The mere mention of the words mensa, mensa, mensam... will bring on the sweats in some people. The hours spent learning all those lists. And the pointlessness.
That's what Winston Churchill thought when he was learning Latin at Harrow in the late 1880s. The method of teaching the subject was the same then as now: rote-learning of tables - in this case, literally. Churchill was asked by his Latin master to decline mensa, meaning "table". He was confused as to how it was possible that the same form, mensa, could be used in the nominative, vocative and ablative:
"Then why does mensa [in the vocative] also mean 'O table'?" I inquired, "and what does 'O table' mean?" "Mensa, 'O table', is the vocative case," the master replied.
"But why 'O table'?" I persisted in genuine curiosity.
"'O table' - you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table."
And then seeing that he was not carrying me with him: "You would use it in speaking to a table. If you are impertinent, you will be punished and punished, let me tell you, very severely."
Winston Spencer Churchill, My Early Life (1930)
Churchill had a point. You'd never address a table, except perhaps to swear at it, when you stub your toe. And, even then, you'd use it in conjunction with a swear-word (Sanguinea mensa - "Bloody table").
Still, once you get used to these annoying little quirks, they soon stop jarring.
Your aim is to recognise the oddities and absorb them into a smooth English translation, not into the clumsy sort of English that sounds like it's been translated word for word from the Latin.
The genius at capturing this stilted idiocy is Molesworth, hero of the Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle books of the 1950s.
Molesworth gets the constipated feel of badly translated Latin spot on: "The Gauls have attacked the camp with shouts they have frightened the citizens they have killed the enemy with darts and arrows, and blamed the Belgians. They have also continued to march into Italy. Would it not be more interesting if they did something new?" The biggest oddity of all is word order.
'I you love' - Latin word order
We put our verbs at the start of our sentences: "I send batches of flowers hourly to Cameron Diaz."
The Romans like to put the verb at the end, as in: "I batches of flowers hourly to Cameron Diaz send."
So the traditional Latin word order is subject, object, verb; but you can play around with it, as lots of Romans, especially poets, did.
For example, Virgil wrote his own epitaph for his tomb in Naples and went wild with his word order: Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.
"Mantua gave birth to me; The Calabrians took me away; now Naples [Parthenope is the city's anthropomorphic name, from the Greek for 'maiden-face'] holds me; I sang of fields, farms and leaders."
Even though you won't necessarily be able to translate this, you can see that the subject jumps around in each clause.
Mantua and Calabri are in the traditional position, at the beginning of the clause. Parthenope is at the end, while cecini, the verb ("I sang"), is at the beginning of its clause, English-style.
On the whole, stick to the subject, object, verb rules, but be aware that they can change.
Sex in ancient Rome
The three Latin sexes or genders are masculine, feminine and neuter. We have the same ones - he, she and it.
The difference is that most of our nouns are neuter.
We call a cucumber or a soul "it", where the Romans considered cucumbers (cucumis -eris) masculine and souls (anima -ae) feminine.
The Latin approach is not as annoying as it seems. It soon becomes second nature that words that end in -us (such as dominus and Augustus) are masculine; -a words (such as mensa, Diana and Camilla) are feminine; and -um words (bellum, pilum, castrum) are neuter. There is, however, a minority that don't follow this simple pattern.
The other thing that becomes second nature is that adjectives should agree with nouns: ie masculine nouns take masculine adjectives, feminine take feminine and plural nouns take plural adjectives.
This can provide room for showing off in English; eg the plural of persona non grata - an unwelcome person - is personae non gratae.
The neuter adjective is wonderfully pliable. On its own, it can be used to mean an object with the qualities of that adjective. So nigrum means "black", but it also means "a black thing". That "thing" is itself fairly pliable and can be twisted to mean "circumstance".
As a result, in extremis literally means "in extreme things", but it also means "in extreme circumstances" and ended up being popularly used to mean "on the verge of death".