The Latin Case System
In the ‘Basic English Grammar’ section of ‘Learning Latin’ we briefly mentioned ‘inflection’ and how it’s really important in Latin. As a reminder, we defined ‘inflection’ as…
‘A process of word formation, in which a word is modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and mood’.
Now that we’ve got to the point of introducing the six Latin cases, it’s time to look at ‘inflection’ in more detail by thinking about how it works in practice. the following information on Latin cases is adapted from Reading Latin: Grammar & Exercises by Peter Jones & Keith Sidwell (second edition).
This part is a little long-winded, but just bear with me on this because it’ll become clearer, I promise!
There are six so-called cases in Latin and they are known as the ‘nominative‘, ‘vocative‘, ‘accusative‘, ‘genitive‘, ‘dative‘ and the ‘ablative‘. When the six cases are laid out in this manner it’s referred to as a ‘declension‘ and to decline a noun or an adjective is to set out the word in all its cases – remember ‘inflection’ and ‘word modification’? The different forms that words take as a result of the six cases are hugely important in Latin because unlike in English, word order is not as important (other than for matters of emphasis). For example, in English if we write ‘Man bites dog’, it means something entirely different to ‘Dog bites man’, purely because of the word order. However, in a Latin sentence if we were to write ‘daughter calls the slave’, where ‘daughter’ (fīlia) is the ‘subject’ of the sentence and ‘slave’ (seruum) is the object, we would use the nominative form of the word for daughter because the nominative is used to indicate the ‘subject’ and the accusative form of the word for slave because the accusative is used to indicate the object. Therefore as long as we were to use seruum (acc.) and fīlia (nom.), we would know that the ‘daughter’ was doing something to the ‘slave’.
Still confused? Well I don’t blame you as it takes time to get the notion of inflection around your head. But persevere with it because as you get further into learning Latin, things do often fall into place. That being said, it’s vitally important that you get a working understanding of the six cases as quickly as possible. Take a look at the list below…
- Nominative Case.
The most important functions of the nominative case are – (i) As the subject of a sentence or clause and (ii) As a complement after the verb ‘to be’.
- Vocative Case.
The vocative case is used to call or address someone or something. In many cases the form of the vocative is the same as that of the nominative.
- Accusative Case.
The most important function of the accusative case is as the direct object of the verb. The accusative case denotes the person or thing at the receiving end of the action.
- Genitive Case.
The genitive case denotes the idea of ‘belonging to’ (possession), it has various meanings but the dominant one is ‘of’.
- Dative Case.
The dative case is the case of an ‘indirect object’, among its many meanings are ‘to’ and ‘for’.
- Ablative Case.
The basic meanings of the ablative case are ‘by’, ‘with’, ‘from’, ‘at’, ‘in’ or ‘on’ and some prepositions take the ablative.
Ok – Got it? There’s a lot to take in and I’d be lying if I said it was going to be plain sailing from here on in! Grammar is so important to Latin so it’s best to take the time now to get to grips with it.