The Anatomy of a Latin Noun
The two most essential parts of speech are verbs and nouns. In Chapter 3 you were presented with a map of the entire verb system: the picture on the puzzle box. Latin nouns also have a system that is unlike English and requires an overview. As you did with verbs, take your time reading about the noun system, and don't be upset if it doesn't all make sense at first. Latin wasn't built in a day! As with the overview of the verb system, return to this chapter and review it when you learn new concepts involving nouns. With every review the picture will become increasingly clear.
Noun endings are crucial in Latin. They are the only way you know how a noun functions in a sentence. They must be learned by heart. The best plan is to make yourself a chart, adding to it as you learn new sets of endings. Keep this chart out when you do your exercises and refer to it as necessary.
Nouns in Latin have a set of special characteristics just as verbs do. The list for nouns, however, is much shorter. There are three main characteristics by which nouns can be described. They are gender, number, and case.
Words in English have gender. When we speak English, we don't even think about words as having any gender at all. It is easy to think of the word “woman” as being feminine, the word “man” as masculine, and the word “book” as neuter (neuter is the Latin word for “neither”). The fact that these words really do have gender is revealed when we use pronouns to stand in for nouns.
We saw Denise at the auto parts store.
She was telling the guy what she wanted.
He said he could find the part in the back.
We don't even think twice about “Denise” being a “she,” “the guy” being a “he,” and “the part” being an “it.” In saying those things, though, we're showing we know gender and use it in language.
In English things are pretty cut-and-dried. Words that refer to things that have male physical characteristics are masculine (e.g., Bob, guy, gentleman). If the physical characteristics are female (e.g., Emily, gal, lady), then the word is feminine. If neither applies, we consider it neuter and say it. (The only exception is for the word “ship.” We still refer to a ship as a “she.”)
Latin also has nouns that could refer to a male or a female, just as English. For example, take the words “citizen” (civis) or “dog” (canis). These words are said to have common gender. It should also be pointed out that in a mixed group — males and females — masculine is always the correct grammatical gender. A zillion women are feminine, but let one guy in and the group's gender switches to masculine.
English draws its lines for gender of nouns on purely natural criteria. In grammar, that rule for gender distinction is called natural gender. Latin also recognizes the same three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and also assigns gender to nouns based on physical characteristics. In addition, Latin uses what is called grammatical gender. Grammatical gender works much like the English word “ship.” There is no anatomical reason for a ship to be a “she.” That's just what we say. Likewise, in Latin a table (mē nsa) is a “she,” and so is a tree (arbor). Even things like trust (fidēs) and dirt (humus) are feminine. There are also objects in Latin that are grammatically masculine, like a cart (carrus). To the Roman mind, some nouns didn't fit either category. They were declared neuter: tempus (“time”) for instance.
As with verbs, there are two numbers: singular and plural.
The concept of grammatical case is difficult to explain. To say that case refers to a system of endings for nouns that reveal a noun's function in a sentence is not especially satisfying. When English was a highly inflected language (i.e., one that relied on endings rather than word order), cases were abundant. In modern English, we are left with only one case for nouns and three for pronouns. That one surviving noun case in English is the genitive case. It refers to the ending “'s” (or “s'” in the plural) to show one noun's possession of another, as in “Donna's garden.”