Deciphering 3rd declension nouns
By Nicholas Oulton
27 Sep

Nicholas Oulton read History at Oriel College, Oxford and has an MA in Classics from London University. He taught Latin and Greek for ten years before writing the So You Really Want to Learn Latin course and founding Galore Park in 1998. He has edited numerous textbooks and revision resources for students of Latin and Greek, most recently authoring the Latin for Common Entrance series.

Anyone who has ever learnt Latin will know that 3rd declension nouns are pigs. The happy days of masculine nouns ending in –US and feminine ones ending in –A are over, and we have to face the world with a new determination and lots of chocolate.  I mean, how else are we to cope with a chap who starts off COMES and ends up COMITES, or sets off into the world as CONIUNX and transforms merrily into CONIUGES? It’s enough to give you palpitations.
But once the dust has settled and the room has stopped spinning, there is a logic to how these beasts work. For those of you needing to cope with Level 2 Latin, let alone anything more advanced than that, it is absolutely key that you roll up your sleeves and sort out how they work. Because - surprise, surprise - 3rd declension nouns are actually the most common type.
All Latin nouns have a stem, but until now, if we are honest, that hasn’t really been of much concern to us. When we learnt how PUELLA went, we simply whacked the endings –A, -A, -AM etc. onto the PUELL- bit and off we went, happy as sandboys. The same happened with DOMINUS, where our –US, -E, -UM endings popped onto the DOMIN- without any trouble.
But when we get to REX, it all goes slightly pear-shaped. We learn some endings, but these only start to pop on after we have grabbed the stem of the noun - and where on earth does that come from? We can’t just look at REX and hope that the stem is there, lurking somewhere, because it isn’t; the stem of REX is REG-. And the stem of COMES is COMIT-. And the stem of CONIUNX is CONIUG-… Good grief.
Well I suppose it is nice to know that, by tackling these horrid creatures, we are getting to the very heart of the origin of our own language. Latin teachers have a habit, as I’m sure you remember, of telling us that Latin is useful because it helps us with our spelling and working out the meaning of words. They then expect us to believe that the English word ‘regent’ comes from ‘rex = king’, or that the word ‘particle’ comes from ‘pars = part’, or that the word ‘mortal’ has anything at all to do with the Latin ‘mors = death’. A likely tale, I hear you say.
But if we know that the stems of these Latin words are reg-, part- and mort-, then all of a sudden it begins to make a little more sense. And we get a little less hot under the collar when they tell us that ‘legal’ comes from ‘lex’ – yes, you’ve guessed it, with its stem of leg-.
And before we leave this happy subject, where do we get the stem from? We get it by learning the genitive singular of the noun, and chopping off the –IS ending. So, when your little darlings are saying, ‘The teacher told me to learn these nouns but I’m not bothering with the genitives and genders…’, you know what to tell them.
Another reason why 3rd declension nouns are pigs is that in the plural, their nominative and accusative forms are identical - not ideal when we have a tendency to muddle our subjects and objects. So, what on earth are we supposed to do when we meet a sentence with two nouns in it, both ending in –ES, both looking like the subject of our sentence?
Well, readers of these memoirs will know that there is always a way out of trouble when it comes to Latin, which is why it is such an amazing tool for training the mind. Last time we told you all about the Golden Rules of Translation, and if you follow these, all should be well. But there are times when you are going to have to fall back on that old chestnut, COMMON SENSE.
So, for example, in a sentence such as:
Reges milites ducunt
It is perfectly possible that it means ‘the soldiers are leading the kings’… But granted that it could also mean ‘the kings are leading the soldiers’, a little common sense kicks in and we go for that second option. Although having said that, why more than one king would be doing anything is a bit of a mystery.
3rd declension nouns are there to be loved – a little like toads – and once you have them under your belt, the world is your oyster.
Good luck!

Want to find out more? Check out Nick's Latin for Common Entrance series here.

Tags: Common Entrance, Latin

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