Latin Review 1: First Declension, Cases

Hail, Caesar!

Augustus of Prima Porta, a statue of the first Roman Emperor now in the Vatican Museum.
Augustus of Prima Porta, a statue of the first Roman Emperor now in the Vatican Museum. | Source

Brush up your Latin with me!

I love Latin, but it's been ten (gasp!) years since I taught or studied it. I've decided to review my old textbooks and knock the rust off my Latin skills.

So I'm creating these pages for myself and fellow Latin students wanting to review. I'll include self-made quizzes plus links to other helpful pages and quizzes on the same topic.

On this page, I'll cover first declension (Latin nouns ending in -a), the basic idea of declensions, and how to use the six Latin cases.

Terms to Learn:

Case: Special form of a word which tells us how it's being used in a sentence. For instance, "he, his, him" are three different cases of the English word "he."

Declension: A group of Latin nouns which have the same set of endings. (This happens in English too: "flea, fleas" and "spork, sporks" have a different set of endings from "fly, flies" and "spy, spies." And, just to be confusing, "mouse, mice" and "louse, lice" use a third set of plural forms — a third declension, if you will — while "house, houses" uses the same set of endings as "spork, sporks.")

How Latin Words Work: Cases and Declensions

Most Latin words consist of two parts: the stem, which tells you the basic meaning, and the ending, which gives additional information such as singular or plural, past or present tense, or how the word works in a sentence.

English changes word endings, too. For example, when one dog meets another dog, that makes two dogs. The -s ending shows dogs is plural. We also change verb endings to show tense: I mop the floor (present tense, meaning something happening now), or I mopped the floor (past tense, something that happened a while ago).

Latin uses endings like these for more different reasons than English.

For example, while English tells you who's doing what to whom with word order (the cat bit the dog vs. the dog bit the cat), Latin uses endings to indicate the subject (the doer) and the object (the victim). In Latin, canem felis mordet and felis canem mordet both mean the cat bites the dog. It doesn't matter which word comes first: the ending on felis shows it's the subject, while canem has an ending showing it's the direct object.

The bad news is that we have to memorize all these endings, the same way you once memorized "I go, I was going, I went, I have gone" or "goose, geese." The good news is that big batches of Latin words all use the same set of endings, so we only have to memorize a few sets. With nouns, these sets of endings are called declensions. All first declension Latin nouns use the same set of case endings.

But first, so we're not just memorizing a random chart of endings with no idea how they apply to the real world, let's talk about the six Latin cases. What are they used for? Here's the basics:

Quiz: Drill the Six Latin Cases

Latin Cases: Common Uses

  • Nominative: subject of a sentence. "The dog bit the cat."
  • Genitive: possession. (like adding "of a" or "of the" to a noun in English; can also be translated with 's, for example, "the dog's nose.")
  • Dative: the indirect object, the person to whom or for whom the action is done. "The dog brought its food dish to me."
  • Accusative: the direct object, the victim of the action. "The dog bit the cat."
  • Ablative: a catch-all case, most often used for place where the event is happening. "The dog was snoozing in the yard."
  • Vocative: direct address, the "hey you" case, used when you're talking directly to the person or thing. "Dog, sit, stay."

Latin First Declension: Say Ah!

The first and easiest set of Latin endings go with a batch of words that end in -a in the nominative case. These words have lots of -a endings.

You may recognize a few of these First Declension Latin nouns:

  • aqua — water
  • tabula — a notebook or writing tablet
  • porta — a door
  • corona — a wreath or crown
  • lūna — moon, month

If I drink the water, then aqua must be changed to the accusative, aquam, to show it's a direct object, the thing being drunk.

If all the doors in a room are open, then they're portae, nominative plural, showing that they are the subject of the sentence and that there's more than one of them.

If I write something in my notebook, I'll write it in tabulā meā, with a long -ā to show that it's ablative. (Actually, Romans almost never wrote out the long marks. I don't know whether your teacher made you learn them or not. Mine did.)

I remember vividly my fear and confusion when my teacher first put the following chart on the board and told us to memorize it. What on earth? But eventually, it really did make sense. I just had to trust my teacher enough to do the boring work of memorizing.

Latin First Declension Endings

Case
Singular
Plural
Nominative
-a
-ae
Genitive
-ae
-ārum
Dative
-ae
-īs
Accusative
-am
-ās
Ablative
-īs
Vocative*
-a
-ae
*In most declensions, the vocative form is identical to the nominative.

Help With First Declension

First, memorize the six case names separately, since you'll need them for other declensions: Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Ablative, Vocative. (No Good Dogs Are Always Vocal.) When we're analyzing Latin words, we tend to abbreviate them: Nom, Gen, Dat, Acc and so on. But it's best to learn their full names.

Once you've got the six cases under your belt, memorize the first declension endings in a singsong: -a, -ae, -ae, -am, -ā, -ae, -ārum, -īs, -ās, -īs.

Wait, how do you pronounce these endings?

  • Latin -a sounds like the "a" in "father", so it's a short "ah" sound. (Or a long "aah" sound if it's got a long mark over it.)
  • Latin -ae rhymes with English "eye, pie".
  • Latin's long -ī sounds like English "ee", so -īs rhymes with "geese." (Without a long mark, Latin i sounds like the "ih" sound in "bit, hit.")
  • Latin -u is an "uh" sound like the u in "fun". When there's a long mark over it, it's pronounced "oo" like the u in "tune, lunar."

First Declension Endings Quiz

How to Decline a Latin Noun

How do you add these endings to Latin words? Latin dictionaries list the nominative singular form, then the genitive singular, because in some declensions, the stem of the word changes (corpus means "body," but corporis means "of the body," for example.)

So, to decline a Latin noun — giving all its singular and plural forms — you need to drop thegenitive singular ending off to find the stem. For example:

The dictionary says: puella, puellae, "girl." The genitive singular ending is -ae, so drop -ae frompuellae to get puell-.

Then, add all the case endings you memorized:

Case
Singular
Plural
Nominative
puella
puellae
Genitive
puellae
puellārum
Dative
puellae
puellīs
Accusative
puellam
puellās
Ablative
puellā
puellīs
Vocative
puella
puellae
Declining puella, puellae, f., "girl"


Try declining the words found earlier in this lesson. I only listed the nominative singular for some of them, but luckily, first declension nouns use the same stem (the part that doesn't change, to which you add the endings) all the way through.

For example, see if you can fill in the blanks:

Decline Fēmina, "Woman"

Case
Singular
Plural
Nominative
 
 
Genitive
Fēminae
 
Dative
 
 
Accusative
 
 
Ablative
 
 
Vocative
 
 

Stay Tuned for the Next Lesson!

Phew! That's all for now. Check this space; I'll link to the next lesson when I've got it ready. In the meantime, here's some links to other sites where you can practice and study First Declension Latin nouns and the six Latin cases.

Books for Learning Latin

Latin: An Intensive Course
Latin: An Intensive Course

Moreland and Fleischer are a little dense, so this is definitely a college or high school level textbook. I taught college freshmen with this book. The homework exercises are excellent; there's usually four to five sets of sentences to help students practice and reinforce the lessons in each chapter. Like all the textbooks below, each chapter includes a vocabulary list for practice and drills.

 
Wheelock's Latin 7th Edition (The Wheelock's Latin Series)
Wheelock's Latin 7th Edition (The Wheelock's Latin Series)

Wheelock's Latin is the textbook most commonly used to teach and learn Latin in America. I personally have not worked my way through it, but I'm sure it's a great course.

 
First Year Latin (English and Latin Edition)
First Year Latin (English and Latin Edition)

Jenney's first year Latin was the textbook which awakened my love of Latin back in 1981. It's probably not the best book to use these days, especially since the 1990 revision added more readings at the expense of the homework sentences which helped focus the student's attention on the meat of each lesson, but I can't help recommending the book that opened the door for me. Unfortunately, since it's out of print, you'll need to watch the used offerings for an affordable copy.

 
PHENOMENON OF LANGUAGE:TABULA (LATINA) STUDENT BOOK
PHENOMENON OF LANGUAGE:TABULA (LATINA) STUDENT BOOK

This paperback workbook for middle school students has lots and lots of exercises, cartoons, and simple examples that gently provide bite-sized Latin lessons. It relates things they're learning to the real world and teaches them why Latin matters. It's a great way to introduce ages 9-12 to Latin, the mental equivalent of water wings before they dive into a more intense language textbook. This is another out-of-print book, alas. Watch out, as it's possible some used copies have the exercises filled in.

 

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Comments 11 comments

Brainy Bunny profile image

Brainy Bunny 4 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

Well, so far this is an improvement on how I learned Latin -- with Wheelock's notoriously error-filled 5th edition. Keep up the good work!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Hee! Well, I can't promise it will be error-free. I used to give 2 points extra credit to students who could identify and correct my typos on quizzes and tests. I hope these pages prove useful, nonetheless.

(Full disclosure: I only taught Latin for one year in graduate school. My students seemed to appreciate and learn from my efforts, but I'm not a veteran instructor.)


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

Two points if I correct an error? You've probably got a good explanation, but I'd like to hear it. The declension table has A "is identical with" B. I would edit that to A "is identical to" B.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

No good explanation whatsoever. In fact, I had written "is identical to" and then changed it in a late-night fit of editing brain spasm. There's a point for you!


hi :) 4 years ago

I'm new to latin and am studying for tests. This page helped me so much!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

You're welcome! Wish I hadn't gotten distracted; I meant to do one of these every week!


christy 3 years ago

this website is the best latin website ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 3 years ago from California Author

thanks, but I dropped the ball -- I need to make more pages like this! :)


Owlish 3 years ago

I would like to thank you!

Thank you, thank you, than you!

I will be starting to learn Latin in few weeks as part of my BA, and I've been trying to to get a step up as I've never been the best with languages.

And trying is very much the word. I had been struggling especially with the first declension, and yours was the first explanation that explained it so well and so simply. Most I had been reading through just jumped right into it, without much explanation of why or how. And I'm the sort of people who need to know why something is, not just that it.

I now have a much better grasp of it, and the first week of morning Latin classes seems a lot less daunting :)

I hope you are able to do a second lesson, because I've very much enjoyed this one!

Thank you!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 3 years ago from California Author

Oh, good luck! I'm glad my teaching skills haven't gone completely rusty. I had every intention of doing one of these a week, then got busy with other projects. Thanks for re-motivating me to get back to this!


Kandra 2 years ago

Thanks, I needed an explanation of the 1st declension pronunciation.

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