The Noun System

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)


NOUNS, across the board, have three orientations, expressed, as we noted before, by fused-on endings. These functions are:

  1. GENDER/SEX: (masculine, feminine and neuter), applies basically to men women and things, but is greatly extended into "grammatical sexuality", so that some classes of things fall quite arbitrarily into sex-classes. Most of these arbitrary sex-connections must simply be learned by experience, as in most other Indo-European and modern European languages.
  2. NUMBER , or the distinction between singular and plural. (Some languages have a "dual" category, of which Latin has only vestiges, e.g. ambo, duo, where the long -o- is an Indo-European dual.)
  3. CASE (the traditional term, and convenient) is actually syntactical relationship of the noun to other verbal elements in the sentence. The cases in Latin are six in the singular form, and an equal number in the plural. They are given here in the traditional order (so that you can use standard grammatical reference books):
* * *

In outline then, to make it a bit more clear, we have something like this:
                         SINGULAR              PLURAL
Nominative                Subject               Subject
Genitive                  Possessive            Possessive
Dative                    "to/for"              "to/for"
Accusative                Object                Object
Ablative                  "from/by/in"          "from/by/in"
Vocative                  "hey there"
Several things deserve one more word. The Vocative exists only in the singular of masculine Class II nouns which you will see below, so generally you will have five cases in the singular rather than six. And in the plural of all classes (see below) the Dative and Ablative plurals have one form, hence plurals will have only four case forms. Asymmetry in language is normal, although some languages like Turkish have crystalline regularity....For asymmetry, just consider hodge-podge English.'

* * *

Now that we have outlined the CASES, we should list the five CLASSES or DECLENSIONS to which all the Latin nouns belong.

A CLASS (which we number I II III IV V) is traditionally called a Declension (They were actually so named by Roman school masters because they descend or "decline" down the Roman schoolboy's tablet. The Romans believed in rote memorization, for centuries we enforced the notorious "amo amas amat..., a poor alternative to Inductive Reading.)

Each Declension is structurally different in its forms (endings) from the others, and a word normally belongs to one class and one class only. Nouns do not switch classes, there is no reason to, since they all mean semantically the same thing in terms of Gender/Sex, Case and number. As you learn a new word, you automatically note its class, and sex (gender), since you will need this information for reading.

Now we will describe the five classes of Latin nouns, and give a typical example of a word in each class

The First Declension

Here is an example of the First Declension, the Feminine Nouns:

               CLASS: Noun  I   Declension, Fem. "girl"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              puella                puellae
Genitive                puellae               puellarum
Dative                  puellae               puellis
Accusative              puellam               puellas
Ablative                puella.               puellis
               CLASS: Noun I Declension, Masc.! . "sailor" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              nauta                 nautae
Genitive                nautae                nautarum
Dative                  nautae                nautis
Accusative              nautam                nautas
Ablative                nautâ                 nautis
See the exhaustive List of Masculine nouns in the First declension.

A few words are conjugated as reflections of the Greek originals:

               CLASS: Noun  1  Declension, Masc.
Nominative              Aeneas                     
Genitive                Aeneae                
Dative                  Aeneae                     
Accusative              Aenean                     
Ablative                Aeneâ
Two things to note: 1) Nauta is masculine, although the forms looks feminine, and an adjective will be masculine, e.g. bonus nauta. 2) I have marked the Ablative Singular with a dot after the final -a to indicate that it is "long" phonematically (more about this later). This is a particularly annoying form in reading, which is why I mention the matter here.

See Particularites of the First Declension.

The Second Declension

The Second Declension has two types, here first are the Masculines:

               CLASS: Noun II  Declension, Masc. "slave" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              servus                servi
Genitive                servi                 servorum
Dative                  servo                 servis
Accusative              servum                servos
Ablative                servo                 servis
But there is a Neuter class, which similar in many forms to the Masculine:
               CLASS: Noun II   Declension, Neut. "gift"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              donum                 dona
Genitive                doni                  donorum
Dative                  dono                  donis
Accusative              donum                 dona
Ablative                dono                  donis
In the Second Declension the Neuters are distinguished from the Masculines only in the Nominative-Accusatives of Singular, and in the Nominative-Accusatives of the Plural. The other forms are identical with the Masculines.

Note: there is no difference between the nominative and accusative singulars in the Neuters, or between the nominative and accusative plurals.

               CLASS: Noun II  Declension, Masc. "man"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              vir                   viri
Genitive                viri                  virorum
Dative                  viro                  viris
Accusative              virum                 viros
Ablative                viro                  viris
In some Decl. II nouns the nominative ends in -r, historically by loss of the vowel in a proto-form *vir-u-s , (cf. Lithuanian vyras) by consolidation of -rs- (not acceptable as a sound in Latin) as -r, giving vir "man"!

But the other forms are normal, e.g. viri.

See Particularities of the Second Declension.

The Third Declension

There are many stem-types in this third declension, some ending in -p-, others in a guttural as -g- or -c-, dentals in -t- or -d-. The Third Declension is in a sense a catch-all for various stem-types, and can be very confusing. It can have words of several genders. But it is the similarity of the endings which binds all these disparate words together. Remember a word belongs to a given Declension class, there are no differences in meaning other than appearance and gender in the five noun classes.

Here are some typical examples in the Third Declension:

               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Masc. "king" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              rex                   reges
Genitive                regis                 regum
Dative                  regi (i- long)                  regibus
Accusative              regem                 reges/regis
Ablative                rege                  regibus
                CLASS: Noun  III Declension, Masc. "soldier" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              miles                 milites
Genitive                militis               militum
Dative                  militi                militibus
Accusative              militem               milites
Ablative                milite                militibus
               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Masc "leader"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              dux                   duces
Genitive                ducis                 ducum
Dative                  duci                  ducibus
Accusative              ducem                 duces
Ablative                duce                  ducibus
               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Neut. "head"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              caput                 capita
Genitive                capitis               capitum
Dative                  capiti                capitibus
Accusative              caput                 capita
Ablative                capite                capitibus
               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Masc. "father"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              pater                 patres
Genitive                patris                patrum
Dative                  patri                 patribus
Accusative              patrem                patres
Ablative                patre                 patribus
               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Neut. "body" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              corpus                corpora
Genitive                corporis              corporum
Dative                  corpori               corporibus
Accusative              corpus                corpora
Ablative                corpore               corporibus
               CLASS: Noun III  Declension, Masc. "fire" (i-stem)
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              ignis                 ignes
Genitive                ignis                 ignium
Dative                  igni                  ignibus
Accusative              ignem                 ignis/es
Ablative                igni/e                ignibus
               CLASS: Noun lll  Declension, Fem. "city"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              urbs                  urbes
Genitive                urbis                 urbium
Dative                  urbi                  urbibus
Accusative              urbem                 urbis/es
Ablative                urbe                  urbibus
In this Third Declension there are also many irregular paradigms. Let me note a few of the more common ones here. The best way to get the gist of these is to look up in your dictionary these nominative forms, and observe carefully the genitive which is always given. This genitive gives the clue to the formation of most of the other forms. Basically you have to learn these irregulars by experience and use: See more on the particularities of the 3rd declensiion.

The Fourth Declension

The Fourth Declension is quite regular, it is normally masculine. Note that the nominative singular has a short -u-, while the genitive singular and nominative and accusative plural are all identical with a long -u-. Confusing, but in texts the context almost always makes the use quite clear.(The circumflex accent over some vowels indicates that they are long, since this electronic format lacks the macron).

               CLASS: Noun IV  Declension, Masc. "lake"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              lacus                 lacûs
Genitive                lacûs                 lacuum
Dative                  lacui                 lacubus
Accusative              lacum                 lacûs
Ablative                lacû                  lacubus
               CLASS: Noun IV  Declension, Fem. "hand" 
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              manus                 manûs
Genitive                manûs                 manuum
Dative                  manui/u               manibus
Accusative              manum                 manûs
Ablative                manû                  manibus
The common word for "house" domus is Fem. and oscillates between the Second and Fourth Declensions, as follows:
               CLASS: Noun II/IV Declension, Fem. "home"     
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              domus                 domûs
Genitive                domûs/domi            domuum/domorum
Dative                  domui/domo            domibus
Accusative              domum                 domus/domos
Ablative                domu/domo             domibus
NOTE: There is variation in the dative/ablatve plural forms, which alternate between ibus/ubus. Assume generally -ibus following the analogy of the Third Decl., but partus, tribus, artus and lacus retain -ubus, while portus and specus have have either.

See Particularities of the Fourth Declension.

The Fifth Declension

The Fifth (last) Declension contains only a few dozen words, but all are quite common. Words in this group are Feminine (except dies and meri-dies which are Masc.). The genitive singular is listed here but generally avoided in Latin prose, oddly, even to the extent of writing "partem e facie" rather than "partem faciei". Again several case-forms have the same ending -ies, a common feature of Latin grammar, but one which does not cause problems in Latin texts. Authors generally are careful to make their meaning clear, despite grammatical ambiguities.

               CLASS: Noun V  Declension, Fem. "thing, matter"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              res                   res
Genitive                rei                   rerum
Dative                  rei                   rebus
Accusative              rem                   res
Ablative                re                    rebus
               CLASS: Noun V  Declension, Masc. "day"
                       SINGULAR              PLURAL 
Nominative              dies                  dies
Genitive                diei                  dierum
Dative                  diei                  diebus
Accusative              diem                  dies
Ablative                die                   diebus

See Particularities of the Declensions.

An Excursus on "Vowel Length"

This is a good point to discuss something which we have been avoiding, the fact that some vowels are "long" while others are "short".

The long vowels are marked with a macron above in dictionaries and in highschool textbooks, but were never marked by the Romans in their manuscripts, no do we note them in printed Latin texts. In the old days students were drilled for knowledge of the longs and shorts, in Germany it was traditional to have the student make hand motions to indicate longs, but this was a poor substitute for proper pronunciation in the classroom. Curiously many Latin teacher don't like to read Latin aloud, thus missing the pleasure of hearing the nuances of poetry and also engraining the vocabulary in the students' minds.

From a Linguistics point of view, sounds which "make a difference", that is sounds which can distinguish one word from another, are called "phonematic". Many of the long/short differences are NOT phonematic, so I am not going to burden you with them in this Guide. But a few are, for example the Nominative/Ablative of "puella", so I will place a . (period) after a long vowel when it does make a distinction. (We lack the macron in this website language...)

But when you read poetry you suddenly find that you really have to know the lengths of the vowels in order to grasp the metrical cadences of the verse. However you only learn to read the Latin hexameter fluently by absorbing its sound and characteristic rhythmic, and if you know a few of the "longs" many of the rest will fall into place. But there is another complication here: Romans pronounced their prose in a different mode, by the "Law of the Antepenult", i.e. there is a stress-accent (not length) on the third syllable from the end, unless the second is long in which case the "accent" goes on it. I only mention these complications to warn you that there is a no-man's-land ahead, which I suggest you ignore for the present, learning only the basic forms as they stand. This will be enough to get you into reading basic Latin, the rest can come bit by bit later as you need it.

There are many irregularities in Latin Grammar, which have no special reason for their being, so don't be surprised when you find them cropping up, as they surely will. Common words are often irregular, unfortunately. Why in the world should a sailor (nauta) be feminine in Class I, but have a Class II adjective? Or why should all trees ending in -us (ornus "ash tree") be masculine in form but take feminine adjectives. Forget the reasons and enjoy the ancient irrationality of what is generally a very rational language overall.

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