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Declining a Latin Noun

They say that old Latin teachers never die — they just decline. Whether this is true of teachers, declining and declension are facts of life that all Latin nouns must face. A declension is a group of nouns that form their cases the same way — that is, use the same suffixes. To decline a noun means to list all possible case forms for that noun.

Latin has five declensions; this article looks at the first two.

First-declension nouns

The first noun group that uses the same suffixes to form case is, not surprisingly, called first declension. All the nouns in the first declension use the endings shown in Table 1 to indicate case in a sentence. These nouns are masculine or feminine because the first declension has no neuter nouns.

Table 1: First-Declension Case Endings

Case

Singular

Plural

Nominative

-a

-ae

Genitive

-ae

-arum

Dative

-ae

-is

Accusative

-am

-as

Ablative

-a

-is

Table 2 shows the full declension of the noun puella (pu-ehl-luh), which means "girl."

Table 2: Declining a First-Declension Noun

Case

Singular

Plural

Nominative

puella (pu-ehl-luh)

puellae (pu-ehl-ligh)

Genitive

puellae (pu-ehl-ligh)

puellarum (pu-ehl-lah-rum)

Dative

puellae (pu-ehl-ligh)

puellis (pu-ehl-lees)

Accusative

puellam (pu-ehl-luhm)

puellas (pu-ehl-lahs)

Ablative

puella (pu-ehl-lah)

puellis (pu-ehl-lees)

Here's an example with the words terra (tehr-ruh; land), agricola (uh-grih-koh-luh; farmer), and puella (pu-ehl-luh; girl):
Terram agricolarum puella amat. tehr-ruhm uh-gri-ko-luh-rum pu-ehl-luh uh-muht.

Using the case endings to put the nouns in the right position, you can translate this sentence: "The girl loves the land of the farmers." Here's how:

  • Terra (land) ends in -am, so its case is accusative. In other words, it's the direct object.
  • Agricola (farmer) ends in -arum, the plural genitive, which shows possession. Because it's genitive, stick the words of the in front of the noun: of the farmers.
  • Puella (girl) ends in -a, which is the singular nominative case. That makes puella the subject.
  • Amat (love) is the verb. It means "she loves."

Put it all together, and you have "Land of the farmers girl loves." Okay; that doesn't read like an English sentence. So put the words in the order they would be in an English sentence — subject, verb, and direct object — throw in a couple articles for good measure, and now you get "The girl loves the land of the farmers." Voila!

Second-declension nouns

Flamma fumo est proxima (fluh-muh foo-mo ehst prohks-ih-muh). According to the Roman playwright Plautus, "Flame is closest to smoke." In English, you say, "Where there's smoke, there must be fire." And where there's one noun declension, there must be more.

Second-declension nouns are a bit more expressive than first-declension nouns because they have two separate sets of endings for masculine and neuter genders. Second declension has few feminine nouns, and these have the same endings as masculine nouns.

Table 3: Second-Declension Masculine/Feminine Case Endings

Case

Singular

Plural

Nominative

-us (occasionally -r)

-i

Genitive

-i

-orum

Dative

-o

-is

Accusative

-um

-os

Ablative

-o

-is

Note: Some second-declension nouns use -r for the nominative singular form. Two examples of second declension masculine nouns are amicus (uh-mee-kus), the word for "friend," and ager (uh-gehr), the word for "field."

Table 4 shows the full declension of the masculine nouns amicus and ager.

Table 4: Declining a Second-Declension Masculine Noun

Case

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

Nominative

amicus

amici

ager

agri

 

(uh-mee-kus)

(uh-mee-kee)

(uh-gehr)

(uh-gree)

Genitive

amici

amicorum

agri

agrorum

 

(uh-mee-kee)

(uh-mee-ko-rum)

(uh-gree)

(uh-gro-rum)

Dative

amico

amicis

agro

agris

 

(uh-mee-ko)

(uh-mee-kees)

(uh-gro)

(uh-grees)

Accusative

amicum

amicos

agrum

agros

 

(uh-mee-koom)

(uh-mee-kos)

(uh-grum)

(uh-gros)

Ablative

amico

amicis

agro

agris

 

(uh-mee-ko)

(uh-mee-kees)

(uh-gro)

(uh-grees)

Second-declension neuter nouns have endings similar to those of the masculine/feminine genders. In fact, because they're so much alike, they can be grouped together in this declension. Pay particular attention to where the suffixes are different (shown in boldface in Table 5).

Table 5: Second-Declension Neuter Case Endings

Case

Singular

Plural

Nominative

-um

-a

Genitive

-i

-orum

Dative

-o

-is

Accusative

-um

-a

Ablative

-o

-is

Table 6 shows the decline of saxum (suhk-sum), a second-declension neuter noun that means "rock."

Table 6: Declining a Second-Declension Neuter Noun

Case

Singular

Plural

Nominative

saxum (suhk-sum)

saxa (suhk-suh)

Genitive

saxi (suhk-see)

saxorum (suhk-so-rum)

Dative

saxo (suhk-so)

saxis (suhk-sees)

Accusative

saxum (suhk-sum)

saxa (suhk-suh)

Ablative

saxo (suhk-so)

saxis (suhk-sees)

You can see that the only place where neuter nouns are different is in the nominative singular and nominative and accusative plural forms, which have the endings -um and -a. This presents an interesting situation: The suffix -a can also be a singular ending in first declension. Look at the following sentence:
Portat saxa puella in aqua. pohr-tuht suhk-suh pu-ehl-luh ihn uh-kwuh.

Portare means "to carry," a saxum is a "rock," puella means "girl," and aqua is "water." But if you know the definitions, you're only halfway to understanding the sentence. The preceding Latin sentence means one of the following translations, but which one?

The girl in the water carries rocks.
The girls in the water carry rocks.
The girl in the water carries a rock.
The girls in the water carry a rock.
The girl on the rocks carries water.
The girls on the rocks carry water.
The girl on the rock carries water.
The girls on the rock carry water.

Remember that word order in Latin plays less of a role in determining meaning than it does in English. The only way to know for certain is to know to what declension each of the nouns belongs, and checking a Latin dictionary can tell you this. Along with the definition and gender, each noun entry gives the nominative and genitive singular forms. You can spot a first-declension noun from a genitive singular ending in -ae, and a second-declension noun from a genitive singular ending in -i. The dictionary entries for the nouns in the preceding Latin sentence look like this:

saxum, saxi, n (rock)
puella, puellae, f (girl)

aqua, aquae, f (water)

From this, you can see that saxum is a second-declension word, and both puella and aqua are first declension because of the genitive singular endings (saxi, puellae, and aquae). Knowing this, you can figure out that the correct translation of the sentence is actually "The girl in the water carries rocks."

Some second-declension masculine nouns have -ius for a nominative singular ending, and some neuter nouns have -ium. These nouns used a single -i for the genitive singular ending until the Age of Augustus, which began in the first century B.C. After that time, the genitive singular for these nouns became -ii. Most dictionaries retain the older spelling with a single -i, and that is the form you see in this book.

You can always determine the declension and gender of a noun just by checking its dictionary entry.

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