Third Declension Nouns

Nouns which can be either masculine or feminine are called common nouns. Nearly all are in the third declension. Often context alone will determine which gender is intended. For example, sacerdotes in templo Bonae Deae sunt means “The priestesses are in the temple of the Good Goddess”, but only because her rites were forbidden to men. sacerdos is the most frequent example of a common noun in ancient grammars, being used most significantly in Donatus’ Ars Minor, a basic grammar of lasting influence. Over a thousand years later, it was the second book printed by Gutenberg, and the first ever printed in England. Donatus was St. Jerome’s teacher, but it is not known whether he himself was a Christian.

Even so, when grammar teaching became the preserve of Christian monks, the existence of priestesses will have come to seem a strange idea, and homo, hominis became the standard paradigm for such nouns, on the analogy of νθρωπος (anthropos “human being”), so used in Greek grammars. Whereas, however, νθρωπος really is a common noun, being used freely to refer specifically to both men and women, homo is rarely, if ever, feminine other than in grammar books.

In memorising the genitive singular of third declension nouns, it often helps to recall cognate English words, since they tend to draw on the stem of the Latin noun, not on its nominative form; to take some examples from the vocabulary given in this chapter, note military, regal, nocturnal, pacify, capital, corporal, itinerary, illuminate, temporary.

Be careful not to confuse the third declension gen. pl. ending -um as it appears in words such as dolorum, laborum, uxorum with the second declension gen. pl. ending -orum (as in dominorum, saxorum).

In determining the gender of third declension nouns, it helps that some common terminations are found mostly or exclusively with nouns of a particular gender; for example,

The need to learn the gender of nouns is perhaps, after the concept of inflection, the most challenging aspect of learning Latin for speakers of English, which is so little concerned with gender. Native speakers of languages which mark gender tend to learn the gender of individual words gradually, through experience; even so, the problem must have presented certain difficulties to the Romans themselves, since more than one ancient grammarian observes that schoolboys were encouraged to remember that almost all nouns have the same gender in both their basic and their diminutive form; for example, amphora, -ae fem. 1 “jar” and ampulla, -ae fem. 1 “small jar”, filius, -i masc. 2 “son” and filiolus, -i masc. 2 “dear little son”, liber, libri masc. 2 “book” and libellus, -i, masc. 2 “booklet”, pars, partis fem. 3 “part” and particula, -ae fem. 1 “particle”.

unguis, unguis fem. 3 “finger- or toe-nail” and ungula, -ae fem. 1 “hoof” follow the same pattern; interestingly, however, the diminutive form refers to the bigger object (compare castellum, -i neut. 2 “castle” and castrum, -i neut. 2 “fort”, obelus, -i masc. 2 “roasting-spit” and obeliscus, -i masc. 2 “obelisk”).

A rare exception, noted by the grammarians, is rana, -ae fem. 1 “frog”, which has the masculine diminutive ranunculus, -i 2 “little frog”. The feminine deminutive form ranula does, however, survive in English as the term for a swelling on the tongue of cattle, so called either because it is frog-shaped or because cows croak when afflicted with it.

This trick for determining gender shows how important diminutives must have been in colloquial Latin. Nowadays, of course, we know so little about spoken Latin, so it is hardly of use to modern students. The importance of diminutives can also be seen in their use in the development of the Romance languages; note, for example, such basic words as the French cerveau and cervelle “brain[s]”, both derived from cerebellum, -i neut. 2., rather than cerebrum, -i neut. 2, oiseau “bird” from avicula, -ae fem. 1, rather than avis, avis fem. 3, also grenouille “frog” from ranunculus, rather than rana, but with the original feminine gender restored. Modern French uses diminutives markedly more sparingly than do other Romance languages, as indeed does English, even though they are so common in German as not normally to have their own lemmata in dictionaries.

English words such as “homogeneous” and “homosexual” are not derived from the Latin noun homo, hominis, but come from a quite unrelated source, the Greek adjective μός (homos), “same”. homo means “man” in the sense “human being”, regardless of gender. The standard school-example of a definition was homo est animal rationale, mortale, risus capax “Man is an animal, rational, mortal and capable of laughing”; a ninth century grammar written in France offers the alternative porcus est animal mortale, irrationale, cibum capiens, quadrupedale, grunnibile “A pig is an animal, mortal, irrational, food-taking, four-footed and capable of grunting”. A far more famous pig-parody is the Testamentum Porcelli “The Little Pig’s Will”, which is still extant; deploring their lack of interest in serious literature, St. Jerome complains in the preface to the 12th book of his commentary on Isaiah (and elsewhere) that testamentum ... Grunnii Corocottae porcelli decantant in scholis puerorum agmina cachinnantium “hordes of giggling schoolboys chant The Will of the Little Pig Grunnius Corocotta”.) Few modern readers find the TP even mildly amusing.

While caput survives in many modern words (in English, for example, in “chapter”, “chief”, “decapitate”, “recapitulate”), the Italian word for “head”, testa, and the French, tête, are derived, rather comically, from the Latin testa, -ae fem. 1 “pot”; similarly, the German word for “head”, Kopf, preserves the late Latin cuppa, -ae fem. 1 “cup”. Haupt, which Kopf supplanted, is derived from the same IndoEuropean root as “head” and caput.

Nouns such as ars, arx, civis, classis, often called “third declension i-stem” nouns, were originally a separate declension, but they are distinct from most other third declension nouns only in having the genitive plural ending -ium, not -um, and sometimes the ablative singular ending -i, not -e. This latter variation is best learned through observation. For now, it is best to assume that all such nouns have -e as their ablative singular ending, but that most with the same form in the nominative and genitive singular (e.g. hostis, ignis) allow both -e and -i in the ablative singular.

There was sometimes uncertainty about the formation of the genitive plural in the third declension. Julius Caesar stated that the gen. pl. of panis, panis masc. 3 “bread” is panium, whereas Verrius Flaccus, who was tutor to Augustus’ grandsons, ruled in favor of panum. There were other grammarians who argued that neither is correct because panis has no plural, being weighed (like aurum “gold”, argentum “silver”; see Chapter 10), not counted. This last opinion is strangely removed from reality: loaves of very modern looking, if rather overbaked, bread have survived in Pompeii.

No account is taken here of the variant endings -im for -em and -īs for -es in the accusative singular and plural respectively of some third declension masculine and feminine nouns. The Romans themselves were inconsistent. The critic Valerius Probus says that we should trust our ear in such matters and not the “rotten rules in the cesspits of grammar” (non finitiones illas praerancidas neque fetutinas grammaticas), and it is only because he consulted a copy of Vergil’s poetry with corrections in the poet’s own hand that he can assert that Vergil wrote turrim rather than turrem, and sometimes urbīs rather than urbes (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.21). For examples of variant forms and spellings, see the file elsewhere in Fetutinae.

hostis signifies a foreign enemy of the state; a personal enemy is inimicus, inimici masc. 2 (i.e. the negative prefix in + amicus).

The noun animal is derived from the third declension adjective animalis, -e “animate”; hence, the similarity of its declension to that of such adjectives (abl. sing. in -i, gen. pl. in -ium; see Chapter 9) is all the less surprising.