Tense is derived from the Latin word “tempus” which literally means “time.” The tense of a verb tells when the action took place. Both Latin and English have six tenses, each of which functions almost exactly the same in both languages. However, English needs help in expressing some of its tenses because the number of forms an English verb can take is limited. Latin, however, has an inflection for each person, number, tense, voice, and mood of its verbs. Both systems are complex to non-native speakers of these languages.
Auxiliary Verbs in English
An auxiliary verb is a word that helps a main verb indicate when the action of a sentence takes place. The times an action can take place are expressed with the following tenses:
An auxiliary verb plus a main verb is called a compound tense (or sometimes a verb phrase). English has several auxiliary verbs such as “to be”, “to do”, “to have”, “will”, “may”, “might”, and others. These words either help the verb express the time of an action or change the meaning of the main verb. Auxiliary verbs serve many functions but the most common include:
(1) Indicating the tense of the main verb, as in:
John is watching television.
(2) Forming the Perfect system of tenses, as in:
Sue had seen the movie.
(3) Indicating a passive voice verb, as in:
John was given an award.
(4) Indicating the subjunctive mood, as in:
Sarah may go to the store.
The Lack of Auxiliary Verbs in Latin
Latin is an inflected language, which means the words change to indicate their function in the sentence. Consequently, most verb tenses can be expressed with only one word. For example:
Caesar arborem viderat (Caesar had seen the tree)
Notice that the verb “viderat” is used to express the meaning “had seen”, a verb phrase in English. Latin is much more efficient than English because it simply changes one word to express a host of meanings without the need to add or subtract words to go from tense to tense or meaning to meaning. However, formation of some passive voice verbs requires two words, but this is a matter of inflection rather than auxiliary words and verb phrases. For example:
Caesar vocatus erat (Caesar had been called)
The verb “vocatus erat” is a pluperfect passive voice verb which requires the present participle “vocatus” and the imperfect form of “sum” to form this tense. On its own, “erat” can be translated as “he was.” It is not a helping verb because it is used only to inflect the tense of the verb, not help it as an auxiliary verb.
The lack of auxiliary verbs and verb phrases in Latin makes the language more efficient. Whereas English requires two or three words to express a verb’s tense, Latin usually needs one or occasionally two. Even when Latin uses two, it is a matter of inflection, not a helping verb. This inflected construction often confuses English speakers who believe that most languages are grammatically similar. Truly inflected languages like Latin give beginning students trouble because they are looking for Latin words to add to a sentence to change its meaning. It is true that learning Latin forces the English-speaking student to gain appreciation for the intricacies of numerous languages, not just the new one being learned.