Vocabulary Home

Vocabulary is the ship that carries you on your reading voyage. If you have too many holes, your ship will sink. There is a threshold required for being able to understand your reading, and for having working memory for processing grammar, which steers the ship. Words have different aspects:

  • Pronunciation: the phonetic sound and inflection (e.g. stress/pitch)
  • Orthography: the written spelling
  • Inflection: the pattern of different forms a words may have depending on the part of speech (noun, adjective, verb, adverb) and which declension/conjugation group it belongs to.
  • History: Words develop new meanings or shift dominant meanings over time. They may have a relationship with other words sharing the same root. They may be related to words in other languages.
  • Connotation and Register: Words have different emotional associations. They may be archaic, colloquial, poetic, derogatory, etc.
  • Syntax: Words may be associated with certain construction patterns. For example, verbs may or may not take a direct boject, a subject complement, an indirect object. Some prepositions take an object in the accusative, others in the ablative, a few either, depending on the meaning.
  • Range: Words express ways of categorizing things in the world. Different languages do not always label or categorize things exactly the same. Some words may include a range of ideas that are differentiated in another language. Some may be used metaphorically or idiomatically in one language, but not another.
  • Semantic Field: Words are associated with other words as synonyms, antonyms, or as in the same area (e,g. words for farming implements, military), etc. These associations may differ from language to language and culture to culture.

A necessary stage in learning a word is correctly identifying what it looks like (and sounds like), which also means distinguishing it from other words. Here are some  practice exercises you can start with. The purpose of these is to develop and practice your familiarity with Latin word types. If these seem easy, note that there is a timer, and see how fast you can do them accurately. Developing automatic recognition frees up space in working memory for processing other things, like forming the meaning of sentences. If these are difficult for you, there are some other practice exercises you can do that will help develop your ability, and which may also help your English reading ability.  

If you want something a little more challenging, here are some exercises to test your skill in distinguishing similar looking words appearing in different forms. The goal here is to pick out the word that does not belong, that is not just a different form of the same word.Similar-looking words are major distractors in trying to guess the meaning of unknown words while reading, and thinking that you know a word when it is really a different word can lead you astray. 

Besides correctly identifying a word, one must form an association between the (written and spoken) form and the meaning. At first, one associates the word with a basic translation(s) in English. This develops into an automatic response. Here again, speed is important. The more automatic your response, the more information you can process in your working memory and the better your reading ability. In music, if you are still looking up the notes on the staff and the corresponding fingerings on an instrument, (and having to  keep in mind the key signature), you are not going to be able to play in rhythm and play real music –  a recognizable song. The same idea holds true for reading.

Knowing the most frequently used vocabulary will help build the working hull of your ship. For example, knowing the 17 most frequently used words will account for almost a quarter (23.3%) of the words in a Latin literary text according to Diederich’s study (see Works Cited).  Knowing the 42 most frequently used words will cover almost a third (32%) of the words in such a text. Knowing the first 307 words will get you up to 58%.  Research indicates that there is a threshold of knowing about about 80% of the words to get some general idea of what a passage is about and that readers need to know the meaning of about 95-98% of the words in a passage to read it with comprehension (Milton 49-51, 70). The good news is that Latin is not as complex in vocabulary as English, so fewer words need to be learned to reach the percentages needed for reading. For English, one needs to learn about 6000 words to reach that level (Milton 49, 249-250). For Latin, Diederich recommended learning a list of about 1,500 words, which accounted for about 84% of the words in his study sample. Based on these, he found that students could get to the necessary 98% for enjoyable, comprehensible reading by using knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, derivatives, and context to guess the meaning of enough of the remaining words.

Below are links to the most frequently used words in Latin. They are divided into different groups for studying and practice. There are (flashcards and) practice exercises to go with each group. The vocabulary groupings are not based on strict frequency. The most frequently used words are, unfortunately, also the most complex and “exceptional.” They include lots of the short, “function” words (prepositions, conjunctions, etc.), which don’t have English derivatives, and verbs with varied meanings and idiomatic uses. They also include irregular verbs and words, which would not have stayed irregular unless they were frequently used, and compound verbs with specialized meanings that don’t analyze based on the component parts. I have also separated words that are similar in orthographic form or opposites or otherwise subject to confusion (several sets of which would be in the first 50). Because of this, many of the pronouns (including many of those “qu” words) are not included in the first 6 vocabulary groups, which otherwise cover the top 300. My list is based on James Dee’s combined list of Diederich and Lodge plus some editing, especially of about the last 100 words (including some based on Terence and a broader range of authors).

You will note that the lists are more than just a list. The sample contexts and exercises are provided to enhance and develop your sense of the word. As you encounter a word in  more contexts, you begin to develop a sense of the concept of the word, and to link the form to that concept, not just your English translation (and its concept). Sometimes the concept of a word may be different in Latin than in the English translation “equivalent” and sometimes it may take different grammatical constructions. Learning these differences is another aspect of vocabulary learning. In general, the more of the learning you figure out yourself and the more deep processing effort you put into it, the better you will remember it. The page groups also have other information such as links to audio recording of the word, images, notes about distinguishing synonyms, notes on uses by authors (see also the author pages), Latin expressions in current use, English derivatives, and hints. The words within each group are arranged by part of speech (subdivided by declension and gender/conjugation, etc): nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, idioms/interjections, as one means of organizing the words to aid in learning. The groups also tend to have nouns of the same gender, verbs of the same conjugation, or type of verb (e.g. deponent) or by suffix or prefix group, to help you see and to learn using other patterns. See also the Building Vocabulary through Word Formation (prefixes and suffixes) and section of the website and the Tips on Learning Vocabulary.

If you are looking for a particular word, you can use the master glossary index.

When you are ready, you can follow the link at the bottom of each page group to take you to exercises for that group.

Works Cited

Diederich, Paul Bernard. The Frequency of Latin Words and Their Endings, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1939), p. 9-12.

Milton, James. Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. (cf. Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.