Botanical Latin
Lesson 2 - Nouns and the First Declension


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(updated 13 July 2022)

A noun names a person, place, or thing (tangible or intangible) and has case, number, and gender.

Case. Spelling of an English noun usually does not change according to whether that noun is the subject of a sentence, a direct or indirect object of a verb, or an object of a preposition. For example, the word “dog” remains d-o-g in “The dog (subject) chased the ball”, “She washed her dog (direct object)”, and “We threw the dog (indirect object) a bone”. This is not so in Latin. The ending of a Latin noun changes as the function of that noun changes. However, the rest of the noun, called the stem, usually remains unchanged. There are seven functions (called cases) of each Latin noun and are summarized (and admittedly a bit oversimplified—remember this is only lesson 2, and this is botanical, not classical, Latin) as follows:
   nominative - subject of a sentence,
   genitive - possessive,
   dative - indirect object,
   accusative - direct object or object of some prepositions,
   ablative - object of some prepositions,
   vocative - direct address (not used in botanical Latin), and
   locative - location (used primarily on the title page of a book, so not covered in these lessons).
Thus, there are five cases that you will need to know in your study of botanical Latin.

Number. Just as in English, nouns may be
   1. singular or
   2. plural.

Gender. In Latin, there are three genders:
   1. masculine,
   2. feminine, and
   3. neuter.
Gender is grammatical; i.e., every noun is considered to be either masculine, feminine, or neuter, sometimes in accordance with what one would expect (e.g., vir (man) is masculine, femina (woman) is feminine, and folium (leaf) is neuter), but by no means always so (e.g., the Latin word for seed (sperma) is neuter, and an anther (anthera) is feminine.)

Declension. The set of both singular and plural forms of the five cases for a given noun is called its declension. There are five declensions in Latin; i.e., there are five sets of endings for nouns, but each noun “uses” only one of the sets. A noun whose endings follow the first declension is said to be a first declension noun or to belong to the first declension. Nouns of the other declensions are referred to in a like manner. The following table gives the English equivalent of each case and number for the word “anther”. Latin does not have words for “a”, “an”, and “the”. They are supplied by the reader/translator according to context. “The” is chosen for this table.

Table 2.1
case (below) / number (to right) singular plural
nominative the anther the anthers
genitive of the anther, the anther’s of the anthers, the anthers’
dative to/for the anther (indirect object) to/for the anthers (indirect object)
accusative the anther (direct object) the anthers (direct object)
ablative by/with/from the anther by/with/from the anthers


The genitive singular ending is a diagnostic feature of each declension. These endings are:

Table 2.2
declension genitive singular ending example
first ae antherae (of the anther; the anther’s)
second ī (long i) stylī (of the style; the style’s)
third is floris (of the flower; the flower’s)
fourth us fructus (of the fruit; the fruit’s)
fifth i (short i) speciei (of the species; the species’)


In this lesson you will learn the first declension. Lesson 3 covers second declension nouns, and lesson 5 deals with third declension nouns. There are comparatively few fourth and fifth declension nouns, and they will not be covered in detail, only listed in appendix B.

To form the first declension, drop the ae ending from the genitive singular—this gives the stem—and add the first declension endings (given in the tables below). For example, the genitive singular of the Latin word for anther is antherae. Drop the ae and you have the stem anther-. By now you may be wondering how you can know the genitive singular of a noun. The answer is fairly straightforward. Most glossaries or dictionaries give both the nominative and the genitive cases, albeit in abbreviated form such as "anthera, -ae" (instead of "anthera, antherae"). So, when you learn a noun, you should learn both the nominative singular and the genitive singular. That is, learn anthera, antherae; planta, plantae; etc. The following two tables summarize the first declension. Learn the forms in the following order: nominative singular, genitive singular, ..., ablative singular, nominative plural, genitive plural, ..., ablative plural.



Table 2.3 - first declension.
case singular plural
nominative stem + a stem + ae
genitive stem + ae stem + ārum
dative stem + ae stem + īs
accusative stem + am stem + ās
ablative stem + ā stem + īs

You can see in the ablative singular and in the genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative plural a short, straight mark over some of the vowels. That mark is called a macron and indicates a long vowel, which, as you may recall from lesson 1, affects the pronunciation of a word. In the first declension it also helps you distinguish a nominative singular from an ablative singular, which are spelled the same except for the macron over the final a in the ablative. However, macrons are not used in botanical Latin, so you sometimes have to know the history of a word (e.g., if it came from Greek and bore a long vowel in that language) in order to pronounce it correctly, not a matter of life or death in botanical Latin. Whether you have a nominative or an ablative, however, is important, but that can be determined by syntax.



Table 2.4 - example: anthera (anther). From now on macrons will appear only when a new set of endings is introduced.
case singular plural
nominative anthera antherae
genitive antherae antherārum
dative antherae antherīs
accusative antheram antherās
ablative antherā antherīs

Almost all first declension nouns are feminine. The masculine exceptions, such as agricola (farmer) and auriga (charioteer), are not encountered in botanical Latin. Names of some, but not all, genera that end with a (e.g., Betula and Utricularia) are feminine nouns of the first declension. Names of genera that end in ma, such as Arisaema and Alisma, may appear to be first declension nouns, but they are derived from neuter Greek names and are also neuter in Latin.



Vocabulary - Because all of the vocabulary words in this lesson belong to the first declension (whose genitive singular ending is -ae), only the nominative singular form is given for each entry. You can see from the list that many of the Latin words are very similar to their equivalent English words. For more first declension words, visit the online Botanical Latin Glossary and search for "1st declension" (without the quotation marks).
absentia – absence corolla – corolla gluma – glume seta – bristle
anthera – anther cyma – cyme herba – herb siliqua – silique
bacca – berry drupa – drupe inflorescentia – inflorescence spica – spike
bractea – bract familia – family infructescentia – infructescence umbella – umbel
capsula – capsule galea – hood macula – spot valva – valve
carina – keel gemma – bud planta – plant vena – vein


Latin Descriptions and Diagnoses - Following each lesson's vocabulary is this section that is devoted to applying the information learned, with an emphasis on the current lesson's material. Next are exercises to give you practice writing and translating Latin descriptions and diagnoses.

Identifying a plant using a dichotomous key involves comparing the two parts of a couplet and deciding which of the parts better describes the plant that you are trying to identify. Each of the two parts (1a and 1b of the couplet below) is called a stanza, and each stanza is, in turn, composed of phrases. One of the phrases is "Leaves alternate, simple, with entire margins". Another is "flowers blue, with three petals".

   1a. Leaves alternate, simple, with entire margins; flowers blue, with three petals
   1b. Leaves opposite, compound, with serrate leaflet margins; flowers red, with four petals

In dichotomous keys, the first word in almost every phrase of a stanza is a noun, and that noun is what the phrase is about. The couplet above distinguishes two (imaginary) plants based on their differences in leaves and flowers. "Leaves" and "flowers" are both nouns, though not the only ones in the couplet as will be noted below. So, nouns are the starting point in Latin diagnoses and descriptions, and, as you may recall from above, every noun's declension involves five cases.

Nominative case. Because "leaves" and "flowers" are each the subject of a phrase in the couplet above, they are in the nominative case. In a phrase, there may be other nouns (e.g., "margins" in both 1a and 1b), but those nouns may or may not be in the nominative case, often not. In the above example, both "leaves" and "flowers" happen to be plural, but a phrase can also begin with a singular noun (e.g., "inflorescence a spike"). You are not ready to translate the couplet above into Latin because it contains words that are not from the first declension as well as some adjectives. You are, however, ready to translate "inflorescence a spike" into Latin.
   You already know that because the noun "inflorescence" is the subject of the phrase it must be in the nominative case. You also know that "inflorescence" is singular. So, from the vocabulary list above, you find the Latin word for inflorescence is inflorescentia. Conveniently, the vocabulary entries are in the nominative singular, so the beginning of "inflorescence a spike" is inflorescentia. Now, you probably know that the words "is" and "are" are not used in a dichotomous key. That is, you don't say "inflorescence is a spike"; you say simply "inflorescence a spike". Forms of the verb "to be" are understood. Articles ("a", "an", and "the") are not only omitted from a Latin description or diagnosis, they do not even exist in Latin. So, that brings us to "spike". Like "inflorescence", "spike" is in the nominative case, and it is also singular (just one spike). Again, going to the vocabulary list, you find that the nominative singular of spike is spica. All you have to do now is put the two words together: inflorescentia spica. (If inflorescentia is the first word of a stanza, you will need to capitalize it—Inflorescentia.) You have now written your first Latin description, not a particularly profound one, but a Latin one nevertheless.

Genitive case. In a description or diagnosis, you may wish to focus on a plant structure that is more specific than simply a leaf or a flower. Perhaps you want to describe a capsule's valves, the individual parts into which it splits. In Latin the standard order of words is first the thing or things being possessed and then the possessor; i.e., "valves of a capsule" in English. Let's say that these valves are the beginning of a phrase such as "valves of a capsule purple, with pink hairs". Because "valves" is the subject of the phrase, it is in the nominative case. It is also plural, so you have to find the Latin word for "valve" and then determine its nominative plural form. From the vocabulary above, the nominative singular of "valve" is valva, and from the table of first declension endings, the nominative plural is valvae. You're halfway there. Next is to determine how to write "of a capsule". The noun here is a possessor; i.e., it possesses the valves. The possessive case in Latin is the genitive. From the vocabulary, the Latin word for "capsule" is capsula and from the first declension endings, the genitive singular—there is only one capsule—is capsulae. Again, there are no articles in Latin, so "valves of a capsule" is valvae capsulae. It is only coincidental that both words have the same ending. Had "capsule" been plural, the word would have been capsularum (actually capsulārum, but remember that botanical Latin does not use macrons).
   The genitive case is also used when the word "of" is desired but not in the possessive sense, such as "an inflorescence of umbels". "Inflorescence" is in the nominative singular—inflorescentia—and "of umbels" is in the genitive plural—umbellarum (again, without a macron). So, an "inflorescence of umbels" is inflorescentia umbellarum.

Dative case. The most common use of the dative is as the indirect object of a verb, but you will rarely encounter this in botanical Latin. Constructions that require the dative case will be dealt with later.

Accusative case. The accustive is the case of a direct object of a verb or participle as well as the object of some prepositions. In botanical Latin, you will often encounter participles (lesson 10) and prepositions (lesson 8) and, therefore, the accusative case.

Ablative case. Nouns (and adjectives) in the ablative case are quite common in botanical Latin. You can see from the first table above that the English translation of the ablative adds the word "by", "with", or "from" before the noun. "With" is frequently used in botanical Latin. Let's say, for example, that you wished to write the very short phrase "a plant with berries". "Plant" is the subject of the phrase and is, therefore, in the nominative case. Planta is the nominative singular (the phrase is about "a plant", not "plants"). The word "with" (in "with berries") tells you that you need to use the ablative case of berries, and because you are dealing with plural "berries", not the singular "a berry", you need to use the plural. The ablative plural of "berries" is baccis, and "a plant with berries" is planta baccis.

Exercises - For answers, please click here.
Translate the following into English. Because no macrons are used, you will be told when there is an ablative case.
   1. inflorescentia cyma
   2. plantae herbae
   3. corolla plantae
   4. familiae plantarum
   5. capsula valvis [valvis is in the ablative here]
   6. gemma maculis [maculis is in the ablative]
   7. galea carina [the case of carina is ablative]
   8. herbae gemmis et setis [both gemmis and setis ablative; et = and]
   9. absentia antherarum [one of these two words is in the ablative]
   10. bractea absentia venarum [one of the words is in the ablative]

Write the following in Latin.
   1. with a corolla
   2. keels [as a direct object]
   3. the silique's bristles
   4. the siliques' bristles
   5. to the drupe [indirect object]
   6. a line of spots [line = linea]
   7. the plant an herb
   8. a plant with glumes
   9. an herb with an inflorescence of spikes
   10. a plant with an infructescence of berries

Write a Latin description for the following. These are more challenging. You have to convey the meaning rather than following the exact wording.
   1. berries that have bristles on them
   2. a plant whose flowers occur in umbels