Ancient Greek/Basic Nouns

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Gender[edit | edit source]

Ancient Greek, like many other languages, has nouns of different genders. An Ancient Greek noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter. The names of men and male gods are always masculine, whereas those of women and goddesses are always feminine. A group consisting of only men, or both men and women, is grammatically masculine, and a group consisting of only women is grammatically feminine.

Furthermore, the grammatical gender in Greek is not always linked with actual gender. Inanimate objects are not necessarily neuter: they can be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. One can sometimes, but not always, infer the gender of a noun from its ending. It is important to know the gender of a noun because any adjectives used to describe that noun will have to match the noun in gender.

Number[edit | edit source]

In English, most nouns can be either singular or plural. The same is true in Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek also had a dual number, which, in its earliest attestations, was used instead of the plural when there were exactly two of something. It is not necessary to learn the dual number right now, as it gradually faded from the language, and in the Classical era it was already rare.

Case[edit | edit source]

In English, word order and prepositions are used to indicate the roles that nouns play in sentences. For example, the sentences "Alice sees Bob" and "Bob sees Alice" use exactly the same words, but in different orders; in the former, it is understood that Alice is the subject and Bob is the object, and in the latter, vice versa. In Ancient Greek, on the other hand, there is considerable (although not total) freedom in the ordering of words in a sentence. How did the Greeks know which noun was the subject and which was the object? They changed the endings of the nouns, rather than their order. This is known as declension. (They also changed the ending of the word in the plural, just as we often do in English by adding "s".) Only some pronouns in English still retain the vestiges of declension; "I"/"me" is one good example, as is "who"/"whom".

Declension in Ancient Greek is complex because not all nouns use the same set of endings. Nouns are classified into three broad categories, known as the first declension, second declension, and third declension. Even nouns belonging to the same category do not necessarily use the same set of endings, although there are conspicuous similarities.

There are 5 cases in Greek. The case of a noun tells you something about its role in the sentence:

  • The nominative case is used when a noun is the subject of a sentence (e.g., I am running). It is also used when it is the predicate of a copula whose subject is in the nominative (e.g., Who is it? It is I).
  • The genitive case denotes possession or limitation. Whereas in English we often use "'s" or the word "of" to denote possession (e.g., Alice's car, or the end of the day), in Greek the noun is simply put into the genitive case.
  • The dative case is the case into which indirect objects fall; whereas in English we usually use the word "to" (e.g., My friend gave a book to me), in Greek the noun is simply put into the dative case. The dative case has many other uses, to be explained later.
  • The accusative case is usually used for the direct object of a verb.
  • The vocative case is used when directly addressing a person, god, etc.

The accusative, genitive, and dative cases, but not the nominative and vocative, are also used for nouns that are objects of prepositions. Prepositions indicating motion towards, into, or against something are generally used with an accusative noun; prepositions governing motion away, out of, or under, the genitive; fixed position and proximity, the dative.

With nouns expressing time or dimension, the accusative case indicates a length of time or space (as in Odysseus sailed for ten years); the genitive indicates time within which (as in We'll arrive within the next hour), and the dative indicates when something happened (as in There will be a test tomorrow).

Important: When a noun is indicated in the dictionary or in the vocabulary of a textbook such as this, usually both its nominative singular and genitive singular forms are given. This is because the nominative form often does not give enough information to decline the noun, whereas the nominative and genitive together often do. Of course, if the noun has no singular form, then the nominative and genitive plural will be given.