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A Contemptuous Twist: Latin Demonstrative Adjectives

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Like English, Latin employs demonstrative adjectives to indicate objects or people who are near or far from the speaker. However, Latin has a contemptuous twist when it comes to objects or people far away.

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    A Demonstrative Adjective acts just like any other adjective by describing a noun in more detail. Demonstrative Adjectives specifically point out or draw more attention to a noun than other adjectives. In fact, the word “demonstrative" derives from the Latin word “demonstrare" meaning “to point out" or simply “demonstrate."

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    English Demonstrative Adjectives

    English uses four words to point out nouns in a sentence. “This" and its plural “these" are used to point out nouns that are near to the speaker. For example:

    This book is good.

    This man is a teacher.

    These fruits are spoiled.

    These women are tall.

    Notice that “this" is used for singular nouns and “these" are used for plural nouns.

    “That" and “those" are English’s Demonstrative adjectives when a speaker is referring to objects or people some distance away. For example:

    That book is good.

    That man is a teacher.

    Those fruits are spoiled.

    Those women are tall.

    Notice that “that" is used for singular nouns and “those" are used for plural nouns.

    There is no set distance that separates appropriate use of “this" and “these" versus “that" and “those." It is a matter of relative distinction left up to the speaker to decide if the noun is close enough to warrant the use of “this" or “these."

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    Latin Demonstrative Adjectives

    Latin’s Demonstrative Adjectives function similarly to English’s. However, as with almost all Latin adjectives, they are fully declinable and must agree with the noun they modify in case, number, and gender.

    To indicate nouns close to the speaker, “hic, haec, hoc" function like English’s “this" and “these." For example:

    Hic liber bonus est. (This book is good.)

    Hic vir magister est. (This man is a teacher.)

    Hi fructus mali sunt. (These fruits are bad.)

    Hae feminae altae sunt. (These women are tall.)

    To indicate nouns far from the speakers, “ille, illa, illud" functions like English’s “that" and “those."

    Ille liber bonus est. (That book is good.)

    Ille vir magister est. (That man is a teacher.)

    Illi fructus mali sunt. (Those fruits are bad.)

    Illae feminae altae sunt. (Those women are tall.)

    Unlike English, latin employs a third Demonstrative Adjective that can be translated into English as “that" or “those" but which has a different meaning than that implied by “ille, illa, illud." “Iste, ista, istud" which declines just like “ille, illa, illud" is used when the speaker intends distaste or contempt for the noun the it modifies. For example:

    Iste vir regem necavit. (That man killed the king.)

    Ista femina mala est. (That woman is evil.)

    Notice that by using “iste, ista, istud", the word “that" takes on a more sinister, almost accusatory, tone. When translating from Latin to English, it is sometimes necessary to be sure that the contemptuous tone is properly conveyed since English does not employ more than one Demonstrative Adjective to indicate nouns some distance from the speaker. It does, however, make it easier for the Latin student to understand the tone of Latin text when “iste, ista, istud" is used in place of the more common “ille, illa, illud."

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    Conclusion

    Demonstrative adjectives function similarly in English and Latin. However, as Latin is an inflected language, its Demonstrative Adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case, number, and gender. Since almost all Latin adjectives agree with the nouns they modify in case, number, and gender, this should be no problem for the Latin student by the time Demonstrative Adjectives are introduced. One quirk in Latin is its use of the contemptuous “iste, ista, istud" at times in place of the more common “ille, illa, illud." The purpose of both is to point out an object or person not in the immediate vicinity of the speaker. The stronger, accusatory tone of iste, etc., makes it easy for students of Latin to understand the tone of a sentence, especially when written text is unable to express emotion as a speaker does through phonetic emphasis of the words “that" and “those."