Ecclesiastical Latin/Nouns and Adjectives

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A noun (in Latin, nomen—literally “name”) represents, or names, a person, place, thing, or idea. Latin nouns are similar to English nouns with three crucial differences:

First, Latin nouns do not use articles. There are no words in Latin which correspond directly to English a, an, or the. When translating English to Latin, it is not usually necessary to translate these words, unless they be emphasized. In this case the Latin unus (“one”) may stand in for a(n), and ille (“that”) may be used for the. These two words are the roots of the articles in languages that derive from Latin: the indefinite article in Romance languages is usually un(a); the definite article, while more varied, usually resembles either the first or the second syllable of ille (el, il, le, la, and so forth). When translating Latin to English, it is necessary to insert articles in appropriate places, depending on context.

Second, Latin nouns have what is called gender, which in Latin may be masculine, feminine, or neuter. The concept of grammatical gender may be foreign to native English speakers, but English is in fact one of few Indo-European languages which has lost its gender system. Gender is a system for classifying nouns which correlates with biological sex in only a few cases; the Latin word for (grammatical) gender (which is also the root of the English) is genus, which means merely “kind” or ”class”, and it is best thought of in this way. The main importance of gender in Latin is that adjectives must be inflected (change their endings) to agree with the nouns they modify in gender, as well as number (singular and plural) and case (which we will discuss later). Some Latin words indicate their gender by their endings, but others do not, and there are exceptions even to the usual rules. The gender of each noun you learn should be memorized along with the noun itself.

Third, Latin nouns inflect (change their endings) for what is called case, that is, the function they play in the sentence. In English, the difference between dog bites man and man bites dog is indicated by the relative order of the words “man”, “bites”, and “dog”. However, in Latin, the words for dog (canis) and man (vir) would add or change suffixes depending on whether they are biting or being bitten: thus canis mordet virum and virum mordet canis both mean “dog bites man”, regardless of the order of the words; if the man is biting the dog, one would have to say vir mordet canem, which words, of course, may also be arranged in any order. Word order is not nearly as important in Latin as in English, due to the case system; the most common word order for Latin simple sentences is subject–object–verb (English, in contrast, has subject–verb–object), but Latin word order may be almost freely modified for the sake of emphasis or poetry.

A residual case system can be seen in English personal pronouns; one would use he for the subject of a sentence, but him for the object; she, but her; I, but me, and so on. This allows one to be somewhat more free with word order in English sentences containing pronouns, but nonstandard word order in modern English has a distinctly archaic sound, such as the King James translation of Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Note the common -m ending used for the object (or accusative case) in both Latin and English. This is not a coincidence; this particular pattern seems to derive from the ancient common ancestor of the two languages, and remains very strong in Latin. All native Latin nouns end their singular accusative forms with -m, and any time you see a noun ending in -m in Latin (unless it ends in -um), you can be nearly certain it is in the accusative.

We will discuss the different cases later; for now, we will focus on the nominative case, which is used for the subject of a sentence, as well as for a noun standing alone. The nominative is considered the “default” case, and nouns in a Latin dictionary are listed by their nominative singular.

Declensions[edit]

Latin nouns are divided into five groups called declensions, each of which has a common and distinct set of inflections for each combination of gender, case and number. It is usually obvious to which declension a noun belongs from its nominative form. It is necessary to know to which declension a noun belongs, along with its gender and any peculiarities it may have, to use it correctly. In this introduction we will discuss only the nominative form, singular and plural, of the first three declensions, which together contain around four-fifths of Latin nouns and all Latin adjectives. We will introduce the endings in each of these declensions for the other cases at the time that those cases are discussed.

First and second declensions[edit]

Because the first declension contains exclusively feminine nouns (except for a few names of professions, such as agricola, which are masculine), and the second contains exclusively masculine and neuter, they are often considered as a single block. The nominative endings of first and second declension nouns of each gender are as follows:

Singular Plural
1st Declension -a -ae
2nd Decl. Masc. -us -i
2nd Decl. Neuter -um -a

All three of these endings are relatively common in English, considering the number of Latin loanwords in our language. The Latin plurals were the norm in the past, when Latin was an essential part of school curricula (plural of curriculum, a Latin loanword). They are less commonly used nowadays, but are still considered more proper, especially in scientific language. Thus,

  • the plural of formula, literally meaning “rule” or “method”, is formulae;
  • of nucleus (lit. “little nut” or “kernel”), nuclei;
  • of curriculum (lit. “course”), curricula;

and so forth. However, there are also a few masculine nouns in the second declension whose nominative singular ends in -er rather than -us, such as puer (“boy”) or magister (“master” or “teacher”). In the plural, or in cases other than the nominative, these nouns drop their -e- (unless the stem without the -er ends in a vowel) and then add the usual second-declension ending, such that the plural of magister is magistri, but the plural of puer is pueri.

There are also a few second-declension nouns, derived from Greek, which end in -os in place of -us (masculine) or -on in place of -um (neuter). The other numbers and cases of these nouns are the same as native Latin nouns.

Third declension[edit]

The third declension contains nouns of all three genders, but (with only one exception) has the same endings regardless of gender; therefore, the gender of a third-declension noun must be memorized. The third declension is unique, and somewhat difficult, because its nominative singular is somewhat irregular; that is, the stem may change somewhat when declined (other than in the nominative singular). This irregularity is not entirely random, thankfully—most third-declension nouns fit a relatively small number of patterns. For example, English has borrowed many third-declension Latin nouns that end in -ix, such as matrix and appendix, whose proper Latin plurals are matrices and appendices respectively—masculine and feminine nouns in the third declension end in -es in the nominative plural, while neuter nouns again end in -a, or occasionally -ia. There are less predictable forms, however, such as homo (“man”), whose plural is homines; while leo (“lion”) becomes leones.

Adjectives[edit]

Latin adjectives are inflected, like Latin nouns, to agree with their antecedents in case and number. However, they must also inflect to agree with their antecedents in gender; therefore, each adjective may have up to three forms in the nominative singular alone. Those belonging to the first and second declensions (which for adjectives are one) use the endings listed in the table above: -us, -a, -um for masculine, feminine, and neuter respectively.

In the nominative plural, third declension adjectives generally have two forms: -es for masculine and feminine (the so-called common gender) and -(i)a for the neuter. In the nominative singular, however, they may have from one to three. Those with one form are semi-irregular according to much the same patterns that govern third declension nouns. Those with two forms end in -is for the common gender and -e for the neuter: mediocris, mediocre (you can guess the meaning). Those with three forms end in -er for the masculine, -(e)ris for the feminine, and -(e)re for the neuter: celer, celeris, celere (“fast”).

Adjectives in Latin normally come after the nouns they describe, though this is not so hard a rule as the reverse is in English. (It is broken occasionally in English as well, though normally only in poetry or archaic stock phrases.)

Simple descriptive sentences[edit]

We will discuss the verb esse (“to be”) in much greater detail later, but for now it will suffice to know that the Latin word for “is” is est, or in the plural, sunt. With this and a noun-adjective pair, we can make simple sentences like:

Femina pulchra est.
Puer celer est.
Bellum terrible est.
Servi fideles sunt.

The woman is beautiful.
The boy is fast.
War is terrible.
The servants are loyal.

Note how the adjective is in the nominative case, and agrees with the noun in gender and number.

However, because Latin places the verb last, there is a fascinating sort of ambiguity even in sentences as simple as these. Femina pulchra means, by itself, “the beautiful woman”, so femina pulchra est also means “the beautiful woman is”. One would never translate it this way, of course, but the free word order of Latin erases the distinction between subject and predicate in such sentences as these. Latin, particularly in the post-classical style of the Church Fathers (and, thus, most ecclesiastical texts), is often like this, leaving ambiguities which English would not allow, but therein also is much of Latin's unique beauty: in the many overlapping meanings which may be contained in a single sentence or phrase.

At the extreme of this particular line of reasoning, the verbs est and sunt are already, in this context, anticipated by the time they are read, and so many authors began to omit them entirely. The first part of the Ave Maria, for example, does not contain a single verb in three complete clauses:

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.

This is called zero copula, and is permitted in both Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin, though it borders on poor style to use it continuously for so long. However, this style is often more elegant, and you should learn to both recognize it and use it where appropriate.