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In linguistics, declension is the inflection (changing the form of a word) of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, numerals, and articles to indicate number (at least singular and plural), case (nominative or subjective, genitive or possessive, etc.), and/or 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. Among modern languages, declension is an important aspect of Arabic, Finnish, Turkish, many Amerindian languages such as Quechua, Bantu languages such as Zulu, Slavic languages such as Russian, some Germanic languages such as High German, and some others. In the ancient world, languages that were highly declined included Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Old English was a moderately 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[edit]

In Modern English, the system of declensions is very simple compared to some other languages, so much so that the term declension is rarely applied to English in practice. Most nouns in English have distinct singular and plural forms and have distinct plain and possessive forms. Plurality is most commonly shown by the clitic -s (or -es), whereas possession is always shown by the clitic -'s (or by just the apostrophe) attached to the noun. Consider, for example, the forms of the noun girl:

Singular Plural
Plain girl girls
Possessive girl's girls'

Most speakers pronounce all of the forms other than the singular plain form (girl) exactly the same (though some speakers may pronounce the plural possessive as two syllables). By contrast, a few nouns are slightly more complex in their forms. For example:

Singular Plural
Plain man men
Possessive man's men's

In that example, all four forms are pronounced in a distinct manner.

There can be other derivations from nouns that are not usually considered declensions. For example, the proper noun Britain has the associated descriptive adjective British and the demonym Briton. Though these words are clearly related and are generally considered cognates, they are not specifically treated as forms of the same word and thus not declensions.

Pronouns in English have even more complex declensions. For example:

Singular Plural
Subjective I we
Objective me us
Dependent possessive my our
Independent possessive mine ours

Whereas nouns do not distinguish between the subjective (nominative) and objective (oblique) cases, some pronouns do; 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.

In general, gender is not grammaticalized in Modern English, or at best one could argue there are isolated situations certain nouns may be modified to reflect gender, though not in a systematic fashion. Loan words from other languages, particularly Latin and the Romance languages, often preserve their gender-specific forms in English, e.g. alumnus (masculine singular) and alumna (feminine singular). Similarly, names borrowed from other languages show comparable distinctions: Andrew and Andrea, Paul and Paula, etc. Additionally, suffixes such as -ess, -ette, and -er are sometimes applied to create 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.

Most adjectives are not declined. However, when used as nouns rather than adjectives, they do decline (e.g., "I'll take the reds", meaning "I'll take the red ones" or as shorthand for "I'll take the red wines"). 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 ( m., þæt n., sēo f.) as it was declined in Old English.

Basic declension theory[edit]

Core examples[edit]

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

  • John-by read an article-em.
  • My friend-by saw fireworks-em.
  • The article-by talked about language-em.
  • A businesswoman-by used her computer-em.
  • The cellphone-by automatically called the last-number-em.

The above sentences would sound unnatural to English speakers. However, it is common in many other languages—including Russian, Japanese, Basque, and Esperanto—to use affixes (e.g. prefixes, infixes, suffixes) to specify subjects and objects. 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:

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

However, in a language that uses "-by" and "-em" to identify subject and object, a sentence's meaning remains basically the same regardless of how we shuffle the parts. For example, for "The dog chased the cat," one could use:

  • The dog-by chased the cat-em.
  • The cat-em chased the dog-by.
  • The cat-em the dog-by chased.
  • Chased the cat-em the dog-by.

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, otherwise confusion will result. Because the word order is not crucial to the intent of the main proposition, the order is often used to express more fine grained tonal differences in the meaning of a sentence.

Other possible cases[edit]

Now assume that going to (in the direction of) takes the suffix "-mo", doing something with an object or person takes the suffix "-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.

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

Note that these sentences could be written in any order and their meaning would remain unchanged:

  • Mark-by goes work-mo car-wot.
  • Car-wot Mark-by goes work-mo.
  • Work-mo Mark-by goes car-wot.

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

This theoretical system of declension is relatively simple and is more or less how declension works in languages such as Basque, Bengali, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Russian, and Sanskrit. Some of these languages 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 these languages also 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[edit]

In the examples above we have made sentences like...

  • The big man-by saw a big bear-em. putting the "-by" and the "-em" after the noun in each phrase. However, many declined languages—such as Basque and Japanese—do not use articles (for example, "a" or "the") at all. If our theoretical declined version of English had no articles, we would say something like:

  • Big man-by saw big bear-em.

In some languages, like Russian and Sanskrit, you would not place "by" after a whole phrase or compound term like "big man", and you would not place "-em" after a whole phrase or compound term like "big bear". Instead, you would place "-by" after each component word of the subject term, and "-em" after each component word of the object term, like this:

  • Big-by man-by saw big-em bear-em.

Furthermore, instead of this...

  • Our teacher-by taught us-wot how to get the city-centre-mo.

... you would have this:

  • Our-by teacher-by taught us-wot how to get city-mo centre-mo.

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

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

Cases in languages outside the Indo-European family[edit]

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, they or it takes the suffix "-yoo". If the object belongs to someone who is not present, then it takes the suffix "-foo":

  • Cellphone-by is box-boo.
  • Man-by is walking home-yoo.
  • This-by book-by is Mari-foo.


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

  • homo (nominative and vocative singular) "[the] man" [as a subject] (e.g., homo ibi stat, the man is standing there)
  • hominem (accusative singular) "[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 singular) "of [the] man" [as a possessor] (e.g., nomen hominis est Claudius, the man's name is Claudius)
  • hominī (dative singular) "to or for [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 singular) "[the] man" (mainly used following many prepositions, and in the ablative absolute construction, or to mean "by", "with" or "from" without a preposition) (e.g. sum altior homine, I am taller than the man)
  • homines, nominative, vocative and accusative plural
  • hominum, genitive plural
  • hominibus, dative and ablative plural

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 (in the country, in the earth, at home). 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).

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 Slavic languages also have the instrumental case.

Most of these languages have several declensions, i.e. 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.


Sanskrit, another Indo-European language, has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative and instrumental.[1] Some don't count vocative 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]

  • 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 (sambodhana, 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[edit]

Declension in specific languages[edit]

Latin and Greek[edit]

Related topics[edit]


External links[edit]