First Declension Nouns,
The word “noun” is derived from the Latin noun nomen, “name”.
The principles outlined here
for the declension of nouns apply also to adjectives (see Chapters 6
and 9) and pronouns (see Chapters 17 and 18).
The word “declension” is
derived from the Latin verb declino, declinare, declinavi,
declinatum (1) “to turn aside”, in the sense of varying a word’s
form according to its grammatical function. This usage is much like
that of inflectere “bend” as a general way of referring to
morphological changes, i.e. “inflection”, or casus, a “falling”
from the basic nominative case. Convention dictates that we should refer
to the declension of nouns (and pronouns and adjectives), but to the
conjugation of verbs. The difference in terminology has no practical
neuter is an adjective
meaning “neither”, in the context of grammar specifically neither
masculine nor feminine. The dependence of the gender’s name on that
of the other two reflects its comparative lack of importance; there
are many fewer neuter nouns than masculine or feminine and, with the
exception of Romanian, the Romance languages hardly use the neuter gender
at all, generally subsuming it into the masculine. Already in classical
Latin, masculine and neuter nouns, pronouns and adjectives are strongly
akin, having the same endings more often than not.
English once used all these
three genders, but the system is now largely obsolete, except with pronouns
and pronominal adjectives, such as “he”, “she”, “it”,
“his”, “her”, “its”. Of course, gray areas remain, as in
“The Titanic was a great ship, but she did not survive her
maiden voyage”. Natural gender and grammatical gender are interconnected
in Latin, but there are languages in which natural gender has no role;
Swahili, for instance, has eight gender classes, none of them masculine/feminine:
one for animals, one for human beings, one for abstract nouns, one for
Some principles of gender will
soon become clear. For example, there are no neuter nouns in the first
or fifth declension, very few feminine nouns in the second or fourth,
very few masculine nouns in first or fifth: since the declension to
which a noun belongs will usually be obvious (from the ending attached
to the basic stem), knowing the declension willl therefore often help
very substantially in determining its gender.
Is it easier to come to the
question of gender with few preconceptions, as does the speaker of English
nowadays, or from the perspective of a language which itself employs
all three genders, such as German or Old English? The German words for
“knife”, “fork” and “spoon” are neuter, feminine and masculine
respectively, leading perhaps to a philosophically resigned acceptance
of the challenge of determining gender in other languages.
In his Excerptiones de Arte
Grammatica Anglice “Excerpts on the Art of Grammar in English”,
one of the best known of the medieval vernacular grammars, written about
1000, Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, felt it necessary to warn his readers
that they must bear in mind that “nouns are often of one gender in
Latin and another in English”. Speakers of Romance languages have
a distinct advantage, since most nouns retain their Latin gender, with
the neuter, as noted above, generally being subsumed into the masculine.
The exceptions, of course,
will trap unwary speakers of Romance languages: flowers are masculine
in Latin (flores), but feminine in French (fleurs), trees
are feminine in Latin (arbores), but masculine in Spanish (arboles),
leaves, which are neuter in Latin (folia), are feminine, not
masculine, in Spanish (hojas) and French (feuilles).
As noted above, the technical
term case is derived from the verb cadere, “to fall”,
i.e. to inflect away from the basic (nominative) form. Latin originally
had eight cases, presumably all distinct. The ablative is a conflation
of three cases; see below. The development towards the Romance languages,
which, with the exception of Romanian, have all but dispensed with inflection,
was well under way by the classical period. This loss of inflection
is most dramatically apparent in the singular of fourth declension neuter
nouns, which show inflectional variation only in the genitive (see Chapter
- Nominative, like “noun”, is derived from the noun nomen, “name”.
- Genitive is derived from the adjective genetivus, “by birth”. Note the change of spelling: “genetive” would be more correct, and only usage has made it wrong.
- Dative is derived from the verb dare, “to give”.
- Accusative is derived, by a strange error on the part of Marcus Terentius Varro, the best of the Roman grammarians, from the verb accusare, “to accuse”, under the influence of an equivalent Greek adjective which means both “accused” and “affected”. It is perhaps even stranger that later grammarians allowed Varro’s error to go uncorrected.
- Ablative is derived from the participle (see Chapter 19) ablatus, “taken away”, a derivation with little or no relation to many of the case’s various uses, since it does duty for what had been three cases in IndoEuropean, the true ablative, the locative and the instrumental; for vestiges of the locative, see Chapter 15 and, for the instrumental use of the ablative, see Chapter 16. In his Critical Latin Grammar (1772), John Coleridge suggested that the ablative would be better called the quale-quare-quidditive, the “What sort-why-what” case, but even he himself did not actually use this term. (In his Notebooks [August 3rd 1805], his son, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I hold it scarcely possible to be too jealous of the purity of Language, even in technical terms”. Not surprisingly, it does not appear in the OED, though John Coleridge’s great-grandson, Herbert Coleridge, was appointed to be the first editor.) In the classical period, the Romans did not even have a name for the ablative, simply calling it the “sixth” case, or the “Latin” case (reflecting the fact that the ablative does not exist in Greek [Roman grammarians derived most of their terminology from Greek models]; modern Greek textbooks of Latin grammar use a calque on ablativus); the ablative continues to be taught after the vocative in Latin textbooks in e.g. Italy, France and Spain. Julius Caesar is commonly credited with the coinage ablativus, but, although he took a great interest in Latin grammar, this attribution is probably erroneous. It is natural that Latin grammatical terms should be so heavily influenced by Greek; the Romans thought, wrongly, that Latin is derived from Greek.
- Vocative is derived from the verb vocare, “to call”.
Information about nouns is
usually given in Classical Latin, as in most dictionaries, in
the abbreviated form casa, -ae fem. 1 “house”. From
this, we learn the nominative singular, the genitive singular, the gender,
the declension and the meaning.
Notice particularly the genitive
singular. Since the stem remains the same in all the cases in most declensions,
it is possible to infer the full inflection of a noun even if one knows
only the nominative singular. In the third declension (see Chapter 8),
however, the nominative (and vocative) singular of masculine and feminine
nouns and the nominative (and vocative) and accusative singular of neuter
nouns are very often formed on a different stem from that of all the
other cases. Therefore, in order to decline the noun, it is necessary
to know not only the nominative singular, but also the genitive singular,
since it is the latter which displays the basic stem. For example, the
third declension noun meaning “human being” is homo in the
nominative (and vocative) singular, but homin- is the stem to
which the endings are suffixed in the nominative and vocative plural,
and in all other cases, both singular and plural; we must therefore
learn the noun as homo (nom. sing.), hominis (gen. sing.).
It is conventional to provide
such information for all nouns, even if, as with first declension nouns,
which have the same stem in all their cases, both singular and plural,
it serves no essential function. The Romans themselves employed the
genitive singular in referring to a noun’s basic stem. It is for this
reason that the genitive still comes immediately after the often unpredictable
nominative in declension-tables in most modern Latin grammar-books.
The order nominative, vocative,
accusative, genitive, dative, ablative was firmly and influentially
established in the United Kingdom in 1866 by Kennedy’s Latin Primer,
and it remains standard in Latin grammars published there. That order
is less efficient, particularly for neuter nouns; since they have the
same form in the nominative, vocative and accusative, we must therefore
wait for the change of stem, if there is to be one, till the fourth
case is given.
We tend to think of the nominative
as the most important case – as one might say, for example, “casa
is the Latin word for ‘house’”. This is only natural, especially
since the nominative case shares the derivation of its name with that
of nouns in general (nomen), and it is the casus rectus,
the “upright case”, away from which the casus obliqui, the
“slanting cases”, decline. Nevertheless, it is the genitive which
is the key to understanding inflection. It is worth noting also that
nouns in the Romance languages are formed predominantly on the Latin
accusative case, not on the nominative.
Almost all first declension
nouns decline exactly like puella. Proper names borrowed from
Greek are the only significant exception.
It is interesting, if inconsequential,
to note the variations in the paradigm for the first declension adopted
in different countries. Whereas puella “girl” is generally
favored in the United States, mensa “table” is more frequent
in the United Kingdom, agricola “farmer” in Germany, and
rosa “rose” in Italy, France and Spain.
“I know a man with a wooden leg called Smith”.
“What”s his other
The humorous point, such as
it is, depends on an ambiguity in word-order. The first sentence might
be translated into Latin as virum cognovi, ligneo praeditum
crure, nomine Fabrum, which means literally “I know a man,
endowed with a wooden leg, by name Smith”. Since, however, the words
for “man”, “endowed” and “Smith” are all in the same case,
and all therefore relate clearly to the same person regardless of word-order,
a Roman would not find the joke even remotely funny.
Perhaps very surprisingly,
especially given that “the” is twice as common as any other word
in written English, with “a[n]” also very prominent, Latin has no
definite or indefinite article. In translation, we must supply either
“the” or “a” or neither as seems appropriate from the context.
The sentence nauta puellam videt can be translated equally well
as either “The sailor sees the girl” or “A sailor sees a girl”
or “The sailor sees a girl” or “A sailor sees the girl”.
Since Latin has no definite
or indefinite article, it lacks the option of zero article, as in “I
never eat fish”, as well as “I am eating a fish” and “I am eating
the fish”. A language with a gendered article (such as the French
singular forms le, la, un, une) can occasionally
be at a disadvantage. In detective stories, a marked gender often spoils
the challenge by eliminating all the possible male, or all the possible
female, suspects. In the Greek version of Agatha Christie’s Why
Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Γίατι δέν ῤώτησαν τόν Ἔβανς; (Yati den rotesan ton
Evans?), the masculine article τόν (ton) is positively
misleading and unfair to the armchair detective.
It is estimated that three-quarters
of all languages now spoken also do without articles. All those in the
Slavic family except Bulgarian are such languages. Classical Greek,
Arabic and Welsh have definite articles, but not indefinite. Interlingua,
one of the best attempts to manufacture a universal language (a fashion
now mercifully out of favor), is basically Latin without inflection;
it has an uninflecting definite article, le, and an uninflecting
indefinite article, un.
Educated Romans of the classical
period were bilingual in Latin and Greek, and must have been impressed,
even intimidated, that an Athenian could say “the” in nineteen different
ways, a fact which allows for a rather striking, but perfectly normal,
word-order of the type “The farmer hears the (accusative) of the (genitive)
in the (dative) sty pig gruntings”. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian
notoriously, and rather defiantly, said noster sermo articulos non
desiderat “Our language does not need articles”, but Priscian,
whose Latin grammar was written for Greeks, calls their absence a deficiency,
and the Romance languages developed them from the Latin pronouns
ille “that” or ipse “himself” (see Chapter 17) and
the adjective unus “one” (see Chapter 10).
Not all Greeks were as critical
as Priscian of Latin’s lack of articles:
“The language of the
Romans has no articles at all, and uses nouns without decorative fringes
(so to speak). This is not surprising, given that even Homer, who is
such an expert in the deployment of words, attaches articles to only
a few of his nouns, like handles on drinking cups which do not really
need them, or crests on helmets” (Plutarch Platonic Questions
The definite article in classical
Greek and in English likewise developed from pronouns; “the” is
a weakened form of “that”. A[n] is derived from the
Old English number án “one”. (When the form was weakened
to a before a consonant and sometimes written as a prefix to
the noun, this led to the false division of words; for example, “an
adder” and “an apron” should properly be “a nadder” and “a
napron”; conversely, “a newt” should properly be “an ewt”.)
Even before Quintilian’s time, grammarians themselves had been using
the pronoun hic “this” (see Chapter 17) to facilitate discussion
of the various cases and genders, a convenient device which still flourished
in Shakespeare’s time: “Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and
be thus declined, Singulariter, nominativo, hic, haec, hoc”
(Merry Wives of Windsor IV.1).
Just as we must supply articles
as the context demands when translating into English, so also with personal
pronominal adjectives. Although Latin has a full range of words meaning
“my”, “your”, “his” etc. (see Chapters 6 and 17),
they are not used as much as in English. This omission occurs particularly
with reference to body parts or family members; for example, agricola
fīliam amat “The farmer loves his daughter”, agricola,
fīliam amāre dēbēs “Farmer, you ought to love your
daughter”. That the omission is easy and natural may be demonstrated
by a sentence such as “The woman is holding [her] baby in [her] arms”;
she cannot be holding the baby in someone else’s arms, and we readily
assume that the baby is hers unless we are told otherwise.
A noun in the genitive usually
comes immediately before or after the noun which it modifies. Without
this restriction, the possible variations in word-order in sentences
such as nauta agricolae filiam videt would be even greater. Prepositions,
as their name suggests (praepositum “a thing placed in front”),
normally come immediately before the word which they govern. Since,
however, there are very few rigid rules, it is hard to go wrong, and
beginners should not worry unduly about word-order.
A frequent error among English-speaking
students is to assume too readily that the first noun in a Latin sentence
is the subject, as it almost invariably is in English. It is true that
classical Latin is a S(ubject) O(bject) V(erb) language, but the great
flexibility in word-order made possible by the heavy use of inflection
means that little reliance can be placed on the general tendency for
the subject to come at or near the beginning of its clause, and of the
verb to come at or near the end.
It is reasonable to suppose
that, in spoken Latin of the classical period, which was in advance
of the literary language in its use of prepositions rather than inflection
to indicate the function of nouns and pronouns, word-order would have
been considerably more comparable to that of the modern Romance languages.
Medieval grammars often tried
to help students by constructing Latin sentences according to the word-order
of their vernacular language. Exercises in this course, by contrast,
in an effort to get away from English word-order, will emphasize very
strongly the tendency for verbs to be placed at the end of the clause.
Modern English, like the Romance
languages, is SVO, but German, which is very closely related to English,
is essentially SOV, even though it frequently uses SVO in main clauses
(with stringent rules for word-order quite alien to Latin): contrast
Das Nilpferd wird das Schwein umbringen, weil es sein Feind ist
“The hippo will the pig kill, because it its enemy is” with Das
Nilpferd bringt das Schwein um, weil es sein Feind ist “The hippo
kills the pig, because it its enemy is”.
In many languages, the standard
order is quite different from modern English; in Old Irish the verb
usually comes first, the subject precedes the verb in Beowulf
in fewer than 20% of sentences, and SOV is the commonest order in languages
in general. The rules for word-order are a primary concern in the teaching
of English as a second language: why is “Sometimes I read a book”
correct, whereas “Never/Always I read a book” is incorrect?
The potential for ambiguity
demonstrated in the various possible interpretations of the form
puellae is more a difficulty in theory than in practice. The English
word “set”, which can be both a verb, a noun and an adjective, has
the longest entry in the OED, with more than 430 senses distinguished
for the verb alone; this fact might appall a beginner learning English
as a second language, but context almost always ensures that it is understood
correctly (provided that the particular sense is known).
Apposition is derived
from the participle appositus, “placed beside”. A noun in
apposition always agrees in case, but not necessarily also in gender
and number, with the noun to which it is in apposition. For example:
Romulus XII vultures (acc. pl. masc.), omen bonum (acc., but sing. and neut., in apposition to vultures), videt.
Romulus sees 12 vultures,
a good omen.
vultures and omen
are 3rd declension nouns (see Chapter 8); bonum is a 2nd declension
adjective (see Chapter 6).
Only a small number of first
declension nouns are masculine. Some, such as agricola, nauta
and pirata, refer to men in occupations which the Romans regarded
as exclusively male preserves. Often, as with nauta, pirata
and poeta, they are closely related to or directly derived from
Greek first declension masculine nouns (a much larger category than
in Latin). There is no Latin word for a female farmer, sailor or pirate.
Sappho’s poetry, of which only pathetic remnants survive, was regarded
in antiquity as almost a match for that of Homer, but no first-rate
Latin poetry was written by a woman, and the words for “poetess”,
poetria and poetris [3rd decl.], are both very rare.
To put the rote-learning of
Latin nouns in its context, it must have seemed entirely natural in
an educational system which still, to some extent, applied the same
principles to English grammar. Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to
the English Tongue (1751), for example, is typical of its time in
expecting schoolboys to learn such tables as:
|A good Boy
Of a good Boy
To a good Boy
A good Boy
From a good Boy
|The good Boys
Of good Boys
To good Boys
The good Boys
From good Boys
It is frequently said, particularly
by Latin teachers, that learning Latin is the best way to improve one’s
understanding of English grammar. This may be true, in so far as the
two languages function in comparable ways, or in so far as the differences
are instructive, but to attempt to explain a language so uncompromisingly
uninflected as English in terms of a language so strongly inflected
as Latin could hardly be more misleading.
In defence, if not justification,
of such grotesque blindness in the teaching of English grammar, it may
be observed that the Roman grammarians themselves had sometimes forced
the model of Greek grammar on Latin, ignoring basic differences in the
nature of the languages. Since Greek and Latin, however, are as similar
as Latin and English are different, the consequences were not so grave.
The Latin noun familia
has a wider application than does its derivative in the Romance languages
and English. It refers to dependents and slaves as well as to relatives
by blood, and “household” might be a better translation than “family”.
This wider sense is preserved in our word “familiar”, as opposed
In most inflected languages,
prepositions are frequently constructed with more than one case. Just
as in and sub take the accusative if motion is implied,
the ablative if it is not, so there are ten prepositions in German which
take either the accusative or the dative according to much the same
criteria; e.g. Das Schweinchen kam in das Haus hinein (“The
piglet came into the house” [acc.], but Das Schweinchen war im
[= in dem] Haus (“The piglet was in the house” [dat.]).
As with in and sub, the basic sense of these German prepositions
remains the same, regardless of the case of the noun or pronoun with
which they are constructed.
In ancient Greek, however,
fewer prepositions are limited to a single case than are constructed
with two or even three cases (and Greek has only five cases). Moreover,
the case of the noun or pronoun can radically change the sense of the
preposition; for example, διά (dia) can mean “on account
of” with the accusative, “through” with the genitive, πρός
(pros) can mean “to” with the accusative, “from” with
the genitive, “in addition to” with the dative. Numerous Latin prepositions
bear several several distinct or tenuously related senses, but usually
a difference of case is not involved; for example, de with the
ablative means both “down from” and “concerning”, ob
with the accusative means both “against” and “on account of”,
pro with the ablative means “in front of”, “instead of”
and “in accordance with”, propter with the accusative means
both “near” and “on account of”, whereas super with the
accusative means “above” or “in addition to”, but with the ablative
it usually means “concerning”.
It is important to distinguish
the use of ad with the accusative from the use of the simple
dative of the indirect object. The former is used when motion is involved
or strongly implied (“The farmer throws food to his pigs”), the
latter when the emphasis is more on the advantage or disadvantage resulting
from the action (“The farmer shows food/gives food/talks to his pigs”).
Hence, verbs of giving, saying and showing are constructed with the
dative of the indirect object.
The symbol @ is a long established scribal abbreviation for ad. (@ is still without a generally accepted name in English, and the French government’s attempt to impose the abstruse term arrobe has met with little success, though it has affectionate names in other languages: in Czech, it is a zavinac “pickled herring”, in Dutch, an apestaart “monkey”s tail”, in Greek, a papaki “little duck”, in Italian, a chiocciola “small snail”, in Russian, a sobachka “small dog”.) Similarly, & is a scribal abbreviation for et, as is made clear by its name “ampersand” (sc. “and per se – and”), a rather clumsy term, first attested in 1837.