Latin for Gamers, or, Advice from One Dork (who Should be Doing Something Else) to Another


I've been playing White Wolf games for several years now. As a gamer and as a graduate student in classical languages and history (in other words, as a complete geek on multiple counts with little hope of material and worldly success), I often find myself somewhat vexed by gamer-Latin. People who play "Mage" and "Vampire" are among the only people in the world outside of certain academic disciplines who seem to think that Latin is "cool," but sadly they almost always get it wrong. This page is intended to provide a few pointers without becoming a full Latin course.

Because Latin is a dead language, perhaps, people will take liberties with it that they might not attempt in a living language. Now, I may be wrong, because my familiarity with modern languages is less than it ought to be, but I don't notice so much any game supplement writers attempting to represent, say, Spanish with nonsense phrases strung together ungrammatically from an English-Spanish dictionary. Granted, more people know Spanish, so it's easier (and perhaps more important) to get it right.

(To my surprise I've seen it argued that "no one really knows Latin" and so it's impossible to say if it's right or wrong. Which is, of course, utter nonsense; one thing about it being a dead language is that it's not changing at all and you can tell how the thing worked and how it didn't. Plus, we have a bunch of stuff written in it, and it has never completely stopped being taught and learned. Hell, we even have Latin grammar lessons written by native speakers. That should count for something.)

Anyway. Why does this matter? Well, it doesn't, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, with our civil liberties under attack, war threatening, crime and poverty on the rise, global warming, the fate of Farscape, whether or not there will be a "Dawn" lookalike contest at the next Dragoncon, the lack of progress in my dissertation, the fact that the dishes need doing, bleach spots on your favorite black t-shirt, etc., except that it's really not that hard to avoid basic errors here, and for even minimally informed people those errors will hurt suspension of disbelief and perhaps even cause them to waste an afternoon ranting.

(It's like, say, having a fictional U.S. president from New Hampshire who can't pronounce the name of the state capital correctly and who has never heard of leaf-peeping. Which is not as bad as the things that the real president doesn't seem to be able to say correctly or has never heard of, I suppose. But I digress.)

Worst of all, though, calling your gaming club something like "Noctum Immortalus" will just make me wish I could slap you, and no one wants that.

So let's begin.  But I should warn you that I am assuming knowledge of basic English grammar. If you don't know what a noun is, or figure out what the subject of a sentence is, I can't help you.


Nox, noctis (feminine noun), "night."

This is probably the most commonly occurring Latin word in vampire-game-land, for obvious reasons. "Nox" is the basic entry in a Latin dictionary; the other form of the word most vampire-wannabes have seen is "noctem," thanks to the apparently late Carpe Noctem ("Seize the Night") magazine, which has the advantage of being grammatically correct, but that doesn't mean you can just take "nox" or "noctem" and stick 'em wherever you want.

I have seen a great many vampire gaming groups using this word in the name of their club, and at least half the time they're getting it wrong. The reason is that Latin nouns decline, which means they change form depending on how they are used grammatically in a sentence. English nouns don't do that so much, beyond having plural forms and adding Apostrophe-S (or vice versa) to show possession. Pronouns decline a bit more; you say "he" when the man in question is the subject of the sentence, "his" to show possession, "him" when he is the object of a verb or preposition. Using the wrong form makes you sound like a bit of a twit, even if sentences "Me and him are goin' to the comic book store" can unfortunately be heard throughout the nation. For worse examples, consider "Him is going to the comic book store" or "Me bought he a comic because it was him birthday's and his wanted its" -- this is the level of damage being done to Latin by gamers like you wherever fine White Wolf products are sold or consumed. You bastards.

Nox is the nominative case; that's basically the form of the noun you use when "night" is the subject of the sentence or follows a linking verb like "is." "It is night." "Night has fallen." "Eternal night has gripped my soul." Whatever. That's nox for you.

Noctem is the accusative case; that's the form you use when the word is a direct object or the object of certain prepositions (usually those implying motion, like "into" or "towards"). The magazine makes it the object of "seize," so that's just spiffy. Similarly, "Your dark embrace has made of all my days an endless night of sorrow" would have noctem in it, because there "night" is the direct object of "made." "Away, into the night!" would also use the accusative after the appropriate preposition (in noctem). (As an aside, Latin has no word for "the.")

What's that noctis up there, then? That, my friends, is the genitive, which among other things shows possession.Noctis would show up in a Latin rendition of "children of the night." Most Latin dictionaries and textbooks will, by convention, list the nominative and the genitive singular forms of the noun. From the genitive form you can figure out, if you know the basic patterns, how to decline the noun throughout all of its forms. You will cleverly have noted that "nox" ends in an "x," whereas the other two forms I have mentioned have a "ct" in the middle instead. That's a clue. Noct- is the "stem" of the noun from which the other forms are derived. As it happens, nox follows the rules for nouns of the third declension (of five), meaning that it uses a set pattern of endings one uses to decline Latin nouns that have a genitive singular ending with -is.

The other common cases, or forms, are the ablative, used with prepositions or by itself with a general meaning of "from, by, or with" or "in" (rather than "into"); and the dative, which has the meaning of "to or for," like in indirect objects. "I am imprison'd in an endless night" would use the ablative; "I gave my soul to the night" the dative.

Naturally, there are also plural forms for all of these. It all looks like this:
Case Singular Plural
nominative nox, night noctes, nights
genitive noctis, of night noctium, of nights
dative nocti, to/for night noctibus, to/for nights
accusative noctem, night noctes, night
ablative nocte, from/by/with night noctibus, from/by/with nights

You will perhaps wonder what I meant by "feminine noun" up there. Nouns have grammatical gender in Latin, which doesn't always have anything obvious to do with what we might consider to be "male" and "female." This will be important when we get to adjectives, since adjectives have to agree with nouns in case, number (singular or plural), and gender. But I'll explain more about that another day.  Until then you can apply whatever sorts of trendy theories you like to the consideration of what it means that the night is feminine, as long as you don't talk to me about it.

I suppose that, at the risk of confusing you, I should mention the word noctu, which means "at night / by night."Noctu is, however, not a form of the noun nox, but an adverb, obviously related etymologically; think of it as "nocturnally" if it helps. I bring this up mainly because some people somewhere are going to try to translate "[name of city] by night" into Latin, if they haven't already, and they're going to look up "by," try to puzzle out which Latin word to use, and then use either the ablative or the accusative depending on the preposition they choose (if I'm lucky), and it's still not going to mean what they think it means. Sadly, things don't translate word-for-word, and that's true no matter what languages you're dealing with.

I hope, however, that anyone reading this rant will now be incapable of deciding to call themselves "Legion of the Night" and producing "Legio Noctem." (But I'm sure they're a fine bunch of people.)

Next time: Adjectives: infinitus, aeternus, immortalis etc.

  • Contact: praefectus [at] latinforgamers [dot] net
  • Next
  • Home
  • Learn Latin with author C.J. Cherryh
  • The Perseus Project (links to online dictionaries, grammar textbooks, texts and translations, lots of pretty pictures, etc.)