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Latin Review 1: First Declension, Cases

Author:

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.

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

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. If I kick the ball, what case is "the ball"?
    • Dative
    • Nominative
    • Accusative
  2. If I ask, "Whose shoes are these?" what case is "whose"?
    • Dative
    • Genitive
    • Vocative
  3. When Holmes says, "Elementary, my dear Watson," what case is "Watson"?
    • Nominative
    • Accusative
    • Vocative
  4. If the dog fetches the ball, what case is "dog"?
    • Nominative
    • Accusative
    • Vocative
  5. If I give Mom a birthday card, what case is "Mom"?
    • Genitive
    • Nominative
    • Dative
  6. If Humpty Dumpty sits on the wall, what case is "the wall"?
    • Nominative
    • Genitive
    • Ablative

Answer Key

  1. Accusative
  2. Genitive
  3. Vocative
  4. Nominative
  5. Dative
  6. Ablative

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

*In most declensions, the vocative form is identical to the nominative.

CaseSingularPlural

Nominative

-a

-ae

Genitive

-ae

-ārum

Dative

-ae

-īs

Accusative

-am

-ās

Ablative

-īs

Vocative*

-a

-ae

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

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Quick, what's the genitive plural ending?
    • -īs
    • -ārum
    • -ae
  2. If there's a duck in the water, how do I write water? (ablative singular)
    • aqua
    • aquīs
    • aquā
  3. I attended a women's college. The graduates were called (nominative plural)...
    • alumnam
    • alumna
    • alumnae
  4. What's the dative singular of poēta, a poet?
    • poētae
    • poēta
    • poētās
  5. I hung several wreaths (accusative plural) for Christmas. In this sentence, "wreaths" would be translated...
    • coronae
    • coronās
    • coronam
  6. A woman's work is never done. Translate "woman's"...
    • fēmina
    • fēminam
    • fēminae
  7. Close that window! Translate "window" (accusative singular)
    • fenestram
    • fenestrā
    • fenestrās
  8. The new tablets sold out in 24 hours. (Nominative plural)
    • tabulae
    • tabulīs
    • tabulam
  9. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star..." Translate "Star" (vocative singular)
    • stellārum
    • stella
    • stellae
  10. I am a citizen of the Earth. Translate "of the Earth."
    • Terrae
    • Terram
    • Terra

Answer Key

  1. -ārum
  2. aquā
  3. alumnae
  4. poētae
  5. coronās
  6. fēminae
  7. fenestram
  8. tabulae
  9. stella
  10. Terrae

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:

Declining puella, puellae, f., "girl"

CaseSingularPlural

Nominative

puella

puellae

Genitive

puellae

puellārum

Dative

puellae

puellīs

Accusative

puellam

puellās

Ablative

puellā

puellīs

Vocative

puella

puellae


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"

CaseSingularPlural

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.

Latin First Declension and Cases Links

Books for Learning Latin

Comments

Kandra on August 30, 2014:

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

Ellen (author) from California on February 15, 2013:

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!

Owlish on February 15, 2013:

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!

Ellen (author) from California on January 12, 2013:

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

christy on January 09, 2013:

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

Ellen (author) from California on August 19, 2012:

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

hi :) on August 19, 2012:

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

Ellen (author) from California on March 13, 2012:

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!

Howard S. from Dallas, Texas, and Asia on March 12, 2012:

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.

Ellen (author) from California on March 12, 2012:

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.)

Brainy Bunny from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania on March 12, 2012:

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!

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