Nominative? Genitive? Ablative? Help me memorize what is what!
December 15, 2010 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Latin filter: I am taking a basic Latin course and am having a heck of a time memorizing case endings. Does anyone have any tips for memorizing these? I tried flash cards, which work really well for vocab, but not so well for cases. Do I just need to write them out hundreds of times?
posted by apricot to Education (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
For me the trick was to:

a) correlate the cases to English


b) learn the ending patterns

It was still a pain due to the overwhelming number of exceptions to any set of rules you can come up with.
posted by nzero at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Our teacher made us recite each declension at least once a day for several months. ("agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola...") and if I can remember the endings nine years after my last Latin class I guess it worked.
posted by phoenixy at 10:00 AM on December 15, 2010

In high school, we did recitation daily in class, and also copying them out. Over. And. Over. Usually it was something like writing out the words, fully declined, three or five times and writing their definition next to the nominative. That way it's a vocab study session as well as declension practice.

It's been ten years since I first learned this stuff, and I can still remember fifth declension.
posted by linettasky at 10:07 AM on December 15, 2010

Reciting is good. I used to make tapes to play in my car. Doing it for more that a few minutes at a time gives diminishing returns, I find. Better just to do a little bit whenever you think of it.

Also, memorizing some sentences or lines of poetry can be easier than learning rules. That's why modern language books often have those dumb dialogues. My Latin teacher used to give extra points for writing out some lines of poetry on the backs of our tests.
posted by BibiRose at 10:08 AM on December 15, 2010

A longshot, but do you know any other languages with nominal case endings? Like a Germanic or a Slavic language? Case systems are very similar in the Indo-European language family. The original underlying system is the same, but not all languages preserve it to the same extent.
posted by Nomyte at 10:08 AM on December 15, 2010

I based all my case endings on a song. Are you familiar with the OST-MUS-TIS-NT tune for conjugating verbs? It's to the Mickey Mouse Club tune.

Anyway, I used that as my base, and then just memorized the declensions in the same singsong way I did the OST song. So for the first declension, it's "a-ae-ae-am-a, ae-arum-is-as-is." Make sure you also memorize the order of the cases to match the order in your ending song.

Obviously this doesn't help with funky irregular words, but it's a pretty good way of nailing down each declension and making sure they stay with you. It's been more than ten years since I was in a Latin class, but I still remember my jingle for the second declension's us-i-o-um-o-i-orum-is-os-is pattern.
posted by brina at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Repetition, repetition, repetition. See what works for you: writing them or saying them out loud, or both. When you're learning new vocabulary, make declining the verb part of the routine. When I learned Latin, I also would also repeat the case endings of each declension, e.g. -is, -i, -em, -e. (That's starting with genitive.)
posted by wryly at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2010

Generally speaking, the ablative is the thematic vowel lengthened in the singular and -is or -bus in the plural, the accusative is the thematic vowel plus -m or -s, and the genitive is the same as the plural in the singular and with -rum or -um in the plural. The dative is -i in the singular, and -bus or -is in the plural. Obviously, you can see that this isn't strictly the case case by looking at the declension chart. But look at the masculine/feminine declension (neuter differs in a few ways):

nom s. -a
gen s. -ae (same as plural)
dat s. -ae (a+i -> ae)
acc s. -am (a+m)
abl. s. -a (long thematic vowel)

nom p. -ae
gen p. -arum (a+rum)
dat p. -is or -abus
acc pl. -as (a+s)
abl. pl. -is or -abus

nom s. -us (archaic os)
gen. s. -i (plural nom)
dat. s. -o (same as abl)
acc. s. -um (archaic om)
abl. s. -o (thematic vowel lengthened)
nom p. -i
gen p. -orum (thematic vowel + rum)
dat. p. -is
acc. p. -os (o+s)
abl. p. -is

nom s. ---
gen. s. -is
dat. s. -i
acc s. -em
abl. s. -e or -i

nom p. -es
gen p. -um or -ium
dat. p. -ibus
acc p. -es
abl. p. -ibus

nom s. -us
gen s. -us (same as plural)
dat s. -ui (like the third declension)
acc s. -um
abl. s. -u

nom p. -us
gen p. -uum (u+um)
dat p. -ibus
acc p. -us
abl p. -ibus

FIFTH DECLENSION: THEMATIC VOWEL E (I think you understand the pattern by now)
nom. s. -es
gen. s. -ei
dat. s. -ei
acc. s. -em
abl. s. -e

nom p. -es
gen. p. -erum
dat. p. -ebus
acc. p. -es
abl. p. -ebus
posted by Electrius at 10:20 AM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

I failed at this with Latin on my own because I couldn't imagine it would do any good to memorize the tables if it didn't make any sense. I just didn't want to copy stuff out like a little kid in trouble, darn it.

A few years later in Russian class we were required to do both "decline these six nouns fully" and "put these twenty nouns in the genitive case" exercises incessantly, and, gallingly, it worked. Sorry, but I think the brute-force method is the only option you've got (though songs and other recordings helped with my reading/decoding skills, they alone weren't enough for knowing all the endings while writing.)
posted by SMPA at 10:24 AM on December 15, 2010

Are you using a textbook, and (if so) which one? I started Latin in late highschool with the Cambridge books meant for grade students, and found them frustrating; my university used Wheelock's Latin which is very nice and systematic. (And better than the popular intensive latin books). If you aren't using Wheelock's, maybe look into getting a copy -- each chapter is organised around one of the verb conjugations or noun declension series, and I found this very helpful in learning the endings for both cases and declensions.

The other thing that helped me a lot was looking for the systems -- classical Latin is incrediably systematic (in a way no spoken language ever is). So you have first declension with an -a (Nominative) and an - am (Accusative) ending -- and second declension with an -us (Nominative) and an -um (accusative) ending. Look for patterns like this. It's been more than 10 years since I've studied Latin (and I only ever did 1 year or so), but I still remember that -orum endings are genitive, because they are (plural) genitive in more than one declension class. Same with m's on the end of first and second declension for accusative (true for most words, regardless of gender).

It was partly the set-up for Wheelock's that got me thinking like this, but I never tried learning any case endings for specific words (except weird ones) -- I just would learn declension classes and then apply to the words within those classes. (Of course, context helps with figuring out what class a word is too -- if it's ending in "a" and it's single, good chance it's female first declension; plural, it's neuter (in several declensions, in which case you pull up the handy Whittacker's Words which you can get as an offline version for carrying into libraries and archives on your laptop - or (for tests, etc), try to connect the feeling of neuterness to that word semantically in your head.)

I've studied three languages other than my first (French, Latin and Chinese) and mastered none of them - but Latin was by far the easiest if you like things to be predictable and systematic (as I do).
posted by jb at 10:31 AM on December 15, 2010

For Wheelocks - we did do the declension repetition exercises - but the textbook also has lots of translation (from actual sources) and good tests to reinforce declension and conjugation in a much more interesting way.

(I should pull out my old Wheelocks and give it a go... )
posted by jb at 10:33 AM on December 15, 2010

I couldn't do the endings separately like some people; my technique was more like SMPA's Russian one - I found more interesting words that I liked the sound of and would use them as practice words instead. If you're taking Latin for a particular reason, it might help to use words for that purpose (plant names, religious terminology, etc.) Some basic Latin books may have declensions listed; otherwise there is the Viktionarium, brother, for example, and they seem to decline their smallish pool of words entirely on each page, for reference.

(No, you can't avoid 'Iacobi Wales' even in Latin.)
posted by cobaltnine at 10:36 AM on December 15, 2010

Just buckle down and recite them 20? 50? times a day. 20ish years later they still pop into my head. us i o um o, i orum is os is. IT GETS BETTER.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:39 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

My high school Latin teacher made us sing, to the tune of The Beach Boys' Barbara Ann:

"bam, bas, bat, bamus, batis, bant" and then we had to throw our arms in the air and yell, "IMPERFECT!"

15 years later and I remember close to no Latin words, but I haven't forgotten that.
posted by something something at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2010

Ug. Declensions were the bane of my college experience. Seriously.

Literally I just wrote them out, day after day, all over scratch paper, napkins....
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:09 AM on December 15, 2010

You have already heard that rote learning works for this -- in my case it's about forty years since I learned Latin and some of the the declensions are still in there*.

My son, a natural at languages having formally learned French, Latin, German, and Greek and who is now studying linguistics and teaching himself Russian, tells me that the patterns of cases in Indo-European languages eventually sink into the brain and just start to make sense so that, while you still have to learn the specifics, the patterns are sufficiently obvious that most of the rote aspect is not really necessary any more... but maybe that's just him.


*I have the minor confusion that the order of cases that I learned (nom., voc., acc. gen., dat., abl. ) seems to be different than the order my son learned a few years ago (nom., gen., dat., acc., abl.), but that does not reduce the effectiveness of the learning technique.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2010

I second those who recommended repetition. Languages, even dead ones, are all about immersion, as I found out when learning ancient Greek.

I'd also recommend getting a study group together. You'll be able to learn from each other, and you'll have an incentive to keep on top of things.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:23 AM on December 15, 2010

Use the case forms in phrases and sentences.

agricola me videt - the farmer sees me
agricolam video - I see the farmer
filius agricolae, bos agricolae - the farmer's son, the farmer's ox
agri agricolarum, domus agricolarum - the farmers' fields, the farmers' houses
pater puellae agricola est - the girl's father is a farmer
patres puellarum agricolae sunt - the girls' fathers are farmers

Do this for representative words in each declension, and words with various kinds of weirdness. Play with the forms till the patterns start to stick and make sense.

This is time consuming, but it will help the forms stick in your head and help you remember what they mean.
posted by nangar at 11:25 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Came in to say what nangar said about using sentences, but will just emphasize what he said about weirdness: the weirder the sentences (especially if they're visualizable), the better you'll remember them.

You could probably use an SRS to practice the sentences (and vocab too!). I like Mnemosyne, myself.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2010

Eh. When I leared German adjectival endings, I looked for patterns and made a little coloured chart, so that for instance I can remember the weak adjectival endings because of the pattern of red (-e) and green (-en) on the chart.

I didn't do that with Latin, but I did pay attention to which endings were shared by which cases. So the genitive and dative singular of the first declension shares an ending (-ae) with the nominative and vocative plural. If you do this, then you gradually start to recognize patterns (accusative singular often seems to end in -m, the nominative is different from the vocative in the 2nd declension masculine singular and practically nowhere else, the nominative, vocative and accusative in neuter nouns are usually the same). You probably know the order that the cases are presented in already (Nom, Voc, Acc, Gen, Dat, Abl). This order was chosen because it groups similar endings together.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:22 PM on December 15, 2010

My Latin teacher was a wonderful, grizzled, cynical veteran teacher who had a million tricks and a fascinating aura of mystery. He told us he was a former monk who had left the orders to marry a nun, they rode away together on a donkey, etc. Magister Bell.

He used English phrases to decline, and then we drilled and drilled and repeated and repeated them. Out loud (just reading silently doesn't work as well).

First Declension:
Coca Cola - cocae colae... etc

Second Declension:
Hocus Pocus - hocis pocis ... etc

(I am horrified to realize I can't remember the other ones - but try to think of English phrases that fit and then decline away)

For verbs:
amo amas amat... amamis amatis amant (sing to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance, preferably with dance moves)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:33 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

GUYS. Nobody here had the declension songs? Well, I guess nobody else had my awesome high school Latin teacher.

First declension - Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.

"A a-e a-e a-m,
A a-e a-r-u-m,
I-s a-s i-s too
These should stick to you like glue"

Second - the Mexican hat dance.

"U-s i o u-m *clap clap*
I-s o-r-u-m *clap clap*
I-s o-s i-s *clap*
I guess you know the rest, yes!"

Third - The Farmer In The Dell

"I-s i e-m e,
I-s, i e-m e,
E-s, u-m, i-b-u-s,
E-s, i-b-u-s"

Fourth - that "This is the way we whatever whatever, so early in the morning!" song. Mom and I disagree on whether it was about tooth-brushing or a farmer planting something.

"U-s u-s u-i u-m,
U u-s, u-u-m,
I-b-u-s u-s i-b-u-s,
This will help you pass the test"

Fifth - Oh My Darling, Clementine

"E-s e-i, e-i e-m,
E e-s, e-r-u-m,
Ebus es, ebus finis
There are no more declensions"

posted by Devika at 1:28 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, songs.

Jacques Brel has a song called "Rosa" where the chorus is the declension of "rosa". I learned that one without even trying.

The songs other people above seem to have made up would work well for the others.
posted by lollusc at 2:18 PM on December 15, 2010

mensa mensae mensam mensas...

amicus amici amice amici amicum amicos amico amicus...

That was me trying to remember some cases from ... 1985? Can't do it, but it's tantalisingly close. And that's without thinking of them even once since then.

I'd vote for just running through them again and again and again until they nestle against your backbrain. Like learning lines.

A good line-learning trick is to get a dictaphone, record the lot, then practice going through them as you walk around (i.e. say part 1 - play part 1 to see if you got it right - say part 2 - play part 2, etc).
posted by Sebmojo at 2:35 PM on December 15, 2010

Wow! So many great answers here. I wish I had asked this a few months ago! I think the songs and repetition will be most helpful for me and how I learn. Thanks so much, everyone! This is really helpful.

Just FYI, this is an undergrad-level class at the university where I am a grad student. Our textbook was developed by the Classics department. I do have the Wheelock and am planning on studying it on my own rather than taking the next class in this sequence.
posted by apricot at 7:43 PM on December 15, 2010

To all this I would add: read Latin writings every day (even if it takes forever, and you only manage to translate a couple lines). The more actual Latin you're exposed to, the more familiar the patterns become.
posted by hishtafel at 11:28 PM on December 18, 2010

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