III. Nouns Part 1

Introduction

In this chapter, we’ll be talking about your basic, everyday nouns.1  Just like in English, nouns in Greek refer to people, places, or things (including abstract concepts).  So in terms of meaning, these should be familiar.  But even while they mean the same things as English nouns, Greek nouns behave somewhat differently.  Because Greek is what’s known as an inflected language, nouns change depending on what they’re doing in the sentence.

With an English sentence, we know what each word is doing based on where it appears.  So if I say “He wrote a letter,” it’s obvious what each of those nouns is doing–we know that “he” is writing (i.e. is the subject), and that the letter is what is being written (meaning it’s the direct object of the verb).  If we switch the word order and say “a letter wrote him,” the meaning of the sentence totally changes.

In Greek, on the other hand, we look at the word’s ending to know what function it serves.  English has some vestiges of this: notice in my second example how “he” becomes “him” when it’s the direct object of a verb?  Almost all Greek nouns do this.  This also means that word order in Greek is much more fluid.  We would say “I write a letter with a pen.”  “A letter with a pen I write” sort of makes sense, but sounds awkward.  In Greek, on the other hand, virtually any combination is fine, since the words’ endings show what they’re doing rather than where they appear in the sentence.

A Greek noun’s ending changes based on one of three things: number, gender, and case.2  Let’s look briefly at what each of these means.

Number

This one is pretty straightforward: we can see from an ending whether a noun is singular (just one) or plural (more than one).  English nouns can also change their endings to show plural by adding “s.”  Note too that just as in English, we can have singular nouns that refer to many things, such as “crowd,” “group,” etc.

Gender

Like many languages of the world, Greek nouns have grammatical gender, with a noun being either masculine, feminine, or neuter.  In most cases this is arbitrary; just because the word γραφή, meaning a writing (hopefully you recall this from the previous chapter) is feminine doesn’t imply some female nature to a given piece of writing or the idea of writing itself.  Of course, in some cases it does make sense: the word for “girl,” κόρη, is indeed feminine.

Case

This is where we get more into the endings that I discussed earlier.  As mentioned above, the case refers to what the word is doing in the sentence.  Greek has four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative.  Each case has a specific function.

Nominative: This is the “default” case, if you want to call it that, that indicates the subject of a verb.  So in the Greek version of “I write a letter,” the word “I” would be in the nominative.

Accusative:  This case refers to the direct object of a sentence.  As a refresher, the direct object is what receives the action of the verb, or what the verb is done to.  In the example above (“I write a letter”), the word “letter” is the direct object because it is the thing that the action of writing is being done to.

Genitive: The genitive case is used for attribution, possession, and the like.  So it can generally (but not always) be translated as “of.”  In another example, you would say “your” in Greek by putting “you” in the genitive case (meaning an object becomes “of you”).

Dative:  The dative is generally the indirect object, which refers to something that is indirectly affected by the verb (as opposed to directly).  So if you send a letter to her, “her” is the indirect object, while “letter” is again the direct object.  Greek will also use the dative case to refer to the instrument of the verb, i.e. the means by which it was done (whether literal or metaphorical).

Second Declension Nouns

Now let’s get to where the rubber meets the road.  We typically divide Greek nouns into one of three declensions, with each one following a pattern.  We’ll talk about the first two in this chapter and the next, while we’ll save the third for a later date (it has a lot more variation).

The second declension is the most regular, so we’ll start with it.  Second declension nouns are mostly masculine or neuter, but can occasionally be feminine.  The tables below show the endings for second declension nouns in singular and plural.3

Singular
Case Masculine

Neuter

Nominative

-ος

-ον

Genitive

-ου

-ου

Dative

-ῳ

-ῳ

Accusative

-ον

-ον

Plural
Case

Masculine

Neuter

Nominative

-οι

Genitive

-ων

-ων

Dative

-οις

-οις

Accusative

-ους

The endings don’t have accent marks themselves (so it’s based on whatever the word has in the nominative).  However, an ending with a long vowel or diphthong (such as the genitive endings) will often “pull” the accent one syllable to the right.

A couple quick examples.  With the word θεός, God, the genitive would be θεοῦ (since it’s a masculine noun).  Meanwhile τέκνον, “child,” would become τέκνου in the genitive and τέκνα in the nominative plural (since it’s neuter).

For our purposes, the important thing is to be able to recognize each form rather than necessarily being able to produce them yourself.  As you read more and more, you’ll get faster at identifying which case a word falls into.

The Article: Masculine and Neuter

Greek uses the article (“the” in English) far more often than English does.  In addition to making a statement more specific, it is used to tie nouns together with other parts of speech (such as adjectives), and can be used with phrases to mean “the one that.”

The article changes form based on the case, number, and gender of the word it is referring to.  So “the book” and “the books” would have different forms of the article in Greek.  Thankfully, the forms it takes are almost identical to the endings shown above.  Just remember, though, that these forms are based on gender and not what declension pattern the word is.  So ὁδός (“road, way, path”) would use the feminine forms of the article (which we’ll learn in the next chapter) because it’s feminine, even though it’s a second declension noun (and so uses the endings from this chapter).

Singular
Masculine Neuter
Nominative τό
Genitive τοῦ τοῦ
Dative τῷ τῷ
Accusative τόν τό
Plural
Masculine Neuter
Nominative οἱ τά
Genitive τῶν τῶν
Dative τοῖς τοῖς
Accusative τούς τά

So if we have a sentence with God as the subject, it would be ὁ θέος with the article.  If the word were in the genitive, it would be τοῦ θεοῦ.

Dictionary Conventions

Now that we have the basic endings (and form of the article), it’s worth mentioning briefly how to look up words in a dictionary.  If you’re using a paper dictionary, it’s done in alphabetical order based on the first letter, as you would expect (the order that the letters appear in the previous chapter is what a dictionary will follow).  Let’s say you wanted to look up the word λόγος.  The entry in the dictionary would look like this:

λόγος, ου, ὁ

Let’s break this down.  The first word is the nominative singular form of the word we’re looking up.  The part after the first comma tells us the genitive singular ending of the word, which in turn lets us know what declension pattern the word is.  (When we get to nouns that change stem in other forms, the second part of the entry will instead show the the stem or the whole genitive singular form.)  Finally, you’ll see the masculine, singular article ὁ.  This tells you that the word is masculine.

I’ll include some paper dictionary suggestions in the Appendix.  For an online one, the Perseus Project at Tufts University has a Greek Word Study Tool.  The nice thing about this one is that you can put in an inflected form (i.e. something other than the nominative singular) and it’ll tell you both what form it is and what it means.  Note though that the focus of the definitions is on the Classical period, about 500 years before Christ.  But it’ll hopefully get you the gist of the word, at the least (and does include references to how the word is used in early Christian works, even if they can be hard to find).

Exercise

Below you can find the first 12 verses from chapter 1 of the Book of John.  To practice what we’ve gone over so far, identify each of the second-declension nouns in the passage (and their articles, if applicable), and then figure out what case it’s in.  Note that they won’t all be in the nominative!

There are some nouns from other patterns in here, too, but don’t worry about them for now.  I’ve included any adjectives that look like a second declension noun in the answer key as well to avoid confusion.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος, καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος. 2 οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. 3 πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν γέγονεν 4 ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἐστιν, καὶ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων. 5 καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν. 6 Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος, ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης· 7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι’ αὐτοῦ. 8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ’ ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός. 9 Ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον. 10 ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν, καὶ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω11 εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν, καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον. 12 ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ…

Scroll down for the answers.

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Here is a list of the second-declensions nouns from the passage, along with their associated articles if they have one.  I’ve only mentioned each form once even if they repeat.  All nouns are masculine unless indicated otherwise with “(neut.).”  Adjectives are indicated as such.

Form from the passage Case and number Meaning
ὁ λόγος Nominative singular word
τὸν θεόν Accusative singular God
οὗτος Nominative singular This
αὐτοῦ Genitive singular He
τῶν ἀνθρώπων Genitive plural Man(kind), person
ἄνθρωπος Nominative singular
ἀπεσταλμένος Nominative singular (participle) “The one who had been/was sent”
θεοῦ Genitive singular God
ὄνομα* Nominative singular (neut.) Name
ἐκεῖνος Nominative singular That one
αὐτῷ Dative singular He/him
τὸ ἀληθινόν Nominative singular (neut.) (adjective) true
ἄνθρωπον Accusative singular Man(kind), person
ἐρχόμενον Accusative singular (participle) “coming”
τὸν κόσμον Accusative singular The universe, the cosmos
τῷ κόσμῳ Dative singular
ὁ κόσμος Nominative singular
αὐτὸν Accusative singular He/him
τὰ ἴδια Accusative plural (neut.) (adjective) one’s own
οἱ ἴδιοι Nominative plural
ὅσοι Nominative plural However many, as many as
αὐτοῖς Dative plural They
τέκνα Nominative plural (neut.) Child

* Even though this looks like it should be plural, it’s actually singular. Despite the ending, it is a third declension noun, not second, so behaves differently from the nouns we’re discussing in this chapter.


1 Greek also has participles, which are nouns formed from verbs (e.g. “the first mover”).  They’ll be discussed in a later chapter. Back.

2 Nouns don’t change based on gender. Instead the ending generally (but not always) reflects it. Back.

3 Technically the leading vowels of the ending aren’t considered part of the ending itself, but it is much simpler to learn them this way (since you don’t have to get into various vowel combinations and replacements). Back.