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Looking up Words in a Latin Dictionary: Nouns

By John Garger

Unlike English, gender plays an important role in proper Latin grammar. Memorizing the gender of nouns from the beginning can save much time needed to look up words in a Latin dictionary.

The word noun can be traced back to the Latin word nomen which literally means name. A noun is any word that can be used as the subject of a sentence, can be referred to with a pronoun, and indicates an entity, quality, state, action, or idea. Latin nouns function similarly to English nouns, however, as Latin is an inflected language, Latin nouns change to indicate their use in a sentence.

Latin nouns belong to any one of five declensions, each with its own set of case endings. Proper translation of a noun starts with knowing to which declension the noun belongs and then an identification of the noun’s ending to discover its use in a sentence. A Latin dictionary is invaluable not only as a lexicon of word meanings, but as a tool to learn word/declension pairings. Consider the following Latin dictionary entry:

Femina –ae, f. a female, woman

Noun entries in a Latin dictionary are listed alphabetically by their nominative singular case. The –ae entry is the genitive singular ending to the noun (as in feminae) and tells us that femina belongs to the first declension. The f indicates that femina is a feminine noun. Of course, the remainder tells us that the word can be translated as either female or woman.

In this particular example, it is obvious that femina is a feminine noun. Although most first declension nouns are feminine, not all are. This is a fact that becomes important when an adjective modifies the noun. Consider the following example:

Nauta –ae, m. a sailor, mariner

Notice that the genitive case is given as –ae but the noun is masculine. Given a general sense of Roman gender roles, it is easy to understand why a word for sailor would be a masculine. This is one of those situations where assuming that a word with the form nautae in the genitive must be a feminine noun can lead to confusion. Now consider this example:

Civitas –atis, f. citizenship, state, commonwealth

The –atis ending in the genitive reveals that civitas is a third declension noun. However, third declension nouns are commonly masculine, feminine, or neuter. There is no way of knowing without memorizing the gender of each third declension noun. Unlike the first declension where nouns are usually feminine with relatively few exceptions, the genitive of the third declension gives no indication of the word’s gender. It is wise to get into the practice of memorizing a noun’s gender when it is learned so that looking up a word every time it is encountered can be avoided.

Unlike English, the gender of a noun is important because adjectives that modify nouns must agree in case and number but not necessarily in form. For example, to modify the word for sailor with the word evil, the following form is used:

Nauta malus (the evil sailor)

Latin gender can be tricky for students because unlike English, gender matters. English does occasionally use gender pronouns when referring to inanimate objects such as she when referring to a boat, as in, “That boat? She is in great shape.” However, Latin is unforgiving to the student who does not know the gender of every noun.