. In this sentence, "to him" cannot be represented by the dative case. Since it means "to(ward) him," how should it be translated?


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