How to Decline First Declension Latin Nouns
Since Latin is an inflected language, the endings of words change to indicate their function in a sentence. Latin nouns and adjectives are declined into five basic forms: the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative cases. These cases are used in five declensions, each with its own set of rules for gender and terminations (inflections).
The first declension is generally associated with the feminine gender and is one of the easiest declensions to learn. This is fortunate because it is also the first declension the beginning Latin student encounters in a program of study. Although the forms and genders of the other four declensions may differ in gender and form, the basis for declining nouns in the first declension sets a foundation for the student to understand the functions of the remaining four declensions.
First Declension Forms
One of the first nouns a Latin student encounters is that for the word woman. Femina is the Latin word for woman or female and declines regularly in the first declension. Femina fully declined has the following inflected forms:
Notice that some of the inflections found at the end of the word are similar in some cases. For example, genitive singular, dative singular, and nominative plural all have the same form feminae. Similarly, both the singular forms of the nominative and ablative cases have the form femina. Lastly, the plurals for both the dative and ablative have the same form feminis.
It was mentioned above that since Latin is an inflected language, the endings of the words change to indicate their function in a sentence (i.e. subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.). Often, Latin inflections will be similar with only context and sometimes word order to help.
Unfortunately, in later declensions it gets worse with several more inflected words having the same forms. This illustrates the importance of memorizing the forms as soon as a declension is encountered. In this way, you avoid having to look back through notes and lessons to discover the potential function of a word in a sentence. By understanding that some forms are similar, it becomes immediately apparent to an attentive Latin student that the word feminae may be functioning, for example, as a singular direct object (dative case) or as a plural subject (nominative case).
Gender of Latin Nouns
The majority of first declension nouns are feminine in gender. However, there are exceptions. For example, some often-used words such as nauta (sailor) and poeta (poet) of the first declension are actually masculine. Generally, nouns that refer to people in the first declension will be masculine if the reference is to a Roman who had a traditionally male occupation.
Most Romans sailors and poets were masculine so it is easy for the beginning Latin student to remember that these words are masculine. In later declensions, things become more complicated because not all nouns refer to people. There is no gender-role clue as to a word’s gender in this case. This point illustrates the importance of memorizing the gender of the word the first time it is encountered. This habit will repay a hundred fold in the future when other, more-complicated declensions are learned.
Latin is an inflected language so the endings of words change to reflect their function in a sentence. But if there is one certainty in Latin, it is that nothing is certain. Even elementary Latin has so many exceptions to the rules that it is a wonder to beginning students why there is a need for rules at all. This is what makes learning Latin so difficult for the English-speaking student. It can not be stressed enough that memorization up front will prove invaluable when more advanced Latin is tackled.