Declension: Wikis

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In linguistics, declension is the occurrence of inflection in nouns, pronouns and adjectives, indicating such features as number (typically singular vs. plural), case (subject, object, and so on), gender, and possession. Declension occurs in a great many of the world's languages, and features very prominently in many European languages, but is much less prominent in English. English nouns decline only to distinguish singular from plural (e.g., book vs. books); only very few English adjectives decline (the French loan-word blond(e) being a rare exception), and only a few English pronouns show vestiges of case-triggered declension (e.g., nominative case he, dative case or accusative case him, genitive case (possessive case) his). As detailed below, English was once a highly inflected language, as befitting its Indo-European and especially its Germanic linguistic ancestry, but it became greatly simplified as it evolved.

English

In Modern English, nouns have distinct singular and plural forms; that is, they decline to reflect their grammatical number. (Consider the difference between book and books.) In addition, a small number of English pronouns have distinct nominative and objective forms; that is, they decline to reflect their relationship to a verb or preposition. (Consider the difference between he (nominative) and him (dative or accusative), as in "He saw it" and "It saw him.") Further, these pronouns and a few others have distinct possessive forms, such as his. (By contrast, nouns do not have distinct possessive forms; rather, the clitic -'s attaches to a noun phrase to indicate that it serves as a possessor.)

English once had a much richer system of declension. First, there were a few more grammatical cases; Modern English's objective case results from a merging of Old English's accusative, dative, and instrumental cases (like a message, him, and post in "I sent a message to him via post," respectively). Second, the distinction between these cases was visible in all nouns, not just certain pronouns (indeed, the modern clitic -'s descends from an affix used to mark Old English's genitive case, the ancestor of Modern English's possessive pronoun forms). Third, adjectives were declined to reflect the number and case of the nouns they modified; this is called agreement, and is analogous to conjugation of verbs in Modern English (consider the difference between "I read" and "He reads"; here, read has changed form to agree with its subject). Fourth, every noun had a gender, either masculine, feminine, or neuter, which was reflected (via agreement) in adjectives that modified it and pronouns that had it as antecedent (there were some further complications as well; for example, adjectives had both weak declensions and strong declensions. For more information, see Old English morphology).

Latin

An example of a Latin noun declension is given below, using the singular forms of the word homo (man), which belongs to Latin's third declension.

  • homo (nominative) "[the] man" [as a subject] (e.g., homo ibi stat the man is standing there)
  • hominis (genitive) "of [the] man" [as a possessor](e.g., nomen hominis est Claudius the man's name is Claudius)
  • hominī (dative) "to [the] man" [as an indirect object] (e.g., homini donum dedi I gave a present to the man; homo homini lupus est Man is a wolf to man.)
  • hominem (accusative) "[the] man" [as a direct object] (e.g., ad hominem toward the man, in the sense of argument directed personally; hominem vidi I saw the man)
  • homine (ablative) "[the] man" [in various uses not covered by the above] (e.g., sum altior homine I am taller than the man).

There are two further noun cases in Latin, the vocative and the locative. The vocative is used widely, indicating that a person or thing is being addressed (e.g., O Tite, cur ancillam pugnas? O Titus, why do you fight the slave girl?). The locative case is rare in Latin.

Sanskrit

Declension has been analyzed extensively in Sanskrit, where it is known as karaka. Seven varieties are defined by Pāṇini, largely in terms of their semantic roles, but with detailed rules specifying the corresponding morphosyntactic derivations:

  • agent (kartṛ, often in subject position, performing independently)
  • patient (karman, often in objective position)
  • means (karaṇa, instrumental)
  • recipient (sampradāna, similar to dative)
  • source (apādāna, similar, but not the same, as ablative)
  • possessor (yaḥ dharati, genitive)
  • locus (adhikaraṇa, locative or goal)

For example, consider the following sentence:

vṛkṣ[āt] parṇ[aṁ] bhūm[au] patati
[from] the tree a leaf [on] the ground falls
"a leaf falls from the tree on (onto) the ground"

Here leaf is the agent, tree is the source, and ground is the locus, the corresponding declensions are reflected in the morphemes -aṁ -āt and -au, respectively.

In addition, another declension exists, known as the vocative. It is used to indicate the object being addressed. For example: he rām[a], "O Rama".

Languages with rich nominal inflection typically have a number of identifiable declension classes, or groups of nouns that share a similar pattern of declension. Whereas Sanskrit has six classes, Latin is traditionally said to have 5 declension classes (see article on Latin declension). Such languages often exhibit free word order, since thematic roles are not dependent on position.

Though English pronouns can have subject and object forms (he/him, she/her), nouns show only a singular/plural and a possessive/non-possessive distinction (e.g., chair, chairs, chair's, chairs'). Note that chair does not change form between "the chair is here" (subject) and "I saw the chair" (direct object). The n-declension is restricted to a few words like ox-oxen, brother-brethren, and child-children, though in Medieval English the s-declension and the n-declension were in stronger competition.

See also

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Declension in specific languages

Latin and Greek

Related topics

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