Lesson 31.1 — Noun Declensions

Why Are We Doing This?

The first verse we studied together was Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος.  "In the beginning was the Word."

By now, you probably recognize, without any effort τοῦ λόγου as the genitive, and know it will be rendered (depending on what is appropriate in the context) as "of the word" or "from the word".  You don't need to go to StepBible.com to translate it.

What we want to do is to be able to see that at a glance for any and every noun we recognize.



Memorizing Declensions is Hard Work!!

Indeed it is.  The only reason we do it is because we think it will make learning Greek easier rather than harder.

The concept of "Greek noun declensions" never arose until the 1600s.  Ancient Greeks never thought about how they formed nouns, any more than most Canadians think about "adverbs" or "conditional sentences".

The Ancient Greeks just spoke Greek, the same as modern Canadians speak English...without thinking about it.

As students of Ancient Greek, however, it is up to us to try and find—if we can—patterns in the Greek language that can make it easier for us to learn.

A pattern that many Greek students have found helpful is the idea of noun declensions.


Building on a Review of What We Already Know

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.

Below are the new case endings for you to memorize.


Case Endings for All Three Declensions

Click on highlighted cells to get more information. 

If you cannot see the whole chart at once in your browser, hit <ctrl><-> a couple of times.

Declension 2 1 2 3 3
Gender masculine feminine neuter masculine
& feminine
Nominative Singular ς ν ς
Genitive Singular ς υ ος ος
Dative Singular ι ι ι
Accusative Singular ν ν ν
Nominative Plural ι ι α ες
Genitive Plural ων ων ων ων ων
Dative Plural ις ις ις σι(ν)
Accusative Plural ς α α


Third declension nouns are fundamentally like first and second declension nouns.  You add a case ending.

However, because the stem of a third declension noun ends in a consonant, it sometimes interacts with the first letter of the case ending.

For instance, Greek doesn't "like" the combination of —θσ in a word.  Greek deals with a word stem like *ἰχθ by adding an υ before the suffix.

You may be familiar with the Greek word ἰχθύς, "fish", which Christians discovered early on could be an acronym for ησοῦς Χριστός θεοῦ υἱός σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). 

Greek at this time tended not to use lower case letters, so you will recognize the acronym more by the upper case letters from ησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ.

From the 2nd to the 4th centuries, a fish symbol was used by persecuted Christians to indicate church meeting places.

Ichthys, The Christian Fish Symbol: 5 Origin and History Facts


Here is a third century tombstone that is preserved in the National Roman Museum.

It says, using upper case letters, ἰχθῦς ζώντων ("fish of the living", where ζώντων = present active participle genitive plural masculine of the verb ζάω, to live).

To get back to declensions...for reasons that are lost in the deep past, the Greek language evolved in such a way that it did not "like" the sound of ἰχθς—which would be the most natural way of forming the nominative singular—so it inserted a υ before the ς to make the word ἰχθῦς.


First declension nouns are very straightforward.  The root of the Greek for "word" is *λογο. 

I shall mark root-forms of word by sticking an asterisk * before the word.

Add an ς and you get λόγος.  Easy, right?


The root word for "flesh" in Greek is σαρκ.  Add an ς and you get σαρκς.  Except that Greek doesn't "like" the combination of κς.  When it occurs, the κς gets contracted down into the letter ξ, which makes the nominative singular for "flesh" σάρξ.

So while σάρξ looks completely irregular at first glance, if you know that the stem is *σαρκ, then it is not actually irregular at all.

A full description of the cases for the noun σάρξ is:

Declension 3
Gender feminine
Nominative Singular ἡ σάρξ
Genitive Singular τῆς σαρκός
Dative Singular τῇ σαρκί
Accusative Singular τὴν σάρκα
Nominative Plural αἱ σάρκες
Genitive Plural τῶν σαρκῶν
Dative Plural ταῖς σαρξί(ν)
Accusative Plural τὰς σά́ρκας

So while σάρξ looks irregular, once you realize the stem is *σαρκ, it really isn't irregular at all.  It follows the rules of what Greek "likes" in terms of letter combinations.

Regarding the dative plural ταῖς σαρξί(ν), it is the case that Greek likes to insert a ν after an ι if the word following begins with a vowel.


Hints for the Third Declension

  1. Because of the changes that take place in the nominative singular, it can be difficult to determine the stem of a third declension noun.  The solution is to memorize the genitive singular as well as the nominative singular of the noun.  If you drop the ος from the genitive singular, you will normally have the word's stem.
  2. Whatever happens in the nominative singular (σ) also happens in the dative plural.  This is because the dative plural case ending also begins with a sigma (σι).  So you do not need to remember a separate rule here.
  3. A ν drops out if it is followed by a σ.  So the formation of the masculine form of the word *τιν is:
Declension 3
Gender masculine
Nominative Singular τις
Genitive Singular τινός
Dative Singular τινί
Accusative Singular τινά
Nominative Plural τινές
Genitive Plural τινῶν
Dative Plural τισί(ν)
Accusative Plural τινάς
  1. A tau τ drops out when followed by a sigma ς, or if it is at the end of a word.

    *ὀνοματ + σι = ὀνόμασι
    *ὀνοματ        = ὄνομα


This is it!  You now know all the major case endings.


The Definite Article

The gender of third declension nouns can often be difficult to determine.  If it is present, the definite article will be a tip off.  τῷ is always τῷ whether the noun is first, second, or third declension


The Final Two Noun Rules

  1. The seventh rule you need to memorize is actually a chart: "the stops chart".
    Labial π β φ
    Velar κ γ χ
    Dental τ δ θ

    The third column consonants, φ, χ, and θ, are not full stops, since the airflow is slowed rather than stopped completely.  But because they fit the pattern so well, it is easier to think of them as stops.

    The chart is important because the stops behave in a consistent manner.  Whatever happens to a stem that ends in τ also to a stem ending in δ, because τ and δ are both dentals. 

    If you learn the chart, you will be able to predict what will happen.  This is much easier than memorizing several different paradigms.

    This same chart will be important when we study verbs, so whatever time you spend here will save frustration later.

    Stops + σ

                 Labial   + σ = ψ
    Velar    + σ = ξ
    Dental  + σ = σ 

                      *σκολοπ + σ  = σκόλοψ
                      *σαρκ     + σι = σαρξί
                      *ὀνοματ  + σι = ὀνόμασι

  2. A tau τ cannot stand at the end of a word, and will drop off.  For example, with *ὀνοματ, no case ending is used in the nominative singular, and the final τ drops off.

    Hence, *ὀνοματ  + — = ὄνομα

    This is the final rule for case endings.  You know all eight.


Click  for an indication of the things you need to memorize.