Dec 19 2008

Latin Lesson #1 – The First Declension

This lesson starts with some concepts that will be new to anyone whose only language is English, then gets into the words and grammar.

New Concepts

Declensions

As mentioned in the introduction, Latin changes the endings of words to determine their meaning in a sentence. For nouns and adjectives, we call this “declension.” There are five declensions, but we will only look at the first one for now. Each Latin noun or adjective belongs to one of the five declensions, and that declension determines the endings we put on that word to mean different things. When we “decline” a noun, we show it with all its possible endings.

Case

A noun’s case determines its purpose in a sentence: subject, object, possessive, etc. There are five main cases and two rarer ones. Some cases have several uses, but here are the basic ones:

Photo by Joe Geranio

Photo by Joe Geranio

Nominative
Used for the subject of a sentence: The dog bit the mailman.
Genitive
Shows possession: The boy’s dog bit the mailman.
Dative
Expresses an indirect object of the action: The boy gave a treat to the dog.
Accusative
Limits the action in some way, often by showing the target of the action: The dog bit the mailman.
Ablative
Expresses separation, location, and many other meanings that English usually handles with a preposition: The dog chased the mailman from the yard. The dog bit the mailman on Tuesday.

Vocative
Used to directly address someone: “Boy, get that dog on a leash!” The vocative case usually has the same ending as the nominative case, so we don’t usually show it when we decline a noun.
Locative
Expresses location. The locative case is a bit of an artifact from earlier languages, so it only applies to certain words like domus (home) and names of cities and places. We’ll deal with the locative in chapter 60 or so.

Gender

In English, we don’t consider words to have gender except for a few things like ships. In Latin, every noun has a gender, and there are three: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Except for when they refer to people, these don’t necessarily have anything to do with the thing being named. For example, the word for island (insula) is feminine, bridge (pons) is masculine, and river (flumen) is neuter. The gender of each noun simply has to be memorized along with the word itself, although there are some hints we’ll find along the way.

The First Declension

Nouns of the first declension can be recognized by the ae ending in the genitive singular case. To decline a first declension noun, drop the ae from the genitive form to get the stem, and add the first declension endings to that stem. Declining the word puella (girl) looks like this:

Case Singular Plural
Nominative: puella puellae
Genitive: puellae puellarum
Dative: puellae puellis
Accusative: puellam puellas
Ablative: puella puellis

(After a while, it will become second nature to picture nouns in this 5×2 form.) As you can see, the first declension endings are:

Case Singular Plural
Nom. a ae
Gen. ae arum
Dat. ae is
Acc. am as
Abl. a is

In all first declension words, the vocative is the same as the nominative.

Two or more endings may sometimes be identical, like -is in the dative and ablative plural. When translating from Latin, the context will determine which is being used.

To decline another first declension word like aqua (water), we again remove the -ae from the genitive form, aquae, and add the same endings:

Case Singular Plural
Nom. aqua aquae
Gen. aquae aquarum
Dat. aquae aquis
Acc. aquam aquas
Abl. aqua aquis

For a word with a stem ending in a vowel, like Italia (Italy), the rule remains the same:

Case Singular Plural
Nom. Italia Italiae
Gen. Italiae Italiarum
Dat. Italiae Italiis
Acc. Italiam Italias
Abl. Italia Italiis

All first declension nouns will be declined this way.

Syntax

Uses of the Nominative Case

Subject
The most common use of the nominative is as the subject of a verb: The girl is walking. Puella ambulat.
Predicate Nominative
In correct English, we say, “It is I,” not, “It is me.” Latin is the same way. When a noun is used with a linking verb like “to be” to define the subject, that noun is in the nominative case:
The girl is a poet. Puella est (is) poeta.

Vocabulary

New nouns to learn will always be given in the format below: the nominative form, the genitive, the gender, and the meaning(s). When the genitive is obvious from the nominative, just the ending may be shown. Nouns are shown this way in Latin dictionaries, so you can tell from the genitive which declension they belong to.

The last two words are verbs, which we’ll learn about later. For now, just memorize them so you can form some basic sentences.

agricola, -ae, m. farmer
aqua, -ae, f., water
femina, -ae, f., woman
fortuna, -ae, f., fortune, chance
Gallia, Galliae, f., Gaul (France)
insula, -ae, f., island
Italia, -ae, f., Italy
lingua, linguae, f., language
littera, -ae, f., letter (of the alphabet); in the plural, a letter or letters you would mail
Maria, Mariae, f., Mary
memoria, -ae, f., memory
natura, -ae, f., nature
poeta, -ae, m., poet
provincia, provinciae, f., province
puella, -ae, f., girl
silva, -ae, f., forest
vita, -ae, f., life

est, is, there is
sunt, are, there are

Word Study

Latin has no articles, (a, an, and the), so leave them out when translating to Latin, and put them in where they make sense in context when translating to English.

Most first declension nouns are feminine in gender, except where they refer to male professions, like agricola (farmer) and poeta (poet). (That’s one of those hints I mentioned earlier.) (Yes, in Roman times, poets were all men.)

Drill

a. Practice by declining each vocabulary noun in all five cases and singular and plural, like puella and aqua above.

b. For each word in the vocabulary, try to think of an English word that derives from it. For example: agricola, agriculture. These connections make it much easier to memorize words.

Exercises

(Put your answers in the comments if you’d like me to check them.)

a. Give the case, number (singular or plural), and meaning for each of the following. For some, there will be more than one possible answer. Example: insulas: accusative, plural, islands.

  1. naturis
  2. Gallia
  3. poetae
  4. memoriam
  5. linguas
  6. silvarum
  7. insulae
  8. Poetae sunt agricolae.
  9. Sunt litterae.
  10. Maria est femina.

b. Translate:

  1. memory (accusative)
  2. O girls! (vocative)
  3. for the women
  4. the poets’
  5. of life
  6. province (nominative and accusative)
  7. for Mary
  8. There is a forest.
  9. Gaul is a province.
  10. The women are farmers.

Congratulations! You’ve finished lesson 1. Acta est fabula, plaudite! (The play is over, applaud!) Next time: verbs, so we can start making real sentences.

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