If you’re learning a language with cases, you probably hear the term “declension” thrown around a lot. But what is a declension?
This isn’t a word we use much outside of language learning, after all. If you are feeling a bit lost, don’t worry – you have come to the right place.
In this post, I’ll clear up the terminological confusion and help you continue learning with confidence. Let’s dive right in!
An Overview of Declension
What is declension?
Declension refers to the changes that a noun (or pronoun or adjective) undergoes to indicate its role in a sentence. In many languages, declension involves changing the endings on the noun.
These changeable endings are called case endings. So, when we decline a noun, this means that we add the appropriate case ending to it.
Modern English does not have a very developed declension system, but we do still use some case endings. Personal pronouns are a great example.
Consider the following forms.
he = nominative / subjective case
his = genitive / possessive case
him = objective case
You say “he climbs the tree”, but “the tree protects him.” English speakers instinctively know that “the tree protects he” is wrong.
Why? It’s not the right case. The pronoun needs to be declined in a different way to reflect its role in the sentence.
In many languages, the case system is highly complex. But the principle of declension is the same as that of “he”, “his”, and “him.”
Case and Number
What, you may ask, is the point of declension? Ultimately, it is to give us information about a noun so we know how it fits into a sentence.
There are two main properties that declension clarifies: case and number. Every noun has both case and number.
A noun’s case tells you what it is doing in a sentence. Up above, we saw an example of case with the he vs. him variation. He is in the subjective case, so the use of he tells us that the pronoun is the subject. Him is in the objective case, so the use of this form shows that the pronoun is the object.
A noun’s number indicates how many of the person, place, or thing you are dealing with. So, for instance, in English, cow changes to cows to indicate the plural. The case ending s is added to the end of the word to show that we are dealing with more than one cow.
Etymology of Declension
The etymology of the word “declension” can also help us understand its meaning. The ultimate source is the Latin noun declīnātiō.
Declīnātiō literally means “a bending aside” or “a turning away from”. It is a noun formed from the verb declīnō, “to bend or turn aside”.
Originally the word had a physical sense. You can “turn aside” from the road you are on, for instance. Or you can “bend your body aside” to avoid a spear.
But the Romans soon applied the concept to language, too. Why? Because when we decline nouns, we change their forms. We “bend them aside” from the original word.
Him is a variation of he, and cows is a variation of cow. As we add or change endings, we turn the word away from its original form.
What is a declension?
So far I have explained the general meaning of declension: a blanket term for variation in noun endings. But what is a declension? What does it mean to write out the declension of a noun or to find a noun’s declension?
Here’s the thing. There are actually two more specific definitions of declension. And this is where most of the confusion arises for students.
(1) A declension is a list of all the forms of a particular noun (this is also called a noun paradigm).
(2) A declension is a category or group of nouns.
We will look at these two related, but distinct, meanings one by one. At first it might seem a little tricky, but once you grasp the principle, you will be good to go. And your language learning journey will be so much smoother!
Definition 1: A declension is a list of all possible forms
When we decline a specific noun, that means that we give a list of its forms in all the different cases. We can call this list of forms a declension or a paradigm.
What is the point of this? Well, such lists are useful since they present all of the case forms in a regular, comprehensible way.
When you learn a language with cases, you need to know the different forms so you can communicate effectively. Declensions make this process of memorization a lot easier.
Declension charts look a little different based on the language you are learning. After all, different languages have different cases and different numbers of cases.
Now let’s look a few examples of paradigms in different languages. Even if you are focusing on a language not listed here, you can still get the idea.
Examples of Declensions
When you are writing a noun’s declension, it is standard to set up a chart with the cases as rows and the numbers as columns. Then you fill in the forms for your given noun.
We will start with a sample Latin declension, since this is a language that often introduces students to cases. Latin has 5 main cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative. So any Latin declension includes singular AND plural forms for these five cases (10 forms total).
(If you are learning Latin, then you should also read my beginner’s guide to Latin cases.)
German is another commonly learned language with cases. There are four: nominative, genitive, accusative, and dative.
|Nominative||der Mann||die Männer|
|Accusative||den Mann||die Männer|
|Dative||dem Mann||den Männern|
|Genitive||des Mannes||der Männer|
Note that German has some of the same cases as Latin, but they are listed in a different order. Different language textbooks may arrange the cases in different ways, but the principle is the same.
Not as many people learn Polish (at least here in the United States). But I am including a Polish paradigm because a) Polish is my favorite language and b) it has a lot of cases. There are seven, to be exact.
These three examples demonstrate what a noun declension (or paradigm) looks like. Now that we have cleared up this first definition of “declension”, let’s move on to the second.
Definition 2: A declension is a category of nouns
This second definition may not be as relevant for you, depending on what language you are learning. I will use the example of Latin to explain what I mean.
In Latin, there are five noun declensions. In this context, a declension is a group or a category of nouns that share the same case endings. Each declension has its own set of endings.
This means that if you have a first declension noun, you need to add first declension case endings. If you have a fourth declension noun, you need to add fourth declension case endings. And so forth.
It is extremely helpful for memorization to group nouns into categories. This way, instead of memorizing case endings for every single noun, you can simply memorize endings for one example noun per declension. Then, whenever you need to decline a noun, you can apply the standard endings of whatever declension it belongs to.
Not all languages with cases divide their nouns up into declensions in this way, but all these languages will have some sort of noun categories. In Polish, for instance, there are three broad divisions into masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, and then there are further subcategories in each gender. Nouns in the same subcategories are declined in the same way (that is, they have the same case endings).
Don’t worry, no matter what language you are learning, you don’t need to memorize the case endings of each noun separately. That would be a nightmare. Instead, you memorize model nouns and then apply the paradigm to other nouns.
Final Thoughts on Declensions
I hope that you now understand declensions a bit better. To summarize: declension, broadly speaking, refers to any variation that a noun undergoes to clarify its meaning and role in a sentence.
But remember that we also have two specific definitions of a declension:
- a list of all the case forms of a noun (also called a paradigm)
- a group or category of nouns
This post focuses on noun declension. But pronouns and adjectives are also declined in many languages. Pronoun and adjective declensions work in the same way that noun declensions do, and in fact often have very similar case endings.
Verbs, on the other hand, are not declined. Instead they are conjugated. If you are curious, then you can read all about what a conjugation is in this post.
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