§10. Latin Nouns of the First Declension

To prove that Latin is easy, we’ll start with a straightforward group of words, all of which end in the vowel –a. We have already seen persona. You know many others, since quite a few have come into English without any change in spelling. Here is a sampling:

area camera arena villa antenna
larva pupa alga nebula lacuna

If you examine this list of ten nouns, you’ll see that four or five of them are standard English words, while the rest have a rather technical flavour. What happens in English when we try to PLURALIZE these words? We would naturally say areas, cameras, arenas, and villas. We might pause over antenna, however; it would make a difference whether we were talking about automobile aerials (antennas) or about insect feelers (antennae). This phenomenon illustrates a fact that will often be apparent when we are dealing with Latin vocabulary: if the word has been thoroughly accepted as a naturalized citizen of the English language, it will be treated as a normal Germanic form (with a plural in –s, for example); but if it still has an aura[1] of learning or scholarly precision, it will be treated as an unassimilated immigrant or foreign alien. In the case of 1st declension Latin nouns, the “foreign accent” will appear in the non-Germanic plural ending –ae, as in larvae, pupae, algae, lacunae, etc. How do you pronounce that –ae, by the way? The traditional English pronunciation of larvae and pupae is “larv-ee” and “pewp-ee”; if you say “larv-eye” and “pewp-eye,” you have been influenced (whether you know it or not) by the classical pronunciation of Latin. The syllable is sometimes also pronounced “-ay,” especially in the case of the plural form vertebrae.

Regardless of English pronunciation, THE 1st DECLENSION LATIN NOUN CAN BE INDENTIFIED AS A FORM ENDING IN a (SINGULAR) andae (PLURAL). That is a simple and entirely dependable fact. The unchanging part of the word that precedes the final –a can be described as its BASE. With very few exceptions, Latin 1st declension nouns were feminine in gender. Grammatical gender plays virtually no role in English word formation, affecting only a handful of pronouns (he, him, his; she, her, hers; it, its); but it is very important in many Indo-European languages. The original feminine gender of first declension Latin nouns is regularly maintained in the gender of their French, Spanish, or Italian derivatives. That knowledge can be quite helpful: if you remember the first-declension Latin nouns arena and villa, for example, you can be confident that French arène and ville are feminine.

Latin does not have an article like English the and a(n) or French la and une. Thus the Latin noun femina can mean either “the woman” or “a woman”—la femme or une femme.

You will now meet the first in a series of formal Latin and Greek word-lists. Each of these lists will be presented as a numbered table, so as not to be confused with other illustrative lists. You are expected to study the words on these tables until you are thoroughly familiar with their original form and meaning. It shouldn’t be necessary to “memorize” the words in the way that you might have to learn foreign vocabulary; it ought to be enough to make an intelligent connection between the Latin source-word (ETYMON) and one or more English derivatives.

aqua water gratia favour, thanks
causa reason, cause lingua tongue, language
cura care, concern lit(t)era letter
fama report, rumour rota wheel
forma shape, form tabula tablet, list
fortuna luck, fortune via way, road
gloria fame, glory vita life

There are several points that you may have noticed at once about words on this list. First, it appears that the original Latin meaning can often be virtually identical to that of the obvious English derivative; this is true for the Latin words causa, forma, fortuna, and gloria. (If other English synonyms are sometimes given first, that is just to show that the Latin word may be translated in a variety of ways.) From this same list, however, we can see that the English derivative is not always a reliable guide to the original Latin meaning. The English derivative of cura is cure; but that is not at all what the Latin meant. Similarly, fama did not mean what we understand by fame (a concept far closer to Latin gloria), and tabula did not mean a three-dimensional table (the classical Latin word was mensa). If you recognize grace as the English derivative of gratia, you will see that this word, too, has changed in meaning. However, the Latin word littera had the same flexibility as its English derivative letter (< OF lettre): it could mean a letter of the alphabet or a letter written to a friend. The Latin spelling varied between one and two t’s, as we can infer from the related English adjective literal.

  1.   In Latin, aura was a 1st declension noun that meant “breeze,” “(breath of) air.”


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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