Indicating the Highest Possible Degree of a Quality Using “Quam" and a Latin Superlative Adjective
When coupled with a superlative adjective in Latin, “quam" functions adverbially and helps indicate that the quality in question is not only the greatest among three or more persons or objects but that it is the greatest possible quality. Unlike English, Latin does this with just one extra word, “quam." When translating from Latin to English using “quam" and a superlative adjective, you must include several more words to get your meaning across in English. Take the following example:
Caesar est longissimus. (Caesar is the tallest.)
Notice that the sentence simply implies to whom Caesar is being compared. Regardless of these other unnamed persons, we know from the use of the superlative adjective “longissimus" that Caesar is the tallest. However, there is a slight problem with using a superlative in this way. You see, simply because someone is the tallest among a group of three or more persons does not imply that the person is actually tall.
As another example, suppose three students get the following grades on an exam out of 100 points:
Mary gets 35%
John gets 40%
Sarah gets 45%
Using a superlative adjective, we can honestly say that Sarah received the highest score. But 45 out 100 is not a high score even though among the three scores Sarah’s was the highest. In both Latin and English we need a way to indicate more information when using superlative adjectives. We need a way to indicate when someone or something possesses the highest possible quality.
When paired with a superlative adjective in Latin, “quam" can be used to indicate the highest degree possible of some quality. In English, we often do this with the phrase “as…as possible." For example:
John is as smart as possible.
Mary is as tall as possible.
To do the same thing in Latin, simply precede a superlative adjective with the adverbial word “quam." For example:
Casear est quam longissimus. (Caesar is as tall as possible.)
Femina est quam maxime dubia. (The woman is as uncertain as possible.)
Unfortunately, “quam" here has the same spelling and pronunciation as the feminine accusative singular form of the relative pronoun “qui, quae, quod." Many Latin programs introduce the relative pronouns before use of “quam" with comparative and superlative adjectives.
Consequently, students have trained themselves to instantly see “quam" as a relative pronoun. However, it is quite simple to overcome this training by looking for a nearby superlative that can be easily identified with the distinctive “–issimus –a –um" ending or coupling with the helping word “maxime." When preceded by a superlative, the greatest degree possible of some quality is likely being expressed. Absent a nearby superlative, “quam" is likely a feminine accusative singular relative pronoun.