In a nutshell, inflection is a way of changing grammatical function via affixing. Affixing is the addition of a prefix or suffix to nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. To make matters even more confusing, this process is formally referred to as declension. Latin never uses prefixing, but strictly suffixing to decline words.
Thus the newcomer to Latin from an uninflected language such as English is confronted by a dense thicket of grammatical rules that can seem arbitrary and labyrinthine, and that have no equivalents in their own language. This description of inflection may sound confusing, so let's dive straightaway into some concrete examples.
Lingua Latina - Latin Language
Puella linguam Latinam discit - The girl is learning Latin
So we can see that the object of the sentence, the Latin language, has changed via the addition of the declension "-m." But why? Why go through all this trouble? In other words, why not simply say:
Puella lingua Latina discit
The immediate explanation is that Latin makes use of seven different grammatical cases. In our example, the suffixing, or declension of lingua Latina, Linguam Latinam, is referred to as the Accusative case. That is, the noun (in this case the Latin language) is the direct object of the subject (the girl). In other words, lingua Latina is the receiver of the action (learning) and so is assigned the accusative case per the strictures of Latin grammar.
As a stark reminder of the difference between Latin and, say English, compare the previous example with the simplicity of an equivalent in English:
"She is learning Spanish."
"They are learning Spanish."
"I am learning Spanish."
"We are learning Spanish."
Much simpler indeed without have to deal with noun declension! Are there any inflected words in the English lexicon at all? Well, yes, but vanishingly few. Take, for example, the difference between who and whom, both pronouns:
"Who is that person over there?"
"To whom can we turn to in order to address this question?"
Whom in this case being the objective pronoun, that is, the object of the sentence. This is the exception, though, not the rule in English.
Whether an unintended consequence or via design, this inflection actually serves to make the word ordering of Latin highly flexible. For example:
Agricola - farmer
Taurus - bull
Fugare - to chase
Agricola taurum fugat - The farmer chases the bull
Taurus agricolam fugat - The bull chases the farmer
Here we can see how inflection via declension of nouns allows for highly flexible word ordering in Latin:
Taurum agricola fugat - The farmer chases the bull
Agricolam fugat Taurus - The bull chases the farmer
So, the accusative suffix "-m" informs us as to who is the direct object, negating the need for a strict word ordering. This is a different way of thinking indeed for speakers of languages that follow fixed word orderings.
The next example illustrates Latin's subject-object-verb order flexibility. All three statements below are equivalent to: "Carthage must be destroyed."
Carthago delenda est!
Delenda est Carthago!
Delenda Carthago est!
These are just a couple of simple examples; there are in total seven Latin grammatical cases. If you're still not convinced about the grammatical complexity of Latin, consider the following:
Latin possesses six general tenses: present, imperfect, future, pluperfect, and future perfect, three moods: indicative, imperative and subjunctive, three persons: first, second, and third, two numbers: singular and plural, two voices: active and passive, and three aspects: perfective, imperfective, and stative. Complicated indeed! from Wikipedia
As for Latin numbers, cardinal numbering is slightly more complicated than, for example, the numbering in the English language. Also, as can be seen below, some of these numbers are quite long! For example, the numbers 40 to 50:
40 - quadraginta
41 - quadraginta unum
42 - quadraginta duo
43 - quadraginta tres
44 - quadraginta quattuor
45 - quadraginta quinque
46 - quadraginta sex
47 - quadraginta septem
48 - duodequinquaginta (2 less than fifty, fifty = quinquaginta)
49 - undequinquaginta (1 less than fifty)
50 - quinquaginta
So with all these complications and rules, why would one want to undertake such a formidable task as learning Latin? The rewards for this toil are great. One develops, in the course of learning Latin, a greater appreciation for and understanding of word origins and etymology, both in English, and in the romance languages. Studying Latin is an intellectually rigorous exercise that provides both tangible and intangible benefits.
And, lest we forget, classical Latin is an ancient language, and opens the door to another time. A working knowledge of Latin allows us access to classical texts from the Aeneid to Pliny the Elder! Yes, we can read the transliterations of these tomes in our native language, but Latin also possesses several different grammatical moods, so there is a risk of losing the precise shades of meaning contained in the original texts.
It goes without saying that Latin words undergird a vast amount of scientific nomenclature and taxonomy, along with it's classical fellow ancient Greek. The same is true for many common words, in this case in English. Here are just a few examples of Latin words that formed the origin of their English cognates:
Ego - personal pronoun "I." As in, "Ego sitio sum" - I am thirsty. e.g., egotistical, egomaniac
Equus - horse. e.g., equestrian
Urbs - city. e.g., urban
Canis - dog. e.g., canine
Albus - the color white. e.g., albino
Feles - cat. e.g., feline, felid
Terra - country. e.g., terrestrial
Scribit - he/she writes. e.g., scribe, script
Ambulat - he/she walks. e.g., an ambulatory hospital patient
Loquitur - he/she speaks. e.g., loquacious. As in: Robert becomes very loquacious (talkative) when drinking wine.
In the midst of all the complexity of Latin, there is one "saving grace" that makes speaking straightforward: there are no silent consonants in Latin, that is, what you see is what you get. Pronunciation is very straightforward. Some things to note are that "c" is always pronounced as a hard "k" sound, and "v" is pronounced as one would pronounce "w."
Other inflected languages include Hungarian, Lithuanian, Greek, Sanskrit, Pashto, Russian, Irish, Latvian, Faroese, Icelandic, Albanian, Punjabi, as well as many others.
In fact, Hungarian has no less than 18 general cases! For a child whose native language is Hungarian, language acquisition at a young age is likely relatively straightforward. However, for someone learning such a highly inflected language for academic or traveling purposes, the endeavor would appear to be daunting, to say the least. Ultimately I defer to native Hungarian speakers as to what extent all 18 cases are used in common everyday speech.
Hungarian grammatical cases for nouns:
- Nominative - subject
- Accusative - direct object
- Dative - indirect object
- Illative - into
- Inessive - in
- Elative - out of
- Allative - to
- Adessive - by, at
- Ablative - from, away from
- Sublative - onto
- Superessive - on
- Delative - off, about, concerning
- Instrumental - with
- Causal - or, for the purpose of
- Terminative - as far as, up to
- Temporal - at (for time related words)
- Translative - into
- Modal - by way of