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In linguistics, declension is the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number (at least singular and plural), case (nominative or subjective, genitive or possessive, etc.), and gender. A declension is also a group of nouns that follow a particular pattern of inflection.

Declension occurs in many of the world's languages, and features very prominently in many European languages. Old English was a highly inflected language, as befits its Indo-European and especially its Germanic linguistic ancestry, but its declensions greatly simplified as it evolved into Modern English.

Modern English

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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 few English pronouns have distinct nominative (also called subjective) and oblique (or objective) forms; that is, they decline to reflect their relationship to a verb or preposition, or case. Consider the difference between he (subjective) and him (objective), as in "He saw it" and "It saw him"; similarly, consider who, which is subjective, and the objective whom. Further, these pronouns and a few others have distinct possessive forms, such as his and whose. By contrast, nouns have no distinct nominative and objective forms, the two being merged into a single plain case. For example, chair does not change form between "the chair is here" (subject) and "I saw the chair" (direct object). Possession is shown by the clitic -'s attached to a possessive noun phrase, rather than by declension of the noun itself.

Gender is at best only weakly grammaticalized in Modern English. While masculine, feminine, and neuter genders are recognized, nouns do not normally decline for gender, though some nouns, especially Latin words and personal names, exist in multiple forms corresponding to different genders: alumnus (masculine singular) and alumna (feminine singular); Andrew and Andrea, Paul and Paula, etc. Suffixes such as -ess, -ette, and -er can also derive overtly gendered versions of nouns, with marking for feminine being much more common than marking for masculine. Many nouns can actually function as members of two genders or even all three, and the gender classes of English nouns are usually determined by their agreement with pronouns, rather than marking on the nouns themselves.

Adjectives are rarely declined for any purpose. They can be declined for number when they are used as substitutes for nouns (as in, "I'll take the reds", meaning "I'll take the red ones" or as shorthand for "I'll take the red wines", for example). Also the demonstrative determiners this and that are declined for number, as these and those. Some adjectives borrowed from other languages are, or can be, declined for gender, at least in writing: blond (male) and blonde (female) or a bonie lad as compared to a bonnie lass. Adjectives are not declined for case in Modern English, though they were in Old English. The article is never regarded as declined in Modern English, although formally, the words that and possibly she correspond to forms of the predecessor of the (se m., þæt n., sēo f.) as it was declined in Old English.

Basic declension theory

Core examples

The following story illustrates how languages with declension work. Imagine that at some time in the far future English speakers start to add a prefix by- before the subjects of sentences, and add a prefix em- before the objects. Sentences would appear as follows:

  • By-John read an em-article.
  • By-my friend saw em-fireworks.
  • By-article talked about em-language.
  • By-a businessman used his em-mobile.
  • By-the mobile automatically called the em-last-number.

That sounds horrible because we are not used to it, but a lot of real languages do add things at the start (or at the end) of subjects and of objects, such as Japanese, Russian and Basque. All those languages have a freer word order than English does. Why? Because English depends on word order to identify the subject and object:

  • John reads a book.
  • A book reads John.

However, in a language that uses em- and by- to identify subject and object, there is no longer any need of placing the subject always before the verb, because the subject will always be whatever has the 'by' attached to it, regardless of word-order, so the sentence remains meaning the same however we shuffle the parts:

  • By-John saw the em-high-speed-train.
  • The em-high-speed-train saw by-John.
  • The em-high speed train by-John saw.
  • Saw em-the high speed train by-John.

In such a language, the word order is not important to understand who did that to whom; however, the em- and by- must be added to all objects and subjects. Technically speaking, "declension is not optional and nouns must be marked". The following are hypothetical cases and suffixes that would be used in this declined English.

Other possible cases

Now assume that: going to/in direction of takes the prefix mo-, doing something with an object or person takes wot-, and addressing someone by their name takes the prefix hey-.

The following sentences in this theoretical English will demonstrate how this would seem to us if there were declensions.

  • By-John went mo-home wot-his friend.
  • By-my father wrote em-a book wot-his computer.
  • Hey-Sarah, would by-you please bring mo-me a em-whisky wot-ice.

Note that these sentences could be written in any order and the meaning would stay the same:

  • By-Mark goes mo-work wot-car.
  • Wot-car by-Mark goes mo-work.
  • Mo-work by-Mark goes wot-car.

This word order is not possible in modern English as there are no cases or declension as in some other languages. This means that in English, word order is essential to constructing coherent sentences.

This theoretical system of declension is relatively simple and is more or less how declension works in languages such as Hungarian, Russian, Bengali, Greek, Basque, Japanese or Sanskrit. Some of these have a far more complicated set of declensions where the prefixes (or suffixes or infixes) change depending on the gender of the noun, the quantity of the noun and many other possible factors. Many of them lack articles. There may also be irregular nouns where the declensions are unique for each word. In many languages, articles, demonstratives and adjectives are also declined. The following example demonstrates such declension in our theoretical English.

Cases applied to adjectives and particles

In the examples above we have made sentences like:

  • By-the big man saw em-a big bear.

putting the "by-" and the "em-" before the full phrases "the big man" and "a big bear". But many declined languages do not use words like "a" or "the" at all, such as Japanese and Basque. In such a language we would say something like:

  • By-big man saw em-big bear.

Now, in some languages, like Russian and Sanskrit, you would not place "by" before the whole phrase "big man", but would place one "by" before every word of that phrase, like this:

  • By-big by-man saw em-big em-bear.

and instead of

  • By-our teacher taught us how to get mo-city centre.

that would be:

  • By-our by-teacher taught us how to get mo-city mo-centre.

Some articles place declensions on articles, adjectives, nouns and demonstratives.

  • By-this by-elderly by-man is buying em-a em-very em-expensive em-watch.

Cases exotic to Indo-European languages

Finally, assume that: an object that another object is located on top of takes the prefix anta-, the object a person is moving away from takes the suffix waif-, and a person mentioned who is being ordered to do something takes the prefix yoo-.

  • The by-food is anta-plate.
  • The by-man is walking waif-car.
  • Stop talking yoo-John!

These might look like the prefixes in earlier sections, but the big difference is that the earlier ones are related to the cases found in Indo-European languages, while no Indo-European language has any prefix or suffix even remotely related to these three.[citation needed]


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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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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 case indicates 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 used for specific spatial relationships. It indicates that a locative-case noun is the location of another noun or a verb (e.g., Romulus regnat Romae, Romulus rules in Rome). It is a feature only of certain place-names, especially of cities and towns (e.g., Roma, Tarquinii, Carthago), small islands (e.g., Samos), and the nouns rūs, humus, and domus. The locative case is rare in classic Latin, and it is mostly absorbed in the ablative case. An important feature of the locative-case nouns is that they are not accompanied by a preposition (as the example illustrates).


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Sanskrit has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative and instrumental.[1] Some count vocative not as a separate case, despite it having a distinctive ending in the singular, but consider it as a different use of the nominative.[2]

Sanskrit grammatical case was analyzed extensively. The grammarian Pāṇini identified seven semantic roles or karaka, which correspond closely to the eight cases:[3]

  • agent (kartṛ, related to the nominative)
  • patient (karman, related to the accusative)
  • means (karaṇa, related to the instrumental)
  • recipient (sampradāna, related to the dative)
  • source (apādāna, related to the ablative)
  • locus (adhikaraṇa, related to the locative)
  • address (sambodhan, related to the vocative)

For example, consider the following sentence:

vṛkṣ-āt parṇ-aṁ bhūm-au patati
from the tree a leaf to the ground falls
"a leaf falls from the tree to the ground"

Here leaf is the agent, tree is the source, and ground is the locus. The endings -aṁ, -at, -āu mark the cases associated with these meanings.

See also

Declension in specific languages

Latin and Greek

Related topics


External links