Third Declension Nouns [Greek]

When I was first introduced to the third declension I thought I had entered Spartan boot camp. I had just started to grasp the definite article and case endings for nouns (1 and 2 declension) and it seemed like everything I had learned was turned upside down. After working with them for a few weeks they no longer seem so terrible, though still a bit weird.

The Greek declension rules are: [1]

  • stems ending in α or η are first declension
  • stems ending in ο are second declension
  • stems ending in consonants are third declension

The first and second declension case endings follow the definite article with very few exceptions. The third declension however has a different set of case endings.

masculine (2) feminine (1) neuter (2) masculine (3) feminine (3) neuter (3)
nominative singular ς ν ς ς
genitive singular υ ς υ ος ος ος
dative singular ι ι ι ι ι ι
accusative singular ν ν ν α α
masculine (2) feminine (1) neuter (2) masculine (3) feminine (3) neuter (3)
nominative plural ι ι α ες ες α
genitive plural ων ων ων ων ων ων
dative plural ις ις ις σι σι σι
accusative plural υς ς α ας ας α

The declension system is a modern way of organizing case endings. It was not something first century Greek students would have used to learn the language.

It is only since the seventeenth century A.D. that modern grammarians distinguish for convenience three declensions in Greek. The older grammars had ten or more. […] Evidently therefore the ancient Greeks did not have the benefit of our modern theories and rules, but inflected the substantives according to principles not now known to us. The various dialects exercised great freedom also and exhibited independent development at many points, not to mention the changes in time in each dialect. The threefold division is purely a convenience, […] [2]

The third declension nouns use the same definite article as the first and second declension nouns. Therefore the feminine third declension noun in the accusative singular would be:

τnv ἐλπιδα

Like all nouns, the entry in the lexicon for a third declension noun is listed using the nominative singular form. The entry also provides the same information (as shown below for the word hope):

ἐλπισ the Greek word in its nominative singular form.
-ιδος the genitive singular ending.
the nominative singular definite article.

The definite article ἡ, let’s us know that the gender of this noun is feminine.

For the third declension nouns we derive the stem by dropping the letters ος off the genitive case ending:

ἐλπιδ

It is usually difficult to determine the stem from the nominative case ending since the consonant often changes with the sigma case ending as it does here (the delta drops off per the square of stops).

ἐλπιd + ς = ἐλπις

Using the information from the lexicon we can decline the word as a 3rd declension feminine noun as follows:

nominative singular ἐλπιd + ς = ἐλπις
genitive singular ἐλπιd + ος = ἐλπιδος
dative singular ἐλπιd + ι = ἐλπιδι
accusative singular ἐλπιd + α = ἐλπιδα
nominative plural ἐλπιd + ες = ἐλπιδες
genitive plural ἐλπιd + ων = ἐλπιδων
dative plural ἐλπιd + σι = ἐλπισι
accusative plural ἐλπιd + ας = ἐλπιδας

Our professor has stressed the importance of memorizing the full lexical entry of each noun so that we are able to determine the stem, gender, and declension. And that still seems like an exercise straight out of Sparta.

[1] Noun rules and case endings are based on Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek 2nd edition
[2] Robertson, Grammar of the Greek NT 3rd Edition page 247

Looking it up [Greek Lexicons]

Struggling to learn the vocabulary seems like facing the invading Persian army at Thermopylae and I often have the same attitude as the Spartan solider in the video – ‘I don’t think I want too, what exactly are our chances here’. But I haven’t given up even if it is a daunting task. The tools we have to do battle with are as Greek students are not shields and cloaks, but the lexicon – an alphabetical listing of the words with their meanings. If you are thinking to yourself that this sounds a lot like a dictionary then you would be right and that is essentially what it is. The word lexicon actually comes from the Greek word – λεξικος – which means “of or for words”.

There are multiple Greek Lexicons that are available for use. This post from Biblical Studies and Technical tools lists several including the three most common:

  • A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BDAG] – a very popular and comprehensive lexicon used in seminaries focusing on ancient Greek words used in Christian literature.
  • Liddell, Scott, & Jones [LSJ] – a comprehensive lexicon containing entries for ancient Greek words covering a larger range of time period (1200 BC – 600 AD)  and a larger range of literature types than just Christian literature. It is available on line at Perseus Digital Library.
  • Louw-Nida – a lexicon focused on the NT Greek. Its grouping of Greek words allows the reader to find synonyms for words similar to a thesaurus.

What is interesting is that the entries for Greek words in these lexicons are not what we might expect if we were to compare that to looking up an English word in an English dictionary.

For example the word “compassion” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary online is listed as:

compassion – noun

sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

However when we look up an equivalent word in a Greek Lexicon (like BDAG) the entry is listed as:

σπλάγχνον, -ου, τό

1) the inward parts of the body

2) the seat of emotions, heart

3) the feeling itself of love, affection

We will quickly notice that the entry does not list the part of speech. We have to figure out that this is a noun. It also does not tell us the declension of the noun. At least not explicitly, we have to be able to figure that out too. Knowing the declension of the noun is an important part of understanding how to parse the word when it appears in a sentence.

As a side note we also see that this word in Greek can take on a much more diverse set of meanings than its English counterpart. The context is going to drive the meaning in any particular text. For example Acts 1:18 uses the word with the first meaning (guts), Philemon 1:7 uses the word with the second meaning (heart), while Philippians 2:1 uses the word with the third meaning (mercy, compassion).

Lexical Entry for a Noun
This entry in the lexicon is for a noun and it provides numerous pieces of information besides the English meaning(s):

σπλάγχνον the Greek word in its nominative singular form.
-ου the genitive singular ending.
τό the nominative singular definite article.

It is important to understand that Greek words in lexicons are listed in the nominative singular form not their stem. That means we have to learn our vocabulary words in that case form.

The definite article τό, let’s us know (if we have memorized the definite articles) that the gender of this noun is neuter.

Reviewing the nominative and genitive case endings provided in the lexical entry we can derive the stem by dropping the letters after the last vowel giving us:

σπλάγχνο

The stem ends in an omicron so this is a 2nd declension noun.

Using the information from the lexicon we can decline the word as a 2nd declension neuter noun as follows:

nominative singular σπλάγχνον
genitive singular σπλάγχνου
dative singular σπλάγχνῳ
accusative singular σπλάγχνον
nominative plural σπλάγχνα
genitive plural σπλάγχνων
dative plural σπλάγχνοις
accusative plural σπλάγχνα

We may also recognize that this is a second declension noun based on the endings ον and ου being the neuter case endings for the nominative and genitive singular forms.

Lexical Entry for an Adjective
An entry for a Greek adjective – say for the word “bad” would be listed as:

κακός, -ή, όν

The entry is still listed in the nominative singular form of the word. However since an adjective must agree with the noun it describes in case, number, and gender the entry in the lexicon has a different form. The entry provides the following information instead of the definite article or the genitive singular:

κακός the masculine nominative singular form.
the feminine nominative singular form.
-όν the neuter nominative singular form.

Adjectives are inflected the same way as the noun.

Lexical Entry for a Preposition or Conjunction
An entry for a Greek preposition also has a different form. Since the preposition in Greek is not inflected it has a simple entry, similar to an entry for an English word in a dictionary. It looks like this:

μετά
1) with genitive: with
2) with accusative: after

The meaning of the preposition will vary based on the case ending of the noun it is associated with.

Other words that have a simple lexical entry are conjunctions. An example is “and”:

και

Hopefully this post will help understand the Greek vocabulary that appears in the lexicon. This was a concept I found confusing as I struggle to memorize Greek vocabulary and work with the words in translation exercises.

Describing the Greeks (Adjectives)

Here is a song describing Greeks from Horrible Histories:

Like English, the Greek language has adjectives. School House Rock has a song if you are struggling with what these are. I think most of us studying Greek as first year students would unpack “frustrated” first too. Of course adjectives describe nouns and thankfully they function in the same way in both languages. But School House Rock left out some other things adjectives can do as there are actually three functions that adjectives play.

  • attributive – the typical usage, which is to describe a noun
  • predicate – also describes a noun but it implies the verb “to be”
  • substantival – in this case the adjective is also the noun. The noun is implied.

For example in English the word “bad” is the adjective describing house (attributive):

The bad house

In Greek that would be written as:

ὁ κακός οἰκος

or

ὁ κακός ὁ οἰκος

The key here is that the adjective has the definite article in front of it.

However if we wrote the following the adjective form changes:

κακός ὁ οἰκος

Notice that all we did was remove the definite article from the adjective. Now the adjective is in the predicate case. This would be translated “the house is bad”. However notice that the verb “to be” is implicit since the word ἐστιν is not supplied.

Finally we could write this in another form:

ὁ κακός

Notice here that there is no noun. Now the adjective is in the substantival case. This would be translated “the bad (thing)”. What is bad would have to be derived from the context. Here there is no context supplied.

As you may (or may not have noticed) adjectives use the same case ending as the nouns. This is how we can identify the noun that the adjective describes. However, adjectives are “weird” in that the Greek word can be used in all three genders. Nouns can’t. This is because the adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in case, number, and gender. And thankfully the Greeks did not invent a new word for each gender.

For example we could write “the bad house” using the feminine Greek word for house, instead of the masculine word above. Don’t ask me why there is a different Greek word for house in the masculine and in the feminine rather than one word in the neuter. In any case that would be result in:

ἡ κακια οἰκια

Here the important thing to notice is that the adjective κακός, -ἡ, -όν took on the feminine definite article and the case ending for the feminine nominative singular case.

Three simple rules to help identify how the adjective is functioning in the sentence:

  1. if the adjective does not have a definite article (and there is a noun with a definite article) then it is a predicate
  2. if the adjective has the definite article (and there is a noun with or without a definite article) then it is attributive
  3. if the adjective has the definite article (and there is no noun) then it is substantival

Here is a chart I have been using to work on the vocabulary in BBG2. And here is the answer key generated from Bible Works.