A Primer on Latin's Second Declension
Because Latin is an inflected language, the endings of words change according to their use in a sentence. Latin’s five declensions each have their own idiosyncrasies, giving beginning students of Latin trouble in translating and writing the language. The importance of memorizing the various forms of the declensions can not be stressed enough to aid the students later in his/her studies when the declensions become more complicated.
Latin’s first declension is normally associated with the feminine gender and is the easiest of the declensions to learn. The second declension is more difficult because its nouns can be either masculine or neuter in gender. Consequently, there are separate forms or inflections for these genders. Often, the only way to know a word’s gender is to have memorized it previously.
Second Declension Forms – Masculine
Most second declension masculine nouns have a –us or –er ending in the nominative singular. This makes them easy to identify in contrast to the typical –a ending of the first declension. However, the second declension has its own characteristic inflections. Although the rules for forming the inflections is similar to the first (i.e. base + ending), the endings themselves are different. A typical masculine, second-declension noun has the following forms:
Notice that unlike the first declension, the genitive and dative singular forms are different. This makes their identification easier in a sentence. Also notice that the plural dative and accusative have the same –is form as the first declension. The genitive plural is similar in form to the first declension (–orum versus –arum) and the accusative singular also has a similar form (–um versus –am).
Unfortunately for the beginning Latin student, the genitive singular and the nominative plural have the same form. Only the context, and occasionally word order, will determine what its use is in a sentence. This is also true for the dative and ablative singular forms.
Some second declension nouns end in –er but their forms follow the same rules as those ending in –us. For example:
nom. Puer (Amicus)
gen. Pueri (Amici)
dat. Puero (Amico)
acc. Puerum (Amicum)
abl. Puero (Amico)
nom. Pueri (Amici)
gen. Puerorum (Amicorum)
dat. Pueris (Amicis)
acc. Pueros (Amicos)
abl. Pueris (Amicis)
However, some masculine nouns ending in –er retain the –e (as in puer) while others drop the –e (as in ager, agri). Also, the often-used word vir, viri has the uncommon –ir ending which must be memorized to properly decline this word.
Second Declension Forms – Neuter
The first declension is mostly made up of feminine nouns with a few masculine exceptions. However, no nouns in the first declension are neuter. The beginning Latin student’s first neuter nouns are found in the second declension. Neuter nouns of the second declension typically have a –um rather than a –us ending, helping the student to identify the noun’s gender. A typical neuter, second-declension noun has the following forms in comparison to a masculine noun:
nom. Donum (Amicus)
gen. Doni (Amici)
dat. Dono (Amico)
acc. Donum (Amicum)
abl. Dono (Amico)
nom. Dona (Amici)
gen. Donorum (Amicorum)
dat. Donis (Amicis)
acc. Dona (Amicos)
abl. Donis (Amicis)
Notice that for the inflections, the forms of neuter and masculine nouns are similar except for the characteristic –um ending of the neuter in the nominative singular. Also notice that for the plural endings, neuter and masculine forms are similar except in the nominative and accusative plural where the characteristic –a of the neuter is found. Unfortunately, many beginning Latin students see the –a in the plural and assume that the word is a first declension noun rather than a neuter, second-declension noun. The best way to combat this is to memorize a word’s declension and gender when first encountered. This is crucial when the complexities of the remaining declensions are learned.
Unlike the first declension, second declension nouns are often one of two genders, masculine or neuter. Although masculine and neuter nouns have similar forms, there are enough differences to warrant memorization of the gender of all nouns to aid in the complexities of the remaining declensions. Typically, the first declension is associated with feminine nouns and the second declension is associated with masculine and neuter nouns. However, as with all things in Latin, the exceptions to the rules complicate matters so much that reliance on them will only hurt the student later in a program of study. Memorization is the only weapon against these exceptions.