Today begins a new series on nouns. Each case will be posted one at a time for the next few weeks. I’m trying something different, so for the next while, updates will be on Mondays with grammatical building blocks. I’m beginning with nouns and verbs, then will move into adjectives, adverbs and pronouns. That’s the plan, anyway.
Latvian is a case-based system, similar to Latin and other languages, but not very much like English. What this means is that every noun can be declined into one of seven cases. Each case represents a different sentence part, the subject, direct object, indirect object and so on. The case system changes the endings of the nouns, which makes it possible to infer more information without requiring additional words.
Nominative is the first case and correlates to the English subject. The singular nominative is also the dictionary form, or the form used to list nouns in dictionaries.
Let’s look at an example of how this works.
Pele grib sieru. — The mouse wants the cheese.
Pele is nominative. Sieru is accusative. The mouse does the action, so it is the subject of the sentence. The cheese is affected by the action, so it is the direct object.
In case-based languages like Latvian, you can play with the order of the words, “sieru pele grib“, for instance, and still have the same meaning. (This is not something you can do in English!) Latvian poetry takes full advantage of this, believe me, even if prose and conversation tends not to mix things up too heavily.
Asking the Question
Latvian associates a question word with six of the seven cases. (Vocative does not have an associated question word specifically for it alone.) For nominative, Latvians ask Kas? (Read more about interrogating nouns here.)
Kas means who or what. It can refer to a person (who) or a thing (what). The word is the same regardless and can be answered in either singular or plural.
Kas grib sieru? Pele. — Who wants the cheese? The mouse.
Kas asks for an answer in the nominative. You can’t ask: Kas pele grib? or Kas grib pele? It would be like asking in English “Who the mouse wants?” You wind up with two identical subjects, which just doesn’t work. And no, you can’t change it to “What does the mouse want?” because the question is still pursuing the direct object. Kas is pursuing the subject of the sentence, the doer of the action.
Most sentences will have a subject in the nominative case, but not all. Just as in English, sometimes the subject is inferred or dropped. In that case, context will tell you what the subject is.
Forming the Plural
Pluralizing nominative nouns is very easy, but you can read more about it in On Plurals.
For nouns in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd declension, the ending changes to –i.
For nouns in the 4th and 5th declension, add an –s to the ending. Just like in English!
For nouns in the 6th declension, change the ending from -s to –is.
Remember that the 2nd declension plural will always involve palatalization when possible. For example, brālis becomes brāļi because l can change to ļ, while tālskatis becomes tālskati, as t doesn’t seem to change in the 2nd declension nouns. (It is possible for t to change to š, as in the 5th declension noun bite which becomes bišu in the genitive plural.)
How to Decline in the Nominative
This is the easiest one, as it is the dictionary form. The endings are as follows:
vsk. 1. dekl. | 2. dekl. | 2. dekl. exc. | 3. dekl. Kas? -s, -š | -is | -s | -us vsk. 4. dekl. | 5. dekl. | 6. dekl. Kas? -a | -e | -s dsk. 1. dekl. | 2. dekl. | 2. dekl. exc. | 3. dekl. Kas? -i | -i | -i | -i dsk. 4. dekl. | 5. dekl. | 6. dekl Kas? -as | -es | -is Red indicates potential palatalization changes.