Prepositional infinitives in Latin & Romance

by Keith Tse (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Prepositional infinitives are an important type of clausal complementation in all Romance languages, especially the use of de-infinitive and ad-infinitive which are pan-Romance in their uses as non-finite clausal complements (Harris 1978:197-198, Vincent 1988:68-70, Ledgeway 2012a:179, cf. Meyer-Lübke 1900:426ff.). However, although Romance prepositional infinitives are widely attested across time and space, their Latin (or proto-Romance) origins are as yet unknown, since prepositional infinitives do not exist in Latin, apart from some very late and dubious examples which cannot be taken for granted (Diez 1876:201-202, Beardsley 1921:97). Nonetheless, there have been recent attempts to reconstruct proto-Romance prepositional infinitives, which are structurally equivalent to Latin prepositional gerunds/gerundives as suppletive markers of the oblique functions of the infinitive and the latter may be taken as precursors of the former (Schulte 2007:87ff).

In this post, I outline a proposal concerning the Latin origins for Romance prepositional infinitives whose diachronic formation displays striking parallels with and divergences from the famous English to-infinitive (Los 2005), a comparison of which raises new questions not only for non-finite complementation but also for mechanisms of syntactic change.

Prepositional complementation in Romance

The two most common types of prepositional complementisers in Romance are de-infinitives and ad-infinitives, which show different distributions; the former is used with all types of verbs, while the latter is restricted mainly to verbs that imply purpose and futurity (Meyer-Lübke 1900:426ff, 435ff; Beardsley 1921:97-99, 106-108, 150-151; Vincent 1988:68; 1999:7). This is illustrated in the following examples from Medieval Romance where de-infinitives are used with verbs of communication (verba declarandi), command (verba praecipiendi) and as prolative infinitives (verba prolativa), whereas ad-infinitives are only attested with the latter two (prepositional complementiser in bold):

Verba declarandi:

1a) deneg-o             de  enuia-r-les              ayuda
deny-PRET.3SG DE send-INF-PRO.3PL aid
‘… he denied that he sent them help.’ (La Primera Crónica General 679a33)

1b)   confess-a                d’   aver-lo      fa-tto
confess-PRES.3SG DE have-PRO do-PERF.PTCP
‘he confesses that he has done it…’ (Rettorica p. 108)

1c)   qui           se               dout-e               d’   estre    blasmee
‘… who fears that he is being blamed.’ (La clef d’amors 2584)

Verba prolativa:

2a)   siempre contiend-e           de val-er            a    cuitad-os
always    strive-PRES.3SG  DE protect-INF AD victim-PL
‘he always strives to protect the victims.‘ (La Estoria de Sennor Sant Millan 623)

2b)   procaccia-ndo  di  riconcili-ar-si                    co-l                     Papa
strive-GERUND DE reconcile-INF-REFL.PRO with-DEF.ART Pope
‘striving to reconcile with the Pope.’ (Cronica fiorentina, p. 104)

2c)   desirroit              a    vivre      d-u                          sien
‘… he would like to live with his.’ (Les miracles de saint Louis de Guillaume de St Pathus 5554)

Verba praecipiendi:

3a)   ell-os      ordena-uan              de pon-er
PRO-3PL order-IMPERF.3PL DE place-INF
‘… they ordered to place them.’ (La Primera Crónica General 87a47)

3b)   pora            esforç-ar  a    defend-er-se force-INF AD defend-INF-REFL.PRO
‘in order to force them to defend themselves.’ (La Primera Crónica General560b31)

3c)   ordin-arono       di  fa-r-gli                fa-re    incontinente…
order-PRET.3PL DE make-INF-PRO make-INF incontinent
‘… they ordained him to be made to make him incontinent’ (Compagnia di S. M. del Carmine, p. 66)

3d)   era-no                 costr-ett-i …                           a    tagli-are selv-e
be.IMPERF-3PL force-PERF.PTCP-NOM.PL AD cut-INF   forest-PL
‘… they were forced… to cut forests…’ (Vegezio 2, cap. 24)

3e)   il      fust                contrei-nz            a    renoi-er     la             foy    Jhesu Crist
PRO be.PRET.3SG force-PAST.PTCP AD reject-INF DEF.ART faith Jesus Christ
‘… he was forced to reject his faith in Jesus Christ.’ (L’histoire de Barlaam et Josaphat 1.1.46)

The main difference between de and ad, therefore, is that de marks both realis and irrealis clausal complements, whereas ad only marks irrealis complements, which may be projected back to proto-Romance. In the next section, I look at some Latin attestations which bear striking similarities to these Romance examples and may be taken as their precursors.

Prepositional complementation in Latin

Both Latin de ‘about, regarding’ and ad ‘to, towards’ are lexical prepositions; there are numerous examples from pre-classical and classical times where prepositional gerunds/gerundives are construed directly with verbs which are compatible with their lexical meanings of these prepositions (Johndal 2012). In the case of de, it denotes the content of propositions and is attested with numerous types of verbs that express indirect statements (prepositions in bold):

Verba declarandi:

In this category, these are examples of verbs of saying and thinking (dicendi et putandi) that take de-gerund/gerundive expressing the content of the proposition, which can be reanalysed as indirect statements:

4a) primum tibi                   de nostr-o                     amico
first         PRO.2SG.DAT DE our-ABL.SG.MASC friend-ABL.SG.MASC

placa-nd-o                                               aut etiam plane
appease-GERUNDIVE-ABL.SG.MASC or   even   altogether

restitue-nd-o                                         pollice-or

‘First I promise you about appeasing or even restoring our friend altogether.’ >                   ‘I promise you that I shall appease or even restore our friend’ (Cicero ad Atticum                1.10.2)

4b)   qui                                       de  virgine         capienda


‘who wrote about capturing the girl’ > ‘who wrote that they would capture the girl’            (Gellius Noctes Atticae 1.12)

4c)   tu                       de alter-o                              consulat-u
PRO.2SG.NOM DE another-MASC.ABL.SG consulship-MASC.ABL.SG

gere-nd-o                                        te                      dice-re-s                         cogit-are

‘you said that you were considering about running another consulship’ > ‘you said             that you were considering running another consulship.’ (Cicero In Vatinium 11)

4d)   nam vell-e         se               cum eo                     conloqu-i
for    want-INF REFL.PRO with PRO.3SG-ABL converse-INF

de  parti-end-o                              regn-o

‘for he wanted to converse with him (something) about dividing the kingdom.’ >                  ‘for he wanted to say to him that he would divide the kingdom.’ (Nepos Dion 2)

Verba prolativa:

De-gerund/gerundive and ad-gerund/gerundive are used with certain verbs expressing the content of intention/purpose of the matrix subject:

5a)   nos… labor-amus         de aufere-nd-o                                   mal-o
we      work-PRES.1PL DE eliminate-GERUNDIVE-ABL.SG evil-ABL.SG
‘we strive about removing the evil…’ > ‘we strive to remove the evil.’ (Tertullian Adversus Hermogenem 11.3)

5b)   ego          enim te             arbitr-or…           statim  esse
PRO.1SG for     PRO.2SG think-PRES.1SG at.once be.INF

ad  Sicyon-em  oppurgn-and-um              profe-ct-um
AD Sicyon-ACC attack-GERUNDIVE-ACC set.out-PERF-ACC.SG

‘for I think that you immediately set off in order to attack Sicyon’ > ‘for I think that            you immediately set off to attack Sicyon’ (Cicero ad Atticum 1.13)

Verba praecipiendi:

Verbs denoting command can take both de-gerund/gerundive and ad-gerund/gerundive in expressing the content and purpose of the command respectively, which may be reanalyzed as indirect commands (Panchón 2003:384-387):

6a)   cum  de muta-nd-o                                      praecip-ere-t                     homin-e
‘since he ordered about changing the man’ > ‘since he ordered to change the man.’ (Augustine Sermones 9.8)

6b)   ut          consul-es            populum           cohort-are-ntur
so.that consul-NOM.PL people-ACC.SG encourage-IMPERF.SUBJ-3PL

ad  rogation-em accipiendam

‘so that the consuls might encourage the people so as to accept the plea’ > ‘so that the consuls might encourage the people to accept the plea’ (Cicero ad Atticum 1.14)

6c)   ad resistitue-nd-um                        non   compell-it
AD re-establish-GERUND-ACC.SG NEG  force-PRES.3SG
‘he does not force you so that you might re-establish it.’ > ‘he does not force you to re-establish it.’ (Augustine Epistulae 153.21)

The distribution of Romance prepositional infinitives hence seems to conform to Latin prepositional gerunds/gerundives where de in being the marker of theme/content is semantically more general and hence compatible with a wider range of verbs whereas ad as a marker of purpose/intention is only used with verbs that express command and purpose. These developments are strikingly similar to English to-infinitives, especially from a formal perspective, as discussed in the next section.

Prepositional phrases > prepositional infinitives

English to-infinitives are the prototypical example of non-finite complementation and it is widely held that to-infinitives are reanalysed in Old English (OE) from being purposive adjuncts to clausal complements (cf Latin ad-gerund/gerundive), which are particularly frequent with verbs of purpose and command (Los (2005:chapter 3)):

7a)   tiligen we us to  gescild-enne and us to gewarnig-enne
strive   we us TO shield-DAT   and  us to guard-DAT
‘we should try to shield ourselves and guard ourselves…’ (HomS 44,158)

7b)   on hwilcum godum tihst    pu     us to gelyf-enne ?
in  which      gods     urgest thou us to believe-DAT
‘which gods do you urge us to believe in?’ (AELS (George) 148)

Furthermore, both Latin/Romance and English prepositional infinitives are the results of morphophonological erosion in the nominal paradigm, since the Germanic dative ending –enne following OE to is argued to be obsolete in OE (Los 2005:3-5) and the Romance infinitive, in contrast to Latin gerund/gerundive, likewise does not inflect for morphological case. In both cases, the nominal properties of the clausal complement are practically eliminated, which severely weakens the agreement between the preposition and its nominal complement (Roberts and Roussou 2003:105), which leads to their reanalysis as non-finite clauses. Furthermore, Latin/Romance de-infinitives represent a new pathway of syntactic change since, in contrast to English to-infinitives and Latin/Romance ad-infinitives, Latin/Romance de does not express purpose but is more semantically general in expressing the content of propositions, which not only yields its wider distribution in Romance but also reveals two distinct types of non-finite complementisers, one more purpose-oriented (to/ad), the other more neutral (de). Since non-finite complementisers are traditionally held to be low in the cartography of C-elements (Rizzi 1997), it may be argued that there are two functional projections in the non-finite domain (Mrealis/Mirrealis), which parallels the dual complementiser system in Romance finite complementation (Ledgeway 2012b). The Latin/Romance evidence, therefore, reveals a more sophisticated C-system, especially in the non-finite domain.


The use of Latin prepositional gerund/gerundive represents a new topic in Latin/Romance historical syntax which opens up many new avenues to the formation of Romance non-finite complementation, since although prepositional infinitives, which are plentiful in Romance, are not attested in Latin, their historical structural equivalents, namely Latin the prepositional gerund/gerundive, are widely attested in examples where they are re-analysable as clausal complements. It is therefore possible to account for the pan-Romance distribution of prepositional infinitives by expanding our search and analysis to Latin prepositional gerunds/gerundives.


Beardsley, Winfred, A., 1921, Infinitive Constructions in Old Spanish, New York, Columbia University Press.

Diez, Frédéric, 1876, Grammaire des Langues Romanes, vol III. 3rd ed, Paris, Libraire-Éditeur.

Harris, Martin, 1978, The evolution of French syntax: a comparative approach, London, Longman.

Johndal, M. (2012): Non-finiteness in Latin. DPhil dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Ledgeway, A. (2012a): From Latin to Romance: Morphosyntactic Typolog and Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ledgeway, A. N. (2012b): ‘La sopravvivenza del Sistema dei doppi complementatori nei dialetti meridionali’, in Del Puente, P. (ed): Atti del II Convegno internazionale di dialettologia-Progetto A.L.Ba. Rionero in Vulture: Calice, pp. 151-176.

Los, Bettelou, 2005, The Rise of the To-infinitive, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Meyer-Lübke, Wilhelm, 1900, Grammaire des Langues Romanes. Tome Troisième: Syntaxe, Paris,  H. Welter.

Panchón, Federico, 2003, ‘Les complétives en ut’. In: Bodelot, Colette, 2003, Grammaire Fondamentale du Latin. Tome X: Les propositions complétives en latin, Louvain/Paris/Dudley, Peeters: 335-481.

Reenan, Pieter, van. / Schøsler, Lene, 1993, ‘Les indices d’infinitif complément d’objet en ancien français’. In: Lorenzo, Ramón (ed), Actas do XIX Congreso Internacional de Lingüística e Filoloxía Románicas, Vol V, La Coruña: 523-545.

Rizzi, L. (1997): ‘The fine structure of the left periphery’, in Haegeman, L. Elements of Grammar, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 281-337.

Roberts, I. and Roussou, A. (2003): Syntactic Change. A Minimalist approach to grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Schulte, Kim, 2007, Prepositional infinitives in Romance: a usage-based approach to syntactic change, Oxford, Peter Lang.

Vincent, Nigel, 1988, ‘Latin’. In: Vincent, Nigel / Harris, Martin (eds), The Romance Languages, London, Croom Helm: 26-78.

Vincent, Nigel, 1999, ‘Non-finite complementation in Latin and Romance’, Paper presented at the Indo-European Seminar, Department of Classics, University of Cambridge, October 1999.


Latin in Medieval Britain

by Richard K. Ashdowne (University of Oxford; Honorary Membership Secretary, PhilSoc)

Of the many languages in use in Britain in the middle ages, Latin is arguably the best attested and yet most overlooked. Not the native language of any of its users and employed especially—though certainly not exclusively—in written functions, Latin has tended to be the elephant in the room despite its indisputable importance for its users and their societies.

After the departure of the Roman legions from Britain, Latin’s continued use was by no means assured, but there is a continuous train of use down to the time of the Tudors and beyond. Over more than a thousand years British medieval Latin was employed for all manner of functions from accountancy to zoology.

In this new collection of papers, arising from the conference held to celebrate the completion in print of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, the place of Latin in medieval Britain is examined from a variety of historical, cultural and linguistic perspectives and in relation to some of its many different contexts.

In the first part, David Howlett, Neil Wright, Wendy Childs and Robert Swanson look successively at the start of the Anglo-Latin tradition, the twelfth-century renaissance, the use of Latin in historiography and record-keeping in the fourteenth century, and the continued use of Latin in the medieval tradition into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The vitality of the language over the ages and its users’ constant reinvention of its role emerge as central themes.

In the second part, attention is directed to particular fields, namely law (Paul Brand), musical theory (Leofranc Holford-Strevens), the church (Carolinne White) and science (Charles Burnett), as examples of how the Latin language was used and adapted to its roles. That it was being employed in historical, social, cultural and linguistic settings quite different from its ancient ancestor had important consequences. It meant that, for instance, Latin was frequently in need of new terminology for the contemporary world, especially in some of these more technical areas. Borrowing, calquing and native word-formation processes were all ways of meeting this need, reflecting the inherent contact between Latin and its users’ native vernacular languages.

In the third and final part, these linguistic contacts become the central focus in chapters examining the relationship between Welsh and Latin (Paul Russell), the relationship between Latin and English (Richard Sharpe), the development of a mixed-language code (Laura Wright), the relationship of Germanic, Anglo-Norman French and Latin (David Trotter), and the relationship between English and Latin (Philip Durkin and Samantha Schad). The final chapter, by David Howlett, ties in with some of the lexicographical questions raised by Sharpe, Trotter, and Durkin and Schad, and looks back at the process of preparing the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.

Latin in Medieval Britain is edited by Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White and  published by the British Academy in association with OUP. Many of the contributors are members of the Society and current or former members of Council.

Further information, including abstracts of all the chapters, can be found on the DMLBS blog and the book can be obtained directly from OUP and all good booksellers.

Finiteness in Greek and Latin, then and now

by Dag Haug (University of Oslo)

Finiteness is a crucial notion in modern theories of grammar.  The concept originates in the work of ancient grammarians on Greek and Latin and it has often been thought to be inadequate for other languages. In my talk, I trace a very brief history of the idea and then show that Greek and Latin themselves actually display a number of phenomena relating to the syntax and semantics of participles and infinitives that challenge this traditional idea of finiteness. Thus, there is still a lot to learn from the grammar of Greek and Latin if one is willing to dig deeper than the traditional descriptions.

A video recording of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 13 January, 4.15pm. The slideshow accompanying the paper is available here.

The conundrum of the Deputy Lieutenant

by Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading)

I have recently been informed that my application for UK citizenship has been successful, so I shall have the opportunity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. This leads to the discovery that when new citizens of the UK swear allegiance to the Queen, they are invited to shake the hand of her Lord Lieutenant for their county – unless that official is otherwise engaged, in which case they shake the hand of the interestingly-named Deputy Lieutenant. One could in theory call this person a lieutenant lieutenant, or a deputy deputy, but since the sixteenth century the title has in fact been Deputy Lieutenant. The Deputy Lieutenant is, apparently, not to be confused with the Vice Lord Lieutenant, though I cannot quite work out whether the Vice-Lieutenant mentioned in the OED is another term for the Deputy Lieutenant or for the Vice Lord Lieutenant.

Similarly, a university may have Pro Vice Chancellors, who may also be called Deputy Vice Chancellors, and some universities even have Deputy Pro Vice Chancellors, but there never seems to be a Vice Vice Chancellor. The Pro-Vicar is an official in the Catholic church, but the Vice Vicar is, as far as I know, unattested.

A few counterexamples can be found: the term Vice Viceroy is attested, though it is rare compared to the Deputy Viceroy (an official in, for example, the early government of Brazil). Some departments of the US government apparently contain a Deputy deputy secretary, a Deputy associate deputy secretary, a Principal deputy deputy assistant secretary, and/or a Deputy deputy assistant secretary. But despite this testimony to extreme bureaucracy, the basic linguistic principle seems to be that the ‘vice’ terms do not double up in a single title: a term already contained in the original title is not normally added to it again.

Explanations for the distinctions between these different terms abound, and no doubt these explanations work for particular titles. Certainly there is a real difference between a university’s Vice-Chancellor, who actually runs the institution, and a Pro-Chancellor who stands in for the Chancellor on ceremonial occasions. And if the Pro-Chancellor were to have a deputy, it would not be unreasonable to call him or her a Vice Pro-Chancellor and distinguish that official firmly from a Pro Vice Chancellor. But on a larger level the construction of such titles cannot be determined primarily by distinctions of meaning, since if it were, we would more often see the same term used twice in a row.

In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, the question does not arise. Despite the impressive nature of the imperial bureaucracy, there do not seem to be titles containing more than one iteration of the idea ‘acting for’. The proconsul is readily to be found, but he is joined neither by the official acting pro proconsule nor the one in vicem proconsularis. So why does English act as it does? Is the difference primarily linguistic or cultural? What do other languages do? This is a type of question to which Philological Society members are uniquely qualified to contribute, so I look forward with interest to their contributions!

Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)

by Wolfgang D. C. de Melo (University of Oxford)

I must begin this blog post with a little confession. As an undergraduate and to a large extent still as a graduate, I found it hard to get excited about the history of linguistics. Of course I respected the great achievements of the Neogrammarians and of early phoneticians like Henry Sweet or Daniel Jones; but I was more interested in the results of their work than in how they got there. Any linguistic work written before the nineteenth century left me cold. Like any other classics undergraduate, I read through various grammarians. I liked the fact that they preserved so many quotations from early literature that had otherwise been lost. But beyond that I could not see anything of value in them. To me, Nonius was an encyclopaedia of errors; Isidore made me shudder; and, as Eduard Norden, the great authority on Latin style, told us, Varro had the worst prose style of any Latin writer before the Middle Ages.

In view of all this, it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was asked by OUP whether I would be willing to edit Varro’s De lingua Latina, our earliest extant treatise on Latin grammar. I had to think long and hard about it before I said yes. One thing that I consider vital for a text like this is a translation and a commentary. They are necessary because the text is both fragmentary and technical. I have now been working on Varro for a few years, and during this time I have come to respect, admire, and even like him.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) was born in Reate, modern Rieti. He was politically active and had his own farm, and yet, despite all this, he managed to write several hundred books on philosophy, history, agriculture, and language. An ancient book corresponds to a modern book chapter in length, but even so this output is astounding. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and there are indications that Varro often wrote in haste and could have produced better quality if he had written in less of a hurry. However, on the whole he is an original and thoughtful writer with many valid and interesting insights.

Originally, the De lingua Latina comprised twenty-five books. An introductory volume was followed by six books on etymology, six on morphology, and twelve on syntax. Sadly, we only have fragments of the books on syntax. What we do have in almost complete form is books 5-10, that is, the second half of the etymological part and the first half of the morphological part.

Of the etymological books, the first three covered the theory of etymology. The three books that we still have deal with the practical side. Book 5 gives us hundreds of etymologies of places and things; book 6 deals with the etymologies of times and actions; and book 7 discusses all these concepts in poetry.

Varro did not know that sound change is regular, and of course he had never heard of the comparative method. It comes as no surprise that many of his etymologies are, by modern standards, ‘wrong’. But wrong does not equal stupid. His method is surprisingly sound. He identified loan words, and did so by and large correctly. Among native words, he looked for words that are similar in sound and meaning. This approach enabled him to find many etymological connections that we can confirm today with the help of the comparative method.

Perhaps a few examples will show more clearly how Varro’s mind works.

Continue reading “Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)”