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How to Recognize and Translate Latin Deponent Verbs

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

Latin has deponent verbs that have passive voice forms but active voice meanings. This anomaly gives Latin students trouble when they encounter these verbs. Learn how to translate Latin's deponent verbs.

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    In the previous two articles of this series, active and passive voice verbs were compared in English and Latin. The voice of a verb indicates the relationship between a verb and its subject; active voice is used when the subject is doing the action and the passive voice is used when someone or something else is doing the action to the subject. This distinction is important because it can change the entire meaning of a sentence. This is especially true of Latin when the changing of one letter at the end of a verb can be all that indicates whether the verb is active or passive.

    One anomaly found is Latin is Deponent Verbs. These verbs are odd because they typically have passive voice forms but active voice meanings. Deponent Verbs are not found in English because English employs a verb phrase to indicate the passive voice. The passive voice in English is formed with the verb “to be" plus the past participle of the verb. The verb “to be" is properly conjugated to coincide with when the action takes place, took place, or will take place.

    Although English does not have Deponent Verbs, there is one case similar to Latin in which an English verb has no passive voice forms. On its own and outside of a verb phrase, the verb “to be" can only have an active meaning. One cannot “be beed" or “be wased" or “be willed." These verbs do not exist in English. Either something or someone exists or it does not. Something or someone cannot have its own existence acting upon itself. Therefore, “to be" lacks a passive voice form.

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    Latin Deponent Verbs

    The Latin Deponent Verb is a verb that has a passive voice form but an active voice meaning. Luckily, not many Deponent Verbs are encountered in elementary Latin study, the kind of Latin studied in High School particularly. The word Deponent is itself of Latin derivation from the word “depono" (deponere) literally meaning “to lay" or “put down." Think of deponent verbs as having “laid down" their passive meaning to embrace an active meaning.

    One particularly common Deponent verb is “loquor" which means “to speak." Regular Latin verbs typically have four principal parts. However, Deponent Verbs have only three; the first, the second, and the fourth. This is because that is all that is necessary to form the four remaining characteristics of a verb (person, number, tense, and mood). The third principal part is used to form the perfect tense system of the active voice. In the passive voice, the perfect tense system uses the past participle or the fourth principal part. Therefore, no third principal part is needed.

    The principal parts of “loquor" are:

    loquor, loqui, locutus sum

    Loquor conjugates just as any other verb of the passive voice for each of the six tenses. However, recall that although a Deponent Verb has a passive form, it has an active meaning. For example:

    Caesar viro senecto loquitur. (Present)

    Caesar is speaking to the old man.

    Caesar viro senecto loquebatur. (Imperfect)

    Caesar was speaking to the old man.

    Caesar viro senecto loquetur. (Future)

    Caesar will speak to the old man.

    Caesar viro senecto locutus est. (Perfect)

    Caesar spoke to the old man.

    Caesar viro senecto locutus erat. (Pluperfect)

    Caesar had spoken to the old man.

    Caesar viro senecto locutus erit. (Future Perfect)

    Caesar will have spoken to the old man.

    Again, notice the passive forms of the verb but the active translation and meaning.

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    Conclusion

    Native-English students of Latin often have trouble understanding Deponent Verbs because English lacks them completely. A Deponent Verb is simply a verb with passive form but active meaning. They conjugate just like any other passive voice verb. However, Deponent Verbs must be memorized so that their identification and translation is correct. Luckily, for the Latin student, there are few Deponent Verbs found in elementary Latin study and their impact is small enough that they are often left out of most curricula until the very end of elementary Latin study.

Latin Active Voice, Passive Voice, and Deponent Verbs: An English Comparison

English and Latin both employ Active and Passive Voice verbs to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. Only Latin has Deponent verbs. These verbs are passive in form but have active meanings. English’s lack of Deponent verbs makes learning them difficult for Latin students.
  1. Latin Active Voice Verbs: An English Comparison
  2. An Introduction to Latin Passive Voice Verbs
  3. How to Recognize and Translate Latin Deponent Verbs

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