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

Further information: Old English grammar § Nouns

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). 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 hypothetical examples illustrate how languages with declension work. If English were a language with declension, one might add a suffix -by after the subjects of sentences, and a suffix -em after the objects. Sentences would appear as follows:

The above sentences would sound unnatural to English speakers. However, it is common in many other languages to use affixes in order to specify subjects and objects, such as in Esperanto, Japanese, Russian and Basque. These languages have a freer word order than English does, because English depends on word order (or, in some cases, inflection) to identify the subject and object:

However, in a language that uses -by and -em to identify subject and object, a sentence's meaning remains the same no matter how we shuffle the parts. For, "the dog chased the cat," one could use:

In such a language, the word order is not important to understand who did what to whom. However, the -by and -em must be added to all subjects and objects or confusion will result.

Other possible cases

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

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

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

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, otherwise most sentences would be confusing.

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 suffixes (or prefixes 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:

putting the "by-" and the "em-" after the noun in each phrase. But many declined languages do not use articles (for example "a" or "the") at all, such as Japanese and Basque. In such a language we would say something like:

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

and instead of

that would be:

Some languages decline many different parts of speech including adverbs and demonstratives:

Cases exotic to Indo-European languages

Finally, assume that: an object that contains another object takes the suffix -boo. If a person/object turns around and goes back to where they came from it takes -yoo. If the object belongs to someone who is not present it takes -foo.

These might look like the suffixes 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 suffixes like the above three.


Main article: Latin declension

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

There are two further noun cases in Latin, the vocative and the locative:

Many European languages of Indo-European origin have a set of cases which are similar to those of Latin, for example German and other Germanic languages like Icelandic omit the vocative and ablative; classical Greek omitted the ablative and modern Greek also omits the dative; some Slav languages have in addition the instrumental case.

Most of these languages have several declensions, ie classes of words with different schemes for determining the case endings. Furthermore, it is notable that in all these languages and declensions it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be a one-to-one correspondence between cases and endings, so that often one has to deduce from the context which case is meant.


Main article: Sanskrit nouns

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

For example, consider the following sentence:

{| style="text-align: center;"

| style="padding-right: 1em;" | vṛkṣ-āt | style="padding-right: 1em;" | parṇ-aṁ | style="padding-right: 1em;" | 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

Look up declension in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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