How to Ask Politely in Latin

Politeness in Latin? This article for by Assisant Professor Peter Barrios-Lech, discusses how the Romans asked politely in Latin.

Guest post written by Peter Barrios-Lech, Assistant Professor of Classics at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Introduction: What is Bradley’s Arnold?

This semester, for the first time in four years, I’m teaching Latin Prose Composition, or, more accurately, the “Translation-of-passages-of-English-prose-into-a-Latin-prose-that-accords-with-the-norms-of-the-Classical-Period.” This is a venerable exercise in the Anglophone world, whose chief guide was a textbook first published in the mid-19th C. by the then rector of Lyndon, England, Thomas Kerchever Arnold. Arnold’s first textbook, Greek Prose Composition, had made his literary fortunes, and the Latin counterpart to this book seems to have proved equally popular (and perhaps equally lucrative). Yet the Rector of Lyndon did not live to see what proved to be the most popular version of his Latin manual, a revision undertaken by George Granville Bradley, a Dean of Westminster Abbey. This revision, appearing at the end of the 19th C., and now (affectionately?) called Bradley’s Arnold, has been the staple of the Latin Prose Composition Classroom ever since. You can read the whole interesting history of this text here.

Now, Bradley’s Arnold (revised by Professor of Latin at Liverpool, Sir James Frederick Mountford, in 1938; then again for Bolchazy-Carducci, by Donald Sprague, in 2005), is a classic of the GT (Grammar Translation) Method, which takes for granted that teaching of Latin should happen through grammatical analysis of Latin sentences. Indeed, as Bradley, in the introduction to his revision writes, the “logical analysis of language is by this time generally accepted as the only basis of intelligent grammatical teaching, whether of our own or of any other language” (pp. v-vi). This is not the place to engage in a debate on the best means to learn Latin grammar; a topic which could perhaps become the focus of a series on this very site.

Bradley (and Arnold and Mountford and Sprague) on the Latin Imperative

At any rate, despite some initial reservations, I was convinced by a good friend and colleague to use Bradley’s Arnold in my own class. And so, as my students and I were trudging dutifully through the burning remains of besieged cities and witnessed circumstances treacherous to the republic, we came across the following passage.

140. The imperative mood is used freely in Latin, as in English, in commands and entreaties, in the second person singular and plural.

  • Ad me veni! Come to me.

  • Audite hoc! Hear this.

141. But, especially in the singular, where one person, an equal, is addressed, there are many substitutes for so peremptory a mode of speaking. For example, instead of scribe we might say:

  • tu quaeso (obsecro) ad me scribe

  • cura ut scribas (see 118)

  • scribas velim (see 121)

  • scribe sis (si vis=please)

  • fac scribas (see 125 Note)

(Bradley’s Arnold, p. 93, 2005 Bolchazy-Carducci edition)

Context Matters

The authors raise an important point. The addressee – the person whom we’re addressing – plays an important role in what we say and how we say it. “Give me five bucks for a hot dog” is fine if directed to an intimate friend – when you find yourself hungry and short of cash at the ball park – but will not do when addressed to someone you know less well. You might want to avoid asking your boss for a stapler at the office, but feel more comfortable making the same request of your co-worker. When emailing a professor for a recommendation, you’re less likely to ask directly: “Dear Prof. X.  I need a recommendation. Please write me one in the next month.” Much more likely are you to make use of one of many available scripts, for instance, “begin by pointing out a previous connection to the professor, explain the situation, and then ask as nicely as possible for recommendation.”  

Cicero asks Tiro to take Dictation

Latinists have recently been studying these things with interesting results. We now know more about the sociolinguistic dimensions of Latin, or how the identity of the addressee and speaker affected what was said, we understand better Cicero’s letter writing practice, specifically, what kinds of scripts were available to him in making certain kinds of weighty requests, and how the great man asked for something nicely. 

Which brings me back to the Bradley’s Arnold passage. It’s mostly right, but it gets some things quite wrong (not fault of the authors; our knowledge of Latin has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last four decades). So, in Section 140 (The imperative mood is used freely in Latin, as in English, in commands and entreaties), the authors are correct. Latin speakers did use the present imperative for almost everything, from the most peremptory command (tace!, “shut up!”) to the most abased entreaty (parce, precor! “spare me, please!”).  But as the two examples indicate, the present imperative is like a chameleon, taking its color from the immediate context. So we find the first example (tace) put in the mouth of a master addressing a slave in Plautus (Curculio v. 131). The second is Horace’s humble request of a goddess (Horace Odes, 4.1.2).

But like I said, the passage misses the mark on other points. Thus, sis does not mean please (explaining why would require another post). In fact, the opposite:  according to J.N. Adams – a world expert on Latin social variation, bilingualism, and more – “whereas obsecro, quaeso and amabo usually tone down a remark, sis and age can be described as ‘intensifiers’.” And so I just can’t imagine Cicero telling his dear amanuensis Tiro to take down a dictation with scribe sis, unless, that is, the great man happened to be in a really bad mood that day. I haven’t studied things like fac scribas and cura ut scribas in Cicero’s letters, but the relevant forms in Roman comedy suggest to me that these are no more and no less polite than the present imperative (scribe):  that is, they were rather neutral ways of getting a request across.

Now, what did Cicero do if he had to impose and wanted to do so politely? As Eleanor Dickey shows, the barrister from Tusculum used velim ut facias and quaeso ut facias for minor requests (such as asking for a response to a letter), but reserved rogo ut facias and peto ut facias for more burdensome ones.

Asking a Friend for Five Dollars in Latin

So, want to ask a friend for five bucks in Latin? You could say quaeso, da mihi quinque thalaros (See, again, Eleanor Dickey on the word order of quaeso and the related words for please, here). Or why not velim ut mihi des quinque thalaros or quaeso ut mihi des quinque thalaros. But you probably won’t want to say da sis quinque thalaros, unless you didn’t really need the money in the first place.

Still, what is the difference between cedo mihi quinque thalaros and da mihi quinque thalaros? And between da amabo, da obsecro, and da quaeso?  In the next post, I’ll turn to these questions, in a discussion that I hope will be of interest especially for those who cultivate spoken Latin.

Peter Barrios-Lech is an Assistant Professor of Classics at University of Massachusetts Boston.

If you're interested in writing in Latin, Bradley's Arnold is a great tool! You can purchase the book here.