Learn Biblical Latin by reading the Vulgata

Lesson 1

in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum

These are the first words of the gospel of John according to the Latin Vulgate Bible and they will be the first Latin you can read. If you look closely, you will notice that there are no dots, commas or anything in this verse. That is because such symbols were not used in Latin. It makes the reading somewhat more difficult when you're not used to it, so some publishers will provide these in their Latin texts, but please always consider that they do not belong in the original text and if you add them, you convey your own interpretation of the text.

Let's start with just "in principio erat Verbum". Here is the translation of each individual word:

  1. in - this may be translated as the English word "in". However, it may also be translated as "at" or "on".
  2. principio - beginning. Note that Latin does not have a word for "the" - neither does it have a word for "a". This is one of the reasons why Latin sentences are shorter than English ones conveying the same meaning.
  3. erat - was. In Latin, personal pronouns (words like "I", "you", "we", "they" etc.) are usually omitted, because the verb (word describing an action) already indicates them. For example, "erat" can only mean "he/she/it was" and not "we were" or "I was" even. This is conveyed by the -t ending. You'll learn more about that later.
  4. Verbum - Word.

So, let's try and put this together. Remember that words like "the" or "a" are not written in Latin, so you will have to add them where you believe them necessary. Have you figured it out? These four words mean "in the beginning was the Word".

From now on, it will only get easier. Let’s tackle the rest of the verse:

Try the translation of the whole verse already, I’m sure you can do it: in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word.

Just one more explanation for now: the two forms “Deum” and “Deus”. The reason the word for “God” changed is that in one case, it is the subject (the person who does something in the sentence) and in the other case it is used with the preposition “apud”. This concept of changing based on the word’s role in the sentence may at first seem foreign to you, but actually English does it too: just try to replace the word “God” with “He” in the English sentence.
It’s ok for “He was the Word”, but “the Word was with He” doesn’t work. Your instinct will tell you to say “the Word was with Him” there. In cases like these, Latin is more regular than English because it requires you to change every word there, not just “He”, not even just “Deus”, but every word. In cases where you can replace the word “God” with “He”, Latin uses “Deus”. In cases where you can replace the word “God” with “Him”, Latin usually uses “Deum”. The reasons for these changes are characteristically called “cases”. The case for subjects (like “He” in “He was the Word”) is known as “Nominative” and the case for words after “apud” (like “The Word was with Him”) is known as “Accusative”. Maybe it will help you to remember if you note that “Accusative” has the same root as “accuse”, and you would say “I accuse him”, not “I accuse he”.

Let’s practise. Can you translate “in principio erat Deus”? How’bout “Verbum erat sanctum et Verbum erat apud Deum” (sanctum = holy)? The next verse is actually “hoc erat in principio apud Deum” and the only new word is “hoc”, meaning “this”(referring to "Verbum" from the previous verse). Can you translate?

This is the end of lesson 1.