by Justin Soderholm, Classical Languages and Ancient Studies
Does the man love food, or does food love the man? One goal of our Latin instruction at Veritas is to develop a working vocabulary in Latin. This equips students to not only work in Latin, but also to greatly expand their command of English. Since about 50% of English vocabulary comes from Latin, the more words a student learns in Latin, the more he learns in English. And just as a craftsman wants to choose the right tool for the right job, so someone who is trained in language can choose the right word for the right job. As Christians, our job is to glorify God. Language increases our ability to express this well. The grammar of Latin may seem quite complex to a native speaker of English at first glance. One of its characteristics is what linguists call grammatical cases. Cases determine the function of different words in a sentence. For example, one case defines a noun as a subject or predicate nominative, while another may define it as a direct object. In Latin, these cases are suffixes which are bound to a few different types of words, including nouns and adjectives. Matthew S. Dryer’s studies indicate that cases are suffixes in most languages, though there are a few attested to have them has prefixes (Matthew S. Dryer: https://wals.info/chapter/51).*
There are six cases in Latin: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative. Some include a seventh case, the locative. English does not have a case system, though it does mark possession. Additionally, some pronouns still differentiated for subject, object, or possessive (which some might call nominative, accusative, and genitive [or possessive]).
Since Latin uses cases to determine the functions of words in different sentences, it is critical to know which case has which function. For example, if someone wrote the sentence virum cibus amat, the one trained in Latin would translate this sentence as “the food loved the man”. Food cannot love, though. This sentence is off because virum (man) should be in the nominative case, so that it is seen as the subject. Additionally, cibus (food) should be in the accusative case, so that it is seen as the direct object. Vir cibum amat (the man loves the food).
Something to be thankful for with Latin is that we don’t have cases for articles. Koiné Greek has 24 articles, while English has only 3 (a, an, the) and Latin has zero!
It is my hope that this gives you a glimpse into the world of Latin grammar. Latin may have complex noun endings, but it is a small amount compared to other languages such as Finnish (which has 15 cases). Cases are quite common across languages, so learning their functions in one language can be highly beneficial when learning a second or third language with cases.
*In some languages, they are not affixes at all