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I was reading a Latin grammar book (Jenney's First Year Latin, for the curious) having recently resolved to learn a bit about the language and what I understood was as follows:

  • Latin is an inflected language, i.e., conjugations for verbs and declensions for nouns/adverbs/pronouns. I've studied some Spanish in school so here my understanding is basically "declensions are conjugations, i.e., different endings depending on tense, but for parts of speech other than verbs".

  • There are different cases for the declension - much like Spanish has the imperfect, present, present progressive, preterite, etc tenses for verbs, Latin has nominative, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative, genitive.

  • There is gender - masculine, feminine, and neuter - much like how Spanish has gender (though it doesn't have the neuter gender, but I mean it affects more parts of speech than it does in English).

  • There are different cases for the conjugation - perfect, etc.

This all made sense to me, so I continued to the first "lesson", entitled "first declension; nominative case" and read "the first declension - nouns whose stem ends in -a belong to the first declension ..."

This threw me off. My understanding is that declension literally just means that there are different cases for nouns/adverbs/pronouns, much like conjugations means there are different tenses for verbs which result in different endings depending on the subject (again, I go back to Spanish - in the present tense for the subject "yo" the verb "nadar" becomes "nado" or similar) but this seems to imply there's more to it. Some googling brought up that Latin apparently has five declensions (but six cases? my original understanding led me to conflate case and declension, apparently).

What exactly does this idea of the 'declension' mean? Does this correspond to (e.g.) -er, -ir, and -ar verbs in Spanish (endings of the infinitive)?

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Good question!

"Declension" (like "conjugation") is a word that means two different things.

In the abstract sense, "declension" is the abstract process of changing a noun or adjective's ending to reflect its role in the sentence.

In the specific sense, a "declension" is a class of nouns (or adjectives) that all decline the same way.

Latin has five declensions (as in classes), and four conjugations. The endings of the verb conjugations should look familiar to you: first conjugation infinitives end in -āre, second conjugation in -ēre, third in -ere, and fourth in -īre.

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    So would declension in the specific sense then be kind of like -ar verbs in spanish? i.e., in the present tense, nadar (-ar verb) conjugates to nado (-o ending for yo) but escribir (-ir verb) conjugates to escribe (-e ending for you)? – heather Dec 13 '18 at 1:34
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    @heather Indeed! In Latin those are called the conjugations. For example amāreamō in that form, because it's in the "first conjugation". – Draconis Dec 13 '18 at 1:36
  • That...makes a ton of sense. It basically represents different infinitive forms, then? – heather Dec 13 '18 at 2:03
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    @heather: Yes, and different conjugations have different theme vowels in other forms than the infinitive as well (as you probably know). So declensions are for nouns what conjugations are for verbs: they allow you to praedict the various forms of a word (and possibly other things such as gender). – Cerberus Dec 13 '18 at 2:20
  • In the first sense "declension" just means "inflection" except its use is limited to nominals (including adjectives etc.) It's not really a useful term, and most linguists would probably just say "noun inflections". – curiousdannii Dec 13 '18 at 5:13

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