You see nouns every day but you may not realise you do if you didn’t study English grammar in primary school. What is a noun?
Simply, a noun is a naming word, from Latin ‘nomen’ (name). A noun is a part of speech that describes a thing, usually a person, place, object, state or quality. It can be a tangible object (e.g. a pen) or an abstract noun (e.g. honesty). Nouns can have many functions in a sentence. The most common are the subject and the object.
In English, the function of a noun is distinguished by:
- Its position in the sentence. The dog bit the man / The man bit the dog. These sentences have very different meanings in English.
- Its ending. You can tell whether a noun is singular (one thing) or plural (more than one thing) by its ending. The most common way to make a noun plural is to add an ‘s’: pen -> pens. There are some irregular plurals e.g. pastry -> pastries, ox -> oxen.
- Whether it has a capital letter or not. ‘I live in a new England’ means ‘I live in England, and it is different here than in the past’. ‘I live in New England’ means you live in the State of America that is called New England – a very different place to the England of Britain.
- Whether it is preceded by ‘a’ or ‘the’. ‘I saw a dog’ vs. ‘I saw the dog’. In the first sentence it could be any dog at all, and it has no particular significance. The second sentence refers to a specific dog, usually a dog that has previously been referred to, or one that you are going to describe e.g. ‘I saw the dog that bit my next-door neighbour’.
In Latin, nouns are very different.
Firstly, there is no word in Latin for ‘a’ or ‘the’, so you have to work out which one it is by reading the rest of the sentence.
The Romans wrote in capital letters all the time. Names are not always obvious, particularly when the gods are concerned. For example, ‘CVPIDVS’ could refer to Cupid, god of love, or it could be an adjective meaning ‘eager’. Usually in modern texts, the first letter of a name is capitalised. But if not, what happens when you read ‘VENVS’ in a love poem? Does it mean ‘Venus the goddess’ or ‘love’? The answer is more simple than you might think: Latin’s lack of capitalisation means that the Romans did not make this distinction. In some places an author is obviously not talking about an anthropomorphic figure; but many Roman deities were forces in society and they would not have an answer to the question, ‘Is this the thing or the thing personified?’
Latin has many more endings than English has. Latin nouns have six different forms – twelve in all, as there are six singular and six plural. Some are the same but they all have distinct meanings. The ending changes for almost every function in the sentence. For example, the words ‘mensa’, ‘mensam’ and ‘mensae’ all mean ‘table’; ‘mensae’, ‘mensas’ and ‘mensis’ all mean ‘tables’.
In Latin, the word order doesn’t matter. In this example, the word ‘canis’ means ‘dog’ and ‘vir’ means ‘man’; ‘momordit’ means ‘bit’:
canis momordit virum.
canem momordit vir.
virum momordit canis.
vir momordit canem.
What is the difference between these sentences? How do you tell who bit whom? You may have thought that the first two sentences were the same, as were the last two.
In fact, the first and third are the same: they both mean ‘the dog bit the man’. The second and fourth are the same: they both mean ‘the man bit the dog’.
In Latin it is the ending of the noun that tells you who bit whom. The one biting is called the ‘subject’ and the one who is being bitten is called the ‘object’.
You see that this is very different from English. It is the equivalent of being able to say ‘man-obj bit dog-subj’, meaning ‘the dog bit the man’.
Latin nouns have gender. This does not in itself affect the noun’s endings, but it does affect the adjectives that describe the noun. This is similar to French, Spanish etc, except in Latin there are three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. You can find more information on which nouns are usually masculine or feminine in the Declensions section.
It is extremely important to be able to know what a noun is doing in a sentence. The different functions of the noun, e.g. subject and object, are called ‘cases’.
In Latin there are six cases. Nouns change their endings depending on the case. There are five types of noun, called ‘declensions’. Nouns in each declension change their endings in a different way. All the nouns in first declension, for example, follow the same pattern when they change their endings.
Consult the following pages for a detailed description of cases and tables of declensions.
Includes: cases & their usage; declensions;
Personal, reflexive, relative pronouns etc.
Includes: tenses, voices & moods, and sequence of tenses; parts of a verb and conjugation of regular verbs; conjugation of deponent verbs; conjugation of irregular verbs; participles
Adjectives & Adverbs
Also includes comparative and superlative
Conjunctions & Prepositions
Includes prepositions and their meanings with cases
Gerund & Gerundive
Includes gerund as noun, gerundive of obligation etc.
(But for ad + gerundive as purpose, see Purpose Clauses below)
Conjunctions and Prepositions
Gerund and Gerundive
Includes: ‘cum’ + subjunctive and rules of sequence; ‘cum’ + indicative; clauses with ‘ubi’, ‘postquam’ etc; prepositional phrases e.g. ablative absolute; ‘dum’ meaning while
Purpose & Fearing Clauses
Includes: ‘ut’ + subjunctive; ‘qui’ + subjunctive; ‘ad’ + gerundive; ‘causa’ + genitive; fearing clauses using ‘timeo’ & ‘vereor’; ‘dum’ meaning until + subjunctive
Consecutive (Result) Clauses
Also includes generic subjunctive & doubt
Includes: indirect command, statement & question; accusative + infinitive; oratio obliqua; past jussive