Online Latin Dictionary: A Review of Words by Whitaker
Looking up words in a printed Latin dictionary can be frustrating to beginning Latin students because Latin is an inflected language; the endings of words and sometimes the structure of whole words change to indicate how they are used in a sentence. Consequently, the form of a word can change spelling and length such that it no longer resembles its root.
Some Latin dictionaries combat this problem by including alternate forms of words and redirecting the student to the root word. However, this can be frustrating as students flip though the printed dictionary several times just to look up the meaning of one Latin word.
Before the Internet, it was almost impossible for students to have access to a dynamic dictionary that eliminated the problems mentioned above and anticipated the common problems Latin students have with some of the language’s exceptions to its rules.
Words by Whitaker: Latin to English Online Dictionary (link at the end of the article) fits the bill for a dynamic Latin dictionary. It is complete, easy to use, and offers few extraneous frills so that Latin students can get the information they need and get right back to learning. Still, Words by Whitaker’s Latin dictionary does have a few quirks that may conflict with several common Latin programs. Read on to learn about Words by Whitaker’s Online Latin Dictionary and how it can help you with your Latin language studies.
On the front page of Words by Whitaker’s Online Latin Dictionary, the page boasts a 39,000-word dictionary that “…may generate many hundreds of thousands of 'words' that one can construct over all the declensions and conjugations.” In comparison, two of the most common printed Latin dictionaries, Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary and Oxford’s Latin Desk Dictionary contain 35,000 and 46,000 words respectively. Clearly, Words by Whitaker is on par with other abridged Latin dictionaries in terms of completeness.
Ease of Use
Taking on a “less is more” approach, Words by Whitaker’s interface could not be simpler. Students are presented with a single input box into which may be typed any Latin word in any of its inflected forms. For example, typing in “puella” immediately returns results letting the student know that this word may be in the nominative, vocative, or ablative singular case. No printed dictionary gives such a complete account of the inflected forms of a word.
In addition to the completeness of inflected forms, this dictionary also provides definitions for words in the order of importance. To return to the example above, the definitions offered for “puella” include:
girl, (female) child/daughter; maiden; young woman/wife; sweetheart; slavegirl;
In comparison, Cassell’s printed Latin Dictionary offers:
a girl, maiden; a young woman, young wife, or sweetheart
Notice that the entries from these two dictionaries offer similar definitions providing evidence that Words by Whitaker is a complete resource. However, also notice that the online dictionary offers the pejorative definition “slavegirl.” This makes use of this online dictionary easier for intermediate and advanced students when translating ancient texts that take advantage of the full range of possible definitions of the words it contains.
Usefulness of Search Results
Combining the completeness and the ease of use discussed above, Words by Whitaker’s Online Latin Dictionary offers students of Latin useful results for word searches. For example, if you look up “amatus sint,” the third-person plural pluperfect passive subjunctive mood form of the verb ”amo,” Words by Whitaker returns the following:
amat.us VPAR 1 1 NOM S M PERF PASSIVE PPL
amo, amare, amavi, amatus V (1st) [XXXAO]
love, like; fall in love with; be fond of; have a tendency to;
amat.us ADJ 1 1 NOM S M POS
amatus, amata, amatum ADJ [XXXEO] uncommon
s.int V 5 1 PRES ACTIVE SUB 3 P
sum, esse, fui, futurus V [XXXAX]
be; exist; (also used to form verb perfect passive tenses) with NOM PERF PPL
Notice that the first line tells us that “amatus” is a nominative singular masculine perfect passive participle. The second line tells us the principal parts of “amo,” that the word is a verb, and that it belongs to the first conjugation. Several other attributes of the verb are also given in the next few lines including the definition of the word and some other forms the verb can take.
The next set of information tells us that “sint” is the third-person plural present active voice subjective form of the word “sum.” Possible definitions of the word are also given. Notice, however, that the verb phrase “amatus sint” is not directly translated by the dictionary. Words by Whitaker breaks the verb phrase down into its component words and treats them separately.
This is one limitation of the dictionary and is likely a limitation of all dictionaries. Granted the dictionary is not an online Latin to English translator. However, beginning Latin students, the group of Latin students for whom the dictionary was created, may find that Words by Whitaker is comprehensive but a bit too technical. However, simpler verb constructions such as those outside of the perfect system are still easy for beginning Latin students.