Why are the declensions in the order they are? If someone was learning Latin 2000 years ago, would they have used the same numbers? Would they have believed that some god assigned the numbers to the declensions? If it came from Greek (possibly), then what Greek person numbered them?

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    Related: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/16031/…
    – cmw
    Feb 20, 2022 at 7:21
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    @cmw: Your link leads to a discussion with a comment from Alex B. that links to persee.fr/doc/hel_0750-8069_1991_num_13_2_2334. That link seems to explain that the numbering developed in fits and starts with detours from Varro, but finally lead to Charisius numbering declensions in alphabet order according to their genitives and with the late "discovery" of the fifth declension, since it shared aspects of the second and third. Feb 20, 2022 at 11:58
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    @Vegawatcher That link is what I had in mind. If you write it up, it would make for a good answer.
    – cmw
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:39

1 Answer 1


I think the answer lies in "Latin declensions and conjugations: from Varro to Priscian" by Daniel J. Taylor, which I found in link in a comment by Alex B. to a question linked to in a comment of cms to this particular question.

After browsing the article, I see on page 93 the following assertion:

In LL X.62, after articulating what is arguably one of the most sustained discussions of linguistic, specifically, morphological, theory in ancient language science, Varro describes what are the first declensions in extant grammatical literature, Greek or Roman. As was the case with his conjugations, Varro's declensions were embryonic only, he plays fast and loose with vocalic length and he does not elaborate. Nonetheless, the declensions are all there in theory.

Varro (roughly 1st century BCE) started his classifications of the declensions from the vowel endings of the ablative case, since this was the special Latin case not present in Greek. He listed five declensions in alphabet order of their vowels, making no distinction for vowel length: a, e, i, o, and u.

Later grammarians, through fits and starts, recognized the essential unity of what we call the third declension, despite varying endings (e vs. i) between consonant stems and i-stem, and began to classify the first four of our declensions according to their genitive singular forms, again in alphabet order: ae, i, is, and us. At first, they did not recognize the fifth declension as something separate since it shared the same genitive as the second declension.

It seems that Charisius (roughly 4th century CE) was the first to talk about our modern system (see p. 98). He started out enumerating the first four according to the alphabetic order of the genitive singular endings, but then mentions that some grammarians felt compelled to establish a fifth declension because of its genitive singular in i, its accusative singulaar in em, and its dative and ablative plural in ibus.

In short, it appears that Latin grammarians first established the modern order based on the alphabetic order of the genitive ending of the first four declensions and then just tacked on the fifth as it was realized to be a separate paradigm.

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