Lesson β': Cases and the ο-Declension

Words that name, describe or point out things are called nouns. If a noun names something, it is called a noun substantive, or simply noun for short. If it describes something, it is called a noun adjective or simply adjective. If it points out something, it is called a pronoun. Nouns can play different roles in a sentence, and the roles can be distinguished by word order (as in English and Chinese), by assembling the word from particles (as in Hungarian or Algonquin), or by modifying part of the word in a regular manner (as in Greek or Welsh). These types are called isolating, agglutinating and inflected languages, respectively. Historically, languages developed in this order, and English has mostly returned to the first stage, though it is based on inflected languages. The modification of a noun in an inflected language is called declension.

A noun in Greek consists of a stem, which is largely unchanged by declension, and an ending, which shows its use in the sentence. How a noun changes in declension depends on the final letter of its stem. The three most common declensions are for nouns whose stem ends in ο, α, or a consonant. A noun has the property of gender that helps to show how words are associated with each other in a sentence. The use of gender to indicate sex is a subsidiary function, but, of course, was the origin of the distinction. There are three genders in Greek, masculine, neuter and feminine. The gender may affect the declension, but the declension does not affect the gender, and there is no rigid connection between declension and gender.

We will begin with the o-declension, most of whose nouns are either masculine or neuter. The endings are shown in the Figure, for the words for circle and triangle. Each entry is called a case, and consists of the definite article ("the") and the noun. The stem is shown in black, the endings in red. Note that the stem of the definite article is το-. There are four cases, whose usage will be explained below, and two numbers, singular and plural. This will be the standard arrangement of a declension in these lessons. It is called a paradigm. To decline other nouns of the same kind, you simply add the same endings, the ones in red, and change only the stem.

The nominative article for masculine nouns has no τ, which is replaced by a rough breathing, to give "ho" or "hoi". These words have no accent, and are pronounced as part of the following word. In dative singular and genitive plural, the ο of the stem has been absorbed by contraction. The dative ending has a subscript iota, which originated in the following way: the archaic form was κυκλοει. The οε contracts to ω. Then we have ωι, but the ι is not pronounced in this false diphthong, where it follows a long vowel. In capital letters, it remains, but in the small letters, it became usual to write it below the preceding long vowel to show that it was there, but was silent. The genitive plural was originally οσον (compare -orum in Latin). Between two vowels, σ disappears, and then οο contracts to ω. A circumflex accent is usually evidence that contraction has occurred in the accented syllable.

The paradigm of the neuter noun is almost the same, except that the nominative has the same form as the accusative, and the nominative and accusative plural end in -α. These things are true of all neuter nouns, of whatever declension.

When a noun is given in a vocabulary, the nominative singular, the genitive singular ending (to show the declension), and the definite article (to show gender) are listed. The accent on a noun remains on the same syllable if it can. Note in the Figure the places where an accent has moved to the penult (the syllable before the last) because the ultima (the last syllable) has become long. If the accent is on the ultima, it looks like the accent on the definite article, which means that there is a circumflex in genitive and dative of both numbers.

The uses of the four cases will be pointed out carefully in the early lessons with reference to actual text. Let us give a brief description here, so you will be prepared for that. A sentence consists of two parts, a subject, and a predicate, which is what is said about the subject. The nominative case is used to state the subject of a sentence. The other three cases are used to relate other things to what is happening. You may be sure that when a word appears in one of the three oblique cases, it is certainly not the subject of the sentence.

The genitive case relates the noun to another. A common relation is that of possession or association, such as "the center of the circle". In English, the word "of" must be used to signal the relation, but this is unnecessary in Greek, since the cases make the meaning clear. This is by no means the only or even the most common use of the genitive, but it is an important one. The genitive is also used in comparisons, with the meaning "than', and when motion is away from the noun specifying a location. It can also imply a general condition on the action of the sentence. Just remember that it has numerous uses, not just one, and the uses are not obviously related.

The dative case relates a noun to the action of the sentence. In the sentence "the farmer gives water to the vines", the vines are the recipient of the action and would be put in the dative. This is called an indirect object, and is one use of the dative. Other uses are far more common, however. In "line AB is equal to line CD", line CD would be in the dative. Often the English preposition "to" implies the dative, but not always. The dative also expresses the place where, or the manner in which (such as "in silence", where silence would be dative), or the instrument or agent whereby something is done, and often straightforward possession, where the possessor is in the dative. There are many uses of the dative, and you should notice them when they occur.

The accusative case is a very important one. A main use is to express the recipient of the action in the predicate, or direct object. In the example in the preceding paragraph, water is the direct object, and vines is the indirect object. They can be told apart by their different cases. The accusative case also is used to modify the action of the verb, especially when it cannot be confused with a direct object. It gives extent in space or time: "for ten days" is expressed by putting the days in the accusative. It also expresses place to which when movement is involved. Note that the dative is not used for this, in spite of its association with the English preposition "to" in many of its uses.

Some examples of the use of the genitive and dative are shown in the Figure. In the first example, note the location of the genitive between the definite article and the noun. Genitives usually precede the noun they are associated with, and even whole phrases may appear here. The article is repeated before the designation A. Two nouns repeated like this is called apposition, and helps to make the meaning clear. The definite article now stands for everything specified in the first phrase. The definite article will be seen to be very useful, and will allow you to determine the case of the following noun even if you are not familiar with its declension.

The second example is the first of the Axioms, or Common Notions. The first line gives the Greek, the second a literal translation, and the third expresses the meaning in proper English. All examples will follow this model. You should be able to identify all the endings on the nouns, and determine the cases. The neuter plural nominative article is used without a noun to mean "those things", a very common usage. The adjective ισα also has the neuter plural ending, showing that it goes with Τα.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 9 September 2000
Last revised 14 June 2002