Lesson 22.1 — Noun Declensions

If you look back at the page of noun charts I created, you will see that is are a mind-numbing array of them—each of which is called a "paradigm".  (Click here to see how this word is pronounced.)

Greek nouns fall into three broad groupings, called "declensions". (Click here to see how this is pronounced.) But there are so many variations within each declension, traditional Greek textbooks tell you that you still must learn 52 paradigms to really understand the Greek noun.


A Brief Illustration of the Situation

Throughout the Medieval Period, people were able to predict the positions of the planets...but because their model of the solar system had earth at the center, the predictive model was fiendishly complicated.  To fit with the data, people proposed that the planets followed this sort of motion around the earth:

Then Copernicus and Kepler came along and said, "Let's look at this as though the sun was at the center of the solar system rather than the earth".  Suddenly the whole task of predicting planetary motions became dramatically simpler.

In a similar way, Bill Mounce has come up with a better model of how Greek nouns work.  Rather than needing to memorize 52 paradigms, Bill tells us we need to memorize only:

I think Mounce is as revolutionary for Greek nouns as Copernicus was for astronomy. 

In this lesson, I will introduce you to the nominative and accusative cases for the two paradigms, and to the first three rules.  We will add the genitive and dative, as well as more rules, later on.

Up to now, I have not told you to memorize any rules.  I have tried to introduce you to Greek in a way somewhat more akin to the way we learn modern languages.

But the truth is that Ancient Greek is not like French.  There is no community in the world where Ancient Greek is the native tongue.  It is not possible for you to go live with an Ancient Greek family for two months and learn Greek from them by immersion.

This being the case, I am going to encourage you to memorize the word endings and rules below.  Do so, and translation is going to become vastly easier for you.

But first, some language background for you.


There are different patterns that English nouns follow in forming their plural.  Some add "s", others add "es", while others change the vowel in the stem of the word (e.g. "man" becomes "men").  The pattern a word follows does not affect its meaning, only its form.  "Children" and "childs" would mean the same thing, if the latter were actually a word.

In Greek, there are three broad families of noun word-patterns.  Each of these patterns is called a "declension."  What declension a particular noun follows has no bearing on the meaning of the word.  The different declensions affect only the form of the case ending.


Case Endings

Declension 2 1 2
Gender masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular ς - ν
Accusative Singular ν ν ν
Nominative Plural ι ι α
Accusative Plural υς ς α

Where you see an underlined α, it means that the final vowel of the word stem, ο, combines with the α to become α. This is contraction, similar to how in English "can" + "not" can be combined to become "can't". Hence:

ο + α = α


When the endings are attached to the final stem vowel they look like this.

Declension 2 1 2
Gender masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular ος η   α ον
Accusative Singular ον ην   αν ον
Nominative Plural οι αι α
Accusative Plural ους ας α


Attaching the stem to the ending yields words that look like this.

Declension 2 1 2
Gender masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular λόγος γραφή   ὥρα ἔργον
Accusative Singular λόγον γραφήν   ὥραν ἔργον
Nominative Plural λόγοι γραφαί   ὧραι ἔργα
Accusative Plural λόγους γραφάς   ὥρας ἔργα



There are two feminine nouns in this paradigm.  The only difference between the forms of these two words is the final stem vowel.  If you think of η and α as related vowels—as the ancient Greeks did—then you will not have to learn two different patterns for feminine nouns.  They are identical except for the final stem vowel.

When it comes to neuter nouns, the nominative and the accusative look identical.  You will need to look at the context to work out whether a given neuter noun is likely to be the subject or the direct object in the sentence.  If it makes sense as the subject, then you will consider it as a nominative case.  If it makes sense as the direct object, you will consider it as an accusative case.

There may be rare instances where a verse makes sense with the neuter noun considered as either the subject or the direct object.  These are the kinds of situations where Bible translations may differ from each other.  You, as a translator, will have to make a judgement call on how to render the verse.


The First Three Noun Rules

  1.  Stems ending in alpha α or eta η are in the first declension.   

    First declension nouns typically feminine (although there are masculine ones as well).

    Stems ending in omicron are in the second declension, and consonantal stems are in the third declension.
  2. Every neuter word has the same form in the nominative and accusative.
  3. Almost all neuter words end in alpha in the nominative and accusative plural.

The Definite Article

Declension 2 1 2
Gender masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular τό
Accusative Singular τόν τήν τό
Nominative Plural οἱ αἱ τά
Accusative Plural τούς τάς τά

These articles do not change with the declension of the noun. will modify a feminine noun whether it is first or second declension. You may have already noticed this in your translation work. You are not sure what the noun is...but it is connected with a definite article which tells you the case and number.

Here is the noun paradigm with the definite article.

Declension 2 1 2
Gender masculine feminine neuter
Nominative Singular ὁ λόγος ἡ γραφή   ἡ ὥρα τό ἔργον
Accusative Singular τόν λόγον τήν γραφήν   τήν ὥραν τό ἔργον
Nominative Plural οἱ λόγοι αἱ γραφαί   αἱ ὧραι τά  ἔργα
Accusative Plural τούς λόγους τάς γραφάς   τάς ὥρας τά  ἔργα


Click  for a brief summary of the things you need to memorize.