Chapter 2: The Latin Noun (Declensions 1 & 2)

§9. What is a Noun?

In order to approach Latin word-roots systematically, we’ll be looking in turn at three major grammatical parts of speech—noun, adjective, and verb. If you’re a little vague about the names given to the various parts of speech, don’t panic: each one will be defined and illustrated as it occurs.

The noun is probably the easiest and most obvious of all parts of speech. Quite simply, it is a naming word. If you look up the term in a dictionary, you will see that it comes from the Old French nun or non (the source of the modern French nom), deriving ultimately from the Latin nomen, “name.”

That last rather cumbersome sentence of explanation can be set out more neatly and economically in linguistic shorthand. If we want to express an etymology by moving back in time from present to distant past, we can do it this way:

E noun < OF nun or non < L nomen

(Here the symbol < means “derived from”; it has nothing to do with the mathematical symbol “is less than.”) Conversely, if we want to begin in the past and move toward the present, we can use the opposite symbol, > , meaning “derived into”:

L nomen > OF nun or non > E noun

This will be our way of presenting Latin etymologies in the briefest possible form, without wasting words. If you think of the symbol as a stylized arrow, and observe the direction in which it is pointing, the linguistic convention will not give you any trouble.

In Latin, as in English, nouns can be subdivided into general semantic classes, depending on the meaning they convey. For our purposes in this course, the two most useful classes are CONCRETE NOUNS, which name objects that we can see, touch or otherwise perceive (woman, book, table, horse, friend, father), and ABSTRACT NOUNS, which name intangible qualities or states (truth, beauty, love, freedom, hopelessness). In Latin, we’ll find that many abstract nouns share common characteristics.

In terms of MORPHOLOGY (physical shape or form), there are five main types (“declensions”) of Latin noun, each showing predictable and consistent features shared by all words of that type. As you may know, Latin is a highly inflected language; every noun, for instance, has at least half a dozen different word-endings, depending on the grammatical role that it plays in its sentence. Each so-called “declension” consists of nouns that are all inflected in a similar manner, a fact that allows us to group them together conveniently by form. It will help you to understand Latin noun vocabulary if you learn the five declension types. Don’t worry about the term DECLENSON: it simply means a classification type or category. And be thankful that we don’t have to learn all the different word-endings for every noun! It’s legitimate to take shortcuts when we are merely studying Latin roots, not the grammar of the whole Latin language.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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