Latin/Introduction to Nouns (L1)

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Introduction to Nouns[edit]

A noun in Latin is exactly like a noun in English - it is a person, place, thing, or idea. For more information on what a noun is and what words are nouns look at "noun" at Wikipedia. If something is a noun in English, then it is also a noun in Latin.

Nouns in Latin[edit]

Okay, now that we know that nouns are essentially the same part of speech in both English and Latin, what makes Latin nouns work? Anytime that you see a noun in Latin, you will be able to tell a lot about the noun. For example, if you were to see the noun mensam in a Latin text, you would know a number of things about it immediately. We'll go into how you can tell these things in just a bit, but here's what you can learn from seeing the word. First, the word is almost certainly feminine. Second, it's probably the direct object of a sentence. Third, its singular.

To compare that to English, let's look at the English word "table" (because that's what mensam means!) We can see that it is singular, because the plural is "tables." But what else can we learn about the word? It isn't necessarily a direct object--it could be a subject (The table is large), indirect object (I walked to the table), or direct object (He kicked the table). Also, we don't know its gender because English doesn't use a gender system for nouns. So, why are we able to see these things about Latin words? We know them because Latin nouns "decline" - they change their endings to fit their usage. Mensam and mensa both mean table, but they are used very differently. The difference in the form of a noun gives us information about the word.

When we talk about the form a word in Latin takes, we talk about its "incidents". English nouns typically only have one incident - number (singular vs plural). However, Latin nouns have three:

Gender[edit]

All nouns in Latin have gender. This includes not only things which physically have gender (man, woman, boy, girl, mother, husband, etc.) but also inanimate objects like tables. Mensa (table), for example, is feminine just like puella (girl). Sometimes a thing (usually animals or words for people like "student" will have two different nouns, with one masculine and the other feminine. Lupus is a male wolf while lupa is a female wolf. Discipula is a female student while discipulus is a male student.

What really throws a wrench into this is that Latin does not have two genders. It has three. In addition to masculine and feminine, Latin also has the neuter gender (interestingly enough, this comes from the Latin neuter which means "neither"). Crustulum, a cookie, is a good example of a neuter noun. One might ask, why is a table feminine while a cookie is neuter? The simplest answer is: because that's just the way it is. Sometimes the gender of Latin nouns will make absolutely no sense. At other times, it will. It is best, however, to memorize the gender of each noun you learn.

Case[edit]

The next step in analyzing a Latin noun is its case. The case of a noun determines its usage in a sentence. Each noun can be put into any of the cases. If you look above, you can see that you have already seen two different forms of the Latin word for "table". They are in different cases. English for the most part does not use cases, but some pronouns show vestiges of a case system ("who" vs. "whom" vs. "whose" and "they" vs. "them" vs. "their"). We take a fairly intuitive approach to learning those words in English, which is perhaps why so many people have problems with "whom". But in Latin, the case of a noun is extremely important.

The number of cases in Latin is generally considered to be six. This leaves out the locative, which is used very rarely and only for a very limited number of nouns, so we'll leave it out for now as well. We'll start off with the standard six - nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, and vocative.

Case Major Use Latin Example English Equivalent
Nominative Subject mensa table
Accusative Direct Object mensam table
Genitive Possessive mensae of the table
Dative Indirect Object mensae to/for the table
Ablative Means or Manner mensa by/with the table
Vocative Direct address mensa o table!

Note that all forms in the above chart are singular (we'll talk about number in just a bit). You can see that sometimes a couple different cases will look the same. This happens. It is usually possible to determine the appropriate case from the context of a sentence (for instance, you could say "I walked to the table" but wouldn't say "I walked of the table").

Each noun belongs to a group called a "declension" - all of the nouns in a declension have similar sets of endings. For example, mensa is a first declension noun. All of the other first declension nouns are going to have similar endings. Let's take a look at mensa alongside puella.

Accusative|| mensae|| puellaeDative || mensa|| puella

Case "Table" "Girl"
Nominative mensa puella
Vocative mensam puellam
Ablative mensa puella

We'll explore each of the cases and each of the declensions later.

Number[edit]

This should be fairly familiar to everyone (well, except perhaps speakers of Japanese and some other languages, whose nouns do not distinguish between singular and plural). Number refers only to whether a noun is singular (there's only one of it) or plural (there's more than one). Let's take a look at our table again. In English, we can easily see the difference between "table" and "tables" by the ending. Latin is the same. In the accusative case, mensam is singular ("table") while mensas is plural (tables). The ending is determined by the number. However, this can create even more confusion. For example, you can see by the chart above (which shows singular forms) that mensae can be either the genitive singular or dative singular. But guess what? Mensae can also be the nominative or vocative plural!

Obviously, we need a new chart that covers number as well as case.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative mensa mensae
Accusative mensam mensas
Genitive mensae mensarum
Dative mensae mensis
Ablative mensa mensis
Vocative mensa mensae

You can see that mensae appears four times, mensa appears three times, and mensis appears twice. Again, context is necessary in determining which case and number a noun will be in.

Dictionary form of a noun[edit]

The dictionary form of a noun includes three things.

  1. Nominative singular - This is basically the name of a noun - "nominative" derives from the Latin word nomen which means "name" (nomen, by the way, is in the nominative singular!)
  2. Genitive singular - The genitive singular is often the easiest to find the stem of the noun from. The stem is the base from which endings are added.
  3. Gender - Because nouns are always a certain gender, this is something that does not change. Gender is especially important when adjectives are used (more on adjectives later). It is usually abbreviated (m/f/n)

So, if we wanted to look up "table" in our handy Latin-to-English dictionary, we would look under:

mensa, mensae, f.

Summary[edit]

Now you have a working knowledge of what constitutes a Latin noun. You know that each noun belongs to one the five declensions and one of the three genders. You know what the six cases are. You're ready to go onto the next chapter and learn about the first declension and the nominative and accusative cases.


Latin | Lesson 2 - First Declension, Nominative/Accusative Cases