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What Do Latin Interjections Mean in English?

written by: John Garger • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

In both English and Latin, interjections are used to indicate surprise, joy, and other strong emotions. However, one must take care not to confuse an interjection with another common Latin construction.

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    When reading a sentence, it is often more difficult to understand the emotion the writer intended because it lacks the addition tonality, excitement, and non-verbal cues that are experienced by a listener. One way to express emotion with the written word is to employ an interjection. Certainly, interjections are used in speech to express emotion but they are particularly useful to be sure the correct emotion is transmitted from writer to reader.

    The word “interjection" is derived from the Latin word “interiectum" which itself is a combination of the words “inter" meaning “in" and “iacere" meaning “to throw." Recall that in later Latin, consonant “i" was represented with a “j." Therefore, to use an interjection is literally to “throw in" a word into a sentence.

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    English Interjections

    There are far too many interjections in the English language to list them all here. However, interjections run the gamut from common words such as “oh" and “ah" to much stronger words including profanity. Some common uses of interjections include:

    Ah, now I understand.

    Oh, now I see the man in the street.

    Notice that the interjections are easy to recognize because they appear at the beginning of the sentence and are separated by a comma. The Latin student will find that familiarity with interjections in English make Latin interjections that much more easy to recognize and translate.

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    Latin Interjections

    Latin writers and speakers may “throw in" interjections to express strong emotion. Latin employs some of English’s interjections as well as some that do not appear in English. As with all new vocabulary, their meanings must simply be memorized. However, unlike most Latin words, interjections have only one form; they do not decline or change form since they can only be used one way in a sentence. For example:

    Ah, nunc intelligo. (Ah, now I understand.)

    Oh, virum nunc in via video. (Oh, now I see the man in the street.)

    Heu, illa puella pulchra est. (Alas, that girl is beautiful.)

    One mistake Latin students often make is mixing up the use of an interjection with the use of the vocative case. Both constructions use a short word such as “oh" at the beginning of a sentence, but they are used to express entirely different meanings.

    The vocative case (from Latin “vocare", to call) is use to indicate a person or persons spoken to. Often, the word “oh" is used to differentiate the vocative case from other cases. This is because the vocative case has a similar form to other cases of the same declension. For example:

    Oh Caesar, inimicum superavisti. (Oh Caesar, you defeated the enemy.)

    Notice that “Caesar" is in the vocative case but has the same form as the nominative case. The “oh" is used to indicate that Caesar is being spoke to rather than being the subject of the sentence. Distinguishing the vocative case from the use of an interjection is usually a matter of identifying how many words appear before the comma. One word before a comma usually indicates an interjection while two words often indicate the vocative case. Keep in mind that the word “oh" is not always used before the vocative case, but is usually included in elementary Latin textbooks and programs of study to help with its identification.

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    Conclusion

    An interjection is “thrown in" to a sentence to indicate a strong emotion and help the reader or listener understand the context of a sentence in terms of that emotion. Like English, Latin employs interjections in a similar manner by placing the interjections at the beginning of a sentence and separating it with a comma. However, students of Latin often confuse an interjection with the vocative case that often uses the word “oh." Remembering to count the number of words before the comma can help the student distinguish these two constructions.

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