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An English Comparison of Latin Interrogative Adjectives

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

Just like English, Latin employs interrogative adjectives to ask questions about a noun in a sentence. Latin is much more precise, and therefore complicated, in how it constructs such questions.

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    One of the reasons Latin is so difficult to learn by native English speakers is that Latin is a very precise language. This preciseness comes with a price in the form of more complicated and numerous inflected forms. As a largely uninflected language, English must be more verbose to express the intricacies of proper grammar. As an inflected language, Latin simply changes the form of its verbiage rather than adding additional words to reflect the same grammatical usage.

    Interrogative adjectives express questions to the reader or listener by asking questions about a noun. Whereas English simply uses a different word to express different types of questions, Latin additionally divides its interrogative adjectives into four distinct categories. These categories, like many constructions in Latin, make the use of interrogative adjectives more precise but inevitably more complicated.

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    English Interrogative Adjectives

    To indicate the type of question being asked with an interrogative adjective, English uses words such as “what”, “whose”, and “which.” When preceded by a noun and used to ask a question about that noun, these words are known as interrogative adjectives. For example:

    What fruit grows in the field?

    Which book is on the table?

    Whose sword is in the road?

    In English, “what” and “which” are used to ask a variety of questions. For example:

    Which man dropped his sword in the road?

    What kind of man dropped his sword in the road?

    How much anger does the man feel?

    Notice that through the addition of other words such as “kind” and “much”, English is able to ask slightly different types of questions about the nouns in the sentences above. Latin does this with a very different method.

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    Latin Interrogative Adjectives

    Latin has four distinct kinds of interrogative adjectives each with its own separate function in asking questions about a noun in a sentence. Just like any type of adjective, Latin interrogative adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case, number, and gender. Recall that the noun and the adjective that modifies it may not necessarily have the same form.

    The simplest employment of interrogative adjectives in Latin occurs when the question about the noun asks “what.” For this type of question, “qui, quae, quod” (literally “what”) is used. For example:

    Quam bacam in agro agricola crescit?

    What fruit is the farmer growing in the field?

    Latin students often wonder why “quam bacam” is in the accusative case. It is because “bacam” is a direct object in the sentence and “quam” is simply agreeing with the noun it modifies in case, number, and gender. By rearranging the translation of the sentence from Latin to English, its function as a direct object becomes easier to see. For example:

    The farmer is growing what fruit in the field?

    Although this is a non-standard form of a question in English, this arrangement clearly shows that “farmer” is the subject to the verb phrase “is growing” with “what fruit” acting as the direct object, hence the accusative case.

    Latin can also ask “what kind of” questions using interrogative adjectives. There are two ways to express this type of question. One is with the use of “qui, quae, quod” again. For example:

    Quae baca in agro crescit?

    What kind of fruit is growing in the field?

    Notice that “quae baca” is the subject of the sentence and is, therefore, in the nominative case. Also, notice that the interrogative adjective “quae” agrees with the noun it modifies “baca” in case, number, and gender but not form.

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    A second method used to express “what kind of” questions in Latin is use of “qualis, quale”, which is declined as a group 2 adjective. For example:

    Quale gladio miles virum necavit?

    With what kind of sword did the soldier kill the man?

    Latin can also employ interrogative adjectives to ask “to what degree” an action was performed. This is done using “quantus, quanta, quantum”, which is declined as a group 1 adjective. For example:

    Quanta ira miles virum necavit?

    With how much anger did the soldier kill the man?

    Finally, Latin also uses interrogative adjectives ask “how many”. This is done with the indeclinable adjective “quot.” Since “quot” is indeclinable, it will always have the same form and, therefore, will not agree with the noun it modifies in case, numbers, and gender. This is one of the few exceptions to this rule. For example:

    Quot viros in via miles nacavit?

    How many men did the soldier kill in the road?

    To understand why “virum” is a direct object and is, therefore, in the accusative case, just rearrange the translation of the sentence as before:

    The soldier killed how many men in the road?

    It is now clear that “soldier” is the subject of the sentence with “men” as the direct object.

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    Conclusion

    Both English and Latin use interrogative adjectives to ask questions about a noun in a sentence. Latin uses different words to create four different constructions to ask “what”, “what kind of”, “how much”, and “how many.” It is interesting to note that although most of Latin’s interrogative adjectives must agree with the noun they modify in case, number, and gender, Latin does employ one indeclinable adjective to ask “how many.” This makes identification of this type of adjective easy for the Latin student. When translating sentences from English to Latin and Latin to English, it may help to rearrange the words in English to better identify how a word is being used in the sentence.


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