Latin is an inflected language, and as such its nouns, pronouns, and adjectives must be declined in order to serve a grammatical function. A set of declined forms of the same word pattern is called a declension. There are five declensions, which are numbered and grouped by ending and grammatical gender.
This is a summary of the declension of Latin nouns.
Why we have to decline
Latin indicates grammatical information by "inflection": by changing the ending of the words. If we change a noun’s ending to express its grammatical role, we say we “decline” it.
When English says "The lion eats the mother", and "The mother eats the lion", the question of who eats whom is decided by word order. In Latin, word order is free and doesn't help to decide who eats whom, instead Latin uses features like in the word "whom", where the ending "-m" shows that it's the object case (accusative), "who", without "-m", is subject case (nominative).
In addition to the subject (nominative) and object (accusative) case, English has a third case, in "whose": the possessive case, called genitive in Latin grammar. Latin went just a little bit further, and added two other cases: the dative, which is the case of the recipient ("to whom") and ablative, which is the adverbial case, and expresses adverbials like "by whom", "with whom" or "from whom". Please note that modern English many times neglects the difference between "who" and "whom", and people may say things like "who eats who". But in Latin this is impossible and the distinction is always kept. Latin is also more uniform than English, because while English can differentiate between "who" and "whom", or "he" and "him", it can not make difference between "The mother (eats something)" and "(Something eats) the mother": both as a subject and as an object "mother" remains the same. Well, Latin would add a different ending to the object case: the accusative ending.
Now, let's summarize the Latin cases and their meanings, using the example of "mother" and "who eats whom":
- nominative - the mother (eats the lion) SUBJECT
- accusative - (the lion eats) the mother OBJECT
- genitive - the mother's (lion) / (the lion) of the mother POSSESSIVE
- dative - to the mother RECIPIENT - INDIRECT OBJECT
- ablative - by/with/from the mother - ADVERBIAL OF MEANS/MANNER/PLACE/TIME
Which declension a noun belongs to
Latin nouns are grouped into five declensions (noun inflection groups). To determine which declension group a noun belongs to, you have to look into a Latin dictionary.
In the case of nouns, for example, “friend”, you will find:
amicus, -i, m.
This is 3 pieces of information:
- (1) amicus;
- (2) -i;
- (3) m.
(1) amicus; This means that the word “friend” in nominative (subject) case is “amicus”.
(2) -i; The abbreviated form “-i” means that the word “friend” in genitive (possessive) case is “amici” (something of friend, or friend’s something), thus the original ending “-us” changes to “-i”. This is the most important point. This ending “–i” determines that “amicus” belongs to the “second declension”, whose identifier is the genitive “–i”. As we have mentioned, there are 5 declensions, and each one of these has a unique, declension-specific genitive ending. It’s important because the genitive ending determines the other inflections as well. The five types of genitive ending and the five declensions determined by the different genitive endings are:
- -ae = 1st declension, e.g.: Roma, -ae, f (Rome)
- -i = 2nd declension, e.g.: amicus, -i, m (friend)
- -is = 3rd declension, e.g.: rex, regis, m (king)
- -ús = 4th declension, e.g.: senatus, -ús, m (senate)
- -ei = 5th declension, e.g. fides, -ei, f (loyalty)
(3) m.; The “m.” means that it is a masculine noun. In Latin, all nouns have three genders, they are masculine, (abbreviated as “m”), feminine (abbreviated as “f”), and neuter (abbreviated as “n”). English has a similar phenomenon when we use “he”, “she” or “it”. The new thing in this is that Latin uses these genders for things or abstract concepts, too, like in the exemples above, “loyalty” (fides, -ei, f) is feminine in Latin, the “senate” (senatus, -ús, m) is masculine, “Rome” (Roma, -ae, f) is, again, feminine.
How to decline a Latin noun
The declension (inflection ) of nouns is done by cutting off the declension specific genitive ending (-ae, -i, -is, -ús, -ei) and replacing them with the various case endings that you'll find below.
Neuter nouns have no accusative form separate from their nominative. It means that all neuter nouns have accusatives identical to their nominatives, and, additionally, all neuter nouns have a plural nominative-accusative form that ends in -a, regardless to their declension group.
The "-rum/-ís" declension-group
The first and second declensions have common characteristics:
|First declension||Second declension|
terra, -ae, f
tribúnus, -í, m
auspicium, -í, n
The "-um/-bus" declension-group
The third and fourth declensions have common characteristics:
|Third declension||Fourth declension|
léx, légis, f
iús, iúris, n
cívis, -is, mf
mare, -is, n
senátus, -ús, m
cornú, -ús, n
The mixed declension ("-rum/-bus")
The fifth declension shares the characteristics of the other two groups:
diés, éí, m