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The morphology of classical Latin

3. Nominal morphology

Latin is a language with a rather complex morphology, more complex than French. It is actually an inflected language. Inflection is an addition made to the form of a nominal lexeme. The inflectional addition takes place always after the nominal lexeme, and therefore is a final ending. Only the combination of the signifier of a lexeme with a final morphological segment is an autonomous syntagmatic form, and represents a word-form, that is separated by spaces in today’s writing, and appears in dictionaries. It is possible that terminations of inflection had originally independent meanings, but in historic Latin they are nothing else other than morphological segments.

So, the lexeme “earth” terr- appears always with one of following morphological endings: -am, -a, -ae, -ā, -ārum, -ās or -īs, that grammarians range according to their linguistic context and their syntactic function in series of six casual endings, called nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, ablative and accusative, that correspond respectively to segment -a, -a, -ae, -ae, -ā, et -am. Traditionally, grammars speak of a second series of six casual endings which is in fact a series of morphological combinations of a case and the morpheme of plural. These combinations of plural with nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, ablative and accusative are for the lexeme “earth”, respectively -ae, -ae, -ārum, -īs, -īs, and -ās. All these morphological segments and combinations constitute a declension, called the first declension, which determines thus a family of words. Therefore nominal lexemes have all the morphological features of belonging to one and only one declension.

The adjective has the morphological particularity of having three declensions which grammarians distinguish by the gender. There is the masculine, feminine and neuter declension of the adjective.

Another morphological feature of nominal lexemes is their gender. There are three genders in Latin: masculine, feminine and neuter, which often, but not necessarily so, correspond to the sex of the objects denoted by the nominal lexeme, like puer (m.) “boy”, puella (f.) “girl”, rex (m.) “king”, regina (f.) “queen”. In fact, it is the form of the adjective joined with the noun that shows the gender of this noun: only the feminine form of the adjective bona can be joined with the noun puella, *bonus puella being impossible. So, lapis magnus “a great stone” shows that the noun lapis is masculine, whereas manus mea “my hand” shows that the noun manus is feminine.

Grammars teach some general rules about gender:

Names of Male beings, and of Rivers, Winds, Months, and Mountains, are masculine: pater “father”, Iūlius “Julius”, Tiberis “the Tiber”, auster “south wind”, Iānuārius “January”, Apennīnus “the Apennines”1), with the exception of Alpēs (f.) “the Alps”.

Names of Female beings, of Cities, Countries, Plants, Trees, and Gems, of many Animals (especially Birds), and of most abstract Qualities, are feminine: māter “mother”, Iūlia “Julia”, Rōma “Rome”, Ītalia “Italy”, rosa “rose”, pīnus “pine”, sapphīrus “sapphire”, anas “duk”, uēritās “truth”.

Many nouns may be either masculine or feminine, according to the sex of object. These are said to be of Common Gender: exsul “exile”, bōs “ox” or “cow”; parēns “parent”.

Several nouns of animals have a grammatical gender independent of sex. These are called epicene. Thus lepus “hare” is always masculine, and uulpes “fox” is always feminine2).

The Latin declension with its two series of six cases is more complicated than the German declension, which has only twice four cases, namely nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. But it contains another form of complication, since the two series of six casual forms know five systems of alternations, which constitute the five Latin declensions. In order to identify the declension of a noun, it is necessary to give the nominative of this noun and at least its morphological segment of genitive, like terr-a, -ae or puell-a, -ae, but we’ll see that for the nouns of the third declension, it is preferable to give also the segment of plural genitive. There are thus five families of nouns.

There are a few general rules of Latin declension. The Vocative is always the same as the Nominative, except for nouns and adjectives in -us of the second declension, which have the vocative in -e. The Nominative and Accusative are always alike in neuters. The Dative and Ablative plural are always alike. From the point of view of the quantity, final -i, -o, -u of inflection are always long; final -a is short, except in Ablative of the first declension; final -e is short in the second and third declension, but long in the fifth; final -is, -es, -os, -us are long in plural cases.

  • 3.1. First declension

The nouns of first declension, the traditional pattern of which is ros-a, -ae “the rose”, have the following forms:

singular(+0) PLURAL

These nouns are feminine, with exception of nouns that design a masculine activity, like naut-a, -ae “sailor” or agricol-a, -ae “farmer”, or a few family or personal names, like Murena or Scaeuola.

Some allomorphs of casual forms.

The genitive keeps its ancient form in -āī (dissyllabic), particularly in poetry, (Verg., Aen. 3,354: aulāī mediō “in the inner court”; Verg., Aen. 9, 21: diues pictāī uestis “rich in embroidered clothes”). The juridical syntheme pater familias (or mater familias, filius familias) preserves an old genitive in -ās.

The genitive plural in -um instead of -ārum is sometimes used in Greek patronymics like Aeneadum “sons of Æneas” (Lucr. 1,1), and in compounds with -cola and -gena signifying “dwelling” and “descent”, like caelicolum “celestials” (Verg., Aen. 3,21), Troiugenum “sons of Troy” (Cat., 64,355).

The nouns dea “gotting” and filia “daughter” have a plural ablative and dative in -abus, in order to be distinguished from the corresponding cases of second declension nouns deus “god” and filius “son”, deis and filiis.

Generally, first declension nouns borrowed from Greek are entirely Latinized. But some of them keep traces of their Greek origin and have case-forms of Greek only in the singular. Thus the proper name of Electra shows also in the nominative Electrā and in the accusative Electrān, like Greek Elektra and Elektran; and so, musica “art of music” has besides the normal Latin declension a Greek declension with a nominative musicē, a genitive musicēs, an accusative musicēn, and an ablative musicē. When these nouns are in plural, they have regular Latin case-forms, like cometae, -ārum “comets”.

  • 3.2. Second declension

The example of the second declension is double: there are on the one hand masculine nouns in -us, on the other hand neuter nouns in -um. It is the same declension, nominatives excepted. Nouns of the second declension are declined as follows:

singular (+ 0) + PLURAL

Neuter nouns show a first metamorphosis of this declension. They have a Nominative in -um as the Accusative, since in neuters the Nominative and Accusative are always alike. So, except for the Plural Nominative, and therefore the Plural Accusative, which are in -a, the other casus-forms are the same as for the masculine nouns:

singular (+ 0) + PLURAL
NOMINATIVEtempl-um templ-a
singular (+ 0) + PLURAL

Only some masculine exceptions have always the Nominative form -us, like: erus (herus) “master”, numerus “number”, umerus “shoulder”, uterus “belly, abdomen”, taurus “bull”, hesperus “evening star”.

There is no morphological difference in the declension of ager, gr-i and puer, -i. In both cases, the casus-form of Nominative is the waited Ø: /agr-Ø/ as well as /puer-Ø/. But the phoneme /r/, in the sequences /gr/, shows an allophone [er], when the sequence is in the end of word, and /agr-Ø/ becomes phonetically [ager]. This phonological rule concerns every consonant, so magister, tr-i “master”, minister, tr-i “servant”, arbiter, tr-i “judge”, faber, br-i “smith”, fiber, br-i “beaver”, liber, br-i “book”, caper, pr-i “goat”, cancer, cr-i “crab”. The lexical morphemes ending with r, in which e belongs to the stem, are not many: uesper, -i “evening”, Liber, -i “Bacchus”, socer, -i “father-in-law”, gener, -i “son-in-law”, adulter, -i “adulterer”. There are also the adjective liber, -a, -um “free”, of which liberi, -orum “children” is the Plural, and the compounds in -fer and -ger: like lucifer adj. “light-bringing”, noun (m.) “morning star”, armiger adj. “bearing arms”, noun (m.) “squire”.

Is it a third metamorphosis? According to Latin grammars,

  • Allen & Ghreenough, p. 22 : proper names in -āius, -ēius, -ōius (like, Auruncuēius, Bōī), are declined like Pompēius ‘Pompey’ :
singular (+ 0) + PLURAL
VOCATIVEPompē- īPompē-ī
ACCUSATIVEPompēi-um Pompēi-ōs

Does it mean that the proper name Pompēius has two allomorphs /pompe:i/ and /pompe:/? When we carefully examine the question, we note that the lexeme has the form Pompei- except before the casus-form in of Genitive, Vocative and Nominative Plural, which could be a problem not of morphology, but phonology. Actually, if we suppose that the signifier is always the same: /pompei/, we know that according to the phonological rule /i/ → [jj] / V [- closed] — V

/pompei-us/ becomes [pompejjus] and is written Pompēius. And if we admit that before an /i:/ long, the phoneme /i/ is absorbed, then in accordance with the phonological rules

           /i/   →  [j] /   —  /i:/
           [j]    →   Ø /   — /i:/

/pompei-i:/ phonetically will become [pompei:]. Thus morphologically, the declension of Pompēius is not a metamorphosis of the declension in -ius; but it is exactly the same declension. And the apparent differences are phonological.

Some problems peculiar to some case-morphemes:

The Vocative form being always the same as the Nominative except in the nouns of the second declension in -us, which have a Vocative in -e, it is not surprising that the Vocative of nouns such as ager and puer is also without -us and therefore in Ø puer as the Nominative in the academic language

  • Cicéron,, de orat. 2,247: puer, abige muscas
    “boy, brush away flies”,
1) , 2) Allen & Greenough, 1888, p. 15