More Cases

In my previous post I looked at the cases in Latin. This post continues the examination of grammatical cases by comparing the case systems of a few languages. Cases are a device for showing how the words in a sentence are related to each other. There are other devices, such as word order or prepositions; I will mention some of these when it’s appropriate, and in my next post I will look at some interesting aspects of case in English.

In Latin, if a noun is in the nominative case, it’s almost always going to be the subject of the sentence or perhaps a predicate complement, as “Emperor” in “Augustus was Emperor”; if a noun is in the accusative, it could be the direct object of the verb, or it could be the object of a preposition. And so on.

Latin has six noun cases—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative. The vocative is the case you use when you’re directly addressing someone—if you see your friend Tullius down the street, you could shout “Hey, Tulli!” The vocative often has the same form as the nominative, and it’s not used all that often in literature, but it was surely common in daily life. Ancient Greek has five noun cases—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative; the ablative has disappeared, and many functions of the Latin ablative have been taken over by the ancient Greek genitive.

Modern English has just two noun cases: the genitive case, also called the possessive case, and the everything else case. The genitive case can indicate possession—“This is Mary’s wallet”—but it can also indicate other kinds of association. If we say “The wallet’s owner was careless to leave it on the table”, the genitive “wallet’s” doesn’t mean that the wallet owns its owner. If we talk about “the rockets’ red glare”, we don’t mean that the rockets are the owners of red glare the way Mary owns her wallet. The genitive in “the rockets’ red glare” is sometime called the genitive of source: the rockets are the source of the red glare. In English we can also use a prepositional phrase instead of the genitive case: we can say either “the robin’s song” or “the song of the robin”.

Every English noun that isn’t in the genitive is in the everything else case, no matter what function it has in the sentence—subject: “The student will give a presentation”; direct object: “The teacher praised the student”; indirect object: “The teacher gave the student an excellent grade”; object of a preposition: “The teacher spoke to the student”. English pronouns, however, have three cases: in “standard” English these are nominative (“I”), accusative (“me”), and genitive (“my/mine”).

If you go far enough back in time, say to the year 1000 AD, Old English had four noun cases instead of two. Here’s the declension of the Old English article and noun “se cyning” which means “the king”—notice that the definite article in Old English has different forms for each case (the letter þ is called “thorn” and it was pronounced “th”:

                        singular           plural
nom                 se cyning         þa cyningas
gen                  þæs cyninges   þara cyninga
dat                   þæm cyninge   þæm cyningum
acc                   þone cyning    þa cyningas

The nominative singular and the accusative singular of the noun are identical, but the articles are different, so you can tell that “se cyning” is the subject of the sentence and “þone cyning” is an object.

For comparison, the modern German word for “king” is “König”; here’s the declension:

nom                 der König        die Könige
gen                  des Königs      der Könige
dat                   dem König      den Königen
acc                   den König       die Könige

In this declension, just as in the Old English declension of “se cyning”, some of the forms repeat, but the article tells us the case: “der König” is nominative, while “dem König” is dative and “den König” is accusative. The forms for the Old English are very similar to the Modern German; I don’t know the forms for German of 1000 AD, but I would bet they are even more similar to the Old English. This kind of similarity tells us that German and English are related—both belong to the Germanic family of languages.

Some languages have no noun cases at all. French, for example, uses prepositional phrases instead. There isn’t any construction equivalent to “Pierre’s car”, so you have to say “la voiture de Pierre” instead. (French pronouns, however, do have case.)

Sanskrit has eight cases: the six we’re familiar with from Latin—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative—and two more—instrumental and locative. The names of the instrumental and the locative indicate their functions: if you say “I opened the door with a key” in Sanskrit, the word “key” would be in the instrumental case, and if you say “I was at home” the word “home” would be in the locative case.

All of the languages I’ve mentioned so far are members of the Indo-European language family; all Indo-European languages derive from a language we call Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which was spoken maybe five or six thousand years ago. Writing had not been developed at that time, so we have no written records of PIE, but linguists have been able to deduce a lot about it by comparing the various languages that developed from it. I will have more to say about PIE from time to time, but for now what’s relevant is that PIE had eight cases, the same eight that we find in Sanskrit.

Some languages have lots of cases. Finnish, for instance, which is not an Indo-European language, has eighteen. Here they are, just for the record: nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, translative, instructive, abessive, and comitative. Many of these would be translated into English as prepositional phrases indicating something about location or motion. The inessive case, for instance, is used for location within (“in a house”), the elative case is used for motion out (“out of a house”), and the illative is used for motion into (“into a house”). English, as you can see, uses prepositions. Finnish has a lot of cases, but it doesn’t take the record. According to Barry Blake (in his book Case), there’s a language called Avar that has twenty-seven cases. There are cases for position on the top of, destination on the top of, path on the top of, position in a hollow object, source in a hollow object, path in a hollow object, and so on.

The details of these various grammatical systems are interesting, at least to me, but what really matters isn’t the forms themselves, it’s the meanings expressed by the forms. The job of cases is to show how words in a sentence relate to each other. Languages which don’t use cases find other ways to do this job—such as word order or prepositional phrases. The way the words in a sentence relate to each other is connected to the way ideas are related to each other, and this in turn is related to (but not identical to) the way things in the world are related to each other. So looking at cases and their equivalents gives us a kind of rough and ready analysis of what we think the world is like.

How many cases are there? This question can be divided into several related questions: (1) How many cases are in fact found in all the languages around the world? (2) Is there some universal set of cases? (3) Are some cases more fundamental than others? (4) In theory how many cases could there be?

(1) The longest lists of existing cases that I’ve seen add up to forty-five or fifty, but an exact number is hard to determine, partly because different linguists use different names for the cases, and partly because new cases could be found in languages that haven’t yet been described. I doubt, however, that the number would be much more than fifty. Of these, no language that I’ve heard of uses more than about thirty, and the average is between two and a dozen.

(2) Modern linguistics has been interested in finding language universals, features that all languages must have, so it makes sense to ask if there is a universal set of cases. The first answer would have to be No, since there are languages, such as French, that don’t have any cases at all, and languages like Avar with twenty-seven. But at a deeper level the answer may be Yes, depending on how you analyze cases. This question will be the topic of my next post.

(3) Surely some cases are more fundamental than others. Something like the distinction between the nominative and the accusative is very widespread, but some of the cases in Finnish or Avar are not common—most languages won’t have a case to express motion out of a hollow object. It might be possible to develop a set of what are called implicational universals, such as “if a language has a genitive case, it will also have a nominative and an accusative case—but not necessarily the reverse”; “if a language has an inessive case, it will also have an ablative case—but not necessarily the reverse”—if these statements are true (and I don’t know if they are), then we could say that the nominative and the accusative are more fundamental than the genitive, and the ablative is more fundamental than the inessive.

(4) How many cases could there be in theory? If the function of cases is to show relationships between words in a sentence, and if the words in a language in some way represent our ideas about the world, and if our ideas about the world have some kind of relation to what the world is like, then the number of cases in theory is limited only by the number of things in the world and their relationships. We could have a case for every possible relationship that things and ideas and words could have, but such a huge number of cases would be impossible to learn and remember. Instead, it makes sense to group a number of relationships together in a single case. Exactly how these groups are formed differs in different languages. For example, Latin has an ablative case, which was lost in Greek, so the Greek genitive and dative perform some of the functions of the Latin ablative.

English prepositions, as I’ve mentioned, sometimes perform the functions that cases can perform in other languages, and English prepositions can have the same kind of combination of uses that we find in Latin or Greek cases. The preposition “of”, for instance, can be used for possession (this is a book of mine), as well as other kinds of association (he is a friend of mine); to indicate the material of which something is made (a crown of gold); with the names of cities or other locations (the city of Athens, the island of Malta); to identify an event (the battle of Waterloo); in partitive constructions (some of the wine); source (the sound of the trumpet); and so on. Other prepositions have similar ranges of meaning—think of the uses of “with” or “for”. It would be quite impractical to have a different preposition for each usage.

Prepositions are just one of the ways that English has found to do what cases do in other languages, but many of the mechanisms of English are hidden from view, and we have to figure out ways of getting at these covert mechanisms. That’s what I will be looking at in my next post.

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