Grammatical case

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Case is a grammatical category whose value reflects the grammatical function performed by a noun or pronoun in a phrase, clause, or sentence. In some languages, nouns, pronouns, and their modifiers take different inflected forms depending on what case they are in. English has largely lost its case system, although case distinctions can still be seen with the personal pronouns: forms such as I, he and we are used in the role of subject ("I kicked the ball"), while forms such as me, him and us are used in the role of object ("John kicked me").

Languages such as Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hungarian, Turkish, Tamil, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Finnish, Icelandic, Latvian and Lithuanian have extensive case systems, with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and determiners all inflecting (usually by means of different suffixes) to indicate their case. A language may have a number of different cases (Turkish and Romanian has five, Latin and Russian each have at least six; Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Latvian and Lithuanian have seven; Finnish has fifteen and Hungarian has eighteen). Commonly encountered cases include nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. A role that one of these languages marks by case will often be marked in English using a preposition. For example, the English prepositional phrase with (his) foot (as in "John kicked the ball with his foot") might be rendered in Russian using a single noun in the instrumental case, or in Ancient Greek as τῷ ποδί, tōi podi, meaning "the foot" with both words (the definite article, and the noun πούς, pous, "foot") changing to dative form.

As a language evolves, cases can merge (for instance, in Ancient Greek the locative case has merged with the dative), a phenomenon formally called syncretism.[1]

More formally, case has been defined as "a system of marking dependent nouns for the type of relationship they bear to their heads".[2]:p.1 Cases should be distinguished from thematic roles such as agent and patient. They are often closely related, and in languages such as Latin several thematic roles have an associated case, but cases are a morphological notion, while thematic roles are a semantic one. Languages having cases often exhibit free word order, since thematic roles are not required to be marked by position in the sentence.


The English word case used in this sense comes from the Latin casus, which is derived from the verb cadere, "to fall", from the Proto-Indo-European root *ḱad-.[3] The Latin word is a calque of the Greek πτῶσις, ptosis, lit. "falling, fall".[4] The sense is that all other cases are considered to have "fallen" away from the nominative. This picture is also reflected in the word declension, from Latin declinere, "to lean", from the PIE root *ḱley-.

The equivalent to "case" in several other European languages also derives from casus, including cas in French, caso in Spanish and Kasus in German. The Russian word падеж padyezh similarly contains a root meaning "fall", and the Czech "pád" simply means "fall", and is used for both the concept of grammatical case and to refer to physical falls. The Finnish equivalent is sija, which can also mean "position" or "support".

Indo-European languages

On this sign in Russian memorializing an anniversary of the city of Balakhna, the word Balakhna on the right is in the nominative case, while the word Balakhne is in the dative case in Balakhne 500 Let ('Balakhna is 500 years old') on the front of the sign. Meanwhile let is in the genitive (plural) case.

While not very prominent in modern English, cases featured much more saliently in Old English and other ancient Indo-European languages, such as Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Historically, the Indo-European languages had eight morphological cases, though modern languages typically have fewer, using prepositions and word order to convey information that had previously been conveyed using distinct noun forms. Among modern languages, cases still feature prominently in most of the Balto-Slavic languages (except Macedonian and Bulgarian), with most having six to eight cases, as well as Icelandic, German and Modern Greek, which have four.[5] In German, cases are mostly marked on articles and adjectives, and less so on nouns. In Icelandic, articles, adjectives, personal names and nouns are all marked for case, making it, among other things, the living Germanic language that could be said to most closely resemble Proto-Germanic.

The eight historical Indo-European cases are as follows, with examples either of the English case or of the English syntactic alternative to case:

  • The nominative case indicates the subject of a finite verb: We went to the store.
  • The accusative case indicates the direct object of a verb: The clerk remembered us.
  • The dative case indicates the indirect object of a verb: The clerk gave us a discount.
  • The ablative case indicates movement from something, or cause: The victim went from us to see the doctor. and He was unhappy because of depression.
  • The genitive case, which roughly corresponds to English's possessive case and preposition of, indicates the possessor of another noun: John's book was on the table. and The pages of the book turned yellow.
  • The vocative case indicates an addressee: John, are you all right? or simply Hello, John!
  • The locative case indicates a location: We live in China.
  • The instrumental case indicates an object used in performing an action: We wiped the floor with a mop. and Written by hand.

All of the above are just rough descriptions; the precise distinctions vary from language to language, and are often quite complex. Case is based fundamentally on changes to the noun to indicate the noun's role in the sentence. This is not how English works, where word order and prepositions are used to achieve this.

Modern English has largely abandoned the inflectional case system of Indo-European in favor of analytic constructions. The personal pronouns of Modern English retain morphological case more strongly than any other word class (a remnant of the more extensive case system of Old English). For other pronouns, and all nouns, adjectives, and articles, grammatical function is indicated only by word order, by prepositions, and by the genitive clitic -'s.

Taken as a whole, English personal pronouns are typically said to have three morphological cases:

Most English personal pronouns have five forms: the nominative and oblique case forms, the possessive case, which has both a determiner form (such as my, our) and a distinct independent form (such as mine, ours) (with two exceptions: the third person singular masculine and the third person singular neuter it, which use the same form for both determiner and independent [his car, it is his]), and a distinct reflexive or intensive form (such as myself, ourselves). The interrogative personal pronoun who exhibits the greatest diversity of forms within the modern English pronoun system, having definite nominative, oblique, and genitive forms (who, whom, whose) and equivalently coordinating indefinite forms (whoever, whomever, and whosever).

Though English pronouns can have subject and object forms (he/him, she/her), nouns show only a singular/plural and a possessive/non-possessive distinction (e.g. chair, chairs, chair's, chairs'). Note that chair does not change form between "the chair is here" (subject) and "I saw the chair" (direct object), a distinction made by word order and context.

Hierarchy of cases

Cases can be ranked in the following hierarchy, where a language that does not have a given case will tend to not have any cases to the right of the missing case:[2]:p.89

This is only a general tendency, however. Many forms of Central German such as Colognian or Luxembourgish have a dative case but lack a genitive. In Irish nouns, the nominative and accusative have fallen together, whereas the dative–locative has remained separate in some paradigms; Irish also has a genitive and vocative case. Czech has both instrumental and vocative cases, but lacks an ablative, which was largely replaced by either the genitive or instrumental case. Latin has an nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and ablative, and a locative in certain nouns, but lacks a prepositional and instrumental case. In Punjabi, the accusative, genitive, and dative have merged to an oblique case, but it still retains vocative, locative, and ablative cases. Old English had a nominative, genitive, accusative, dative and instrumental, but not a locative, vocative, or prepositional.

Case concord systems

In the most common[2] case concord system, only the final word (the noun) in a phrase is marked for case. This system appears in Turkic languages, Mongolian, Quechua, Dravidian languages, many Papuan languages, Indo-Aryan languages, and others. In Basque and various Amazonian and Australian languages, only the phrase-final word (not necessarily the noun) is marked for case. In many Indo-European, Balto-Finnic, and Semitic languages, case is marked on the noun, the determiner, and usually the adjective. Other systems are less common. In some languages, there is double-marking of a word as both genitive (to indicate semantic role) and another case such as accusative (to establish concord with the head noun).[citation needed]

Declension paradigms

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Declension is the process or result of altering nouns to the correct grammatical cases. Languages with rich nominal inflection (use grammatical cases for many purposes) typically have a number of identifiable declension classes, or groups of nouns with a similar pattern of case inflection or declension. While Sanskrit has six classes, Latin is traditionally said to have five declension classes, and Ancient Greek three declension classes.[6]

In Indo-European languages, declension patterns may depend on a variety of factors, such as gender, number, phonological environment, and irregular historical factors. Pronouns sometimes have separate paradigms. In some languages, particularly Slavic languages, a case may contain different groups of endings depending on whether the word is a noun or an adjective. A single case may contain many different endings, some of which may even be derived from different roots. For example, in Polish, the genitive case has -a, -u, -ów, -i/-y, -e- for nouns, and -ego, -ej, -ich/-ych for adjectives. To a lesser extent, a noun's animacy or humanness may add another layer of complexity. For example, in Russian:

  • Кот (NOM, animate, zero ending) ловит мышей. (Cat catches mice)
  • Столб (NOM, inanimate, zero ending) поддерживает крышу. (Pillar holds a roof)


  • Петр гладит кота (ACC, animate, -a ending). (Peter strokes a cat)


  • Петр ломает столб (ACC, inanimate, zero ending). (Peter breaks a pillar).



In German, grammatical case is largely preserved in the articles and adjectives, but nouns have lost many of their original endings. Below is an example of case inflection in German using the masculine definite article and one of the German words for "sailor".

  • der Seemann (nominative) "the sailor" [as a subject] (e.g. Der Seemann steht da – the sailor is standing there)
  • des Seemannes (genitive) "the sailor's / [of] the sailor" (e.g. Der Name des Seemannes ist Otto – the sailor's name is Otto)
  • dem Seemann(e) (dative) "[to/for] the sailor" [as an indirect object] (e.g. Ich gab dem Seemann ein Geschenk – I gave a present to the sailor)
  • den Seemann (accusative) "the sailor" [as a direct object] (e.g. Ich sah den Seemann" – I saw the sailor)


Modern Greek has four cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, and vocative. For neuters and most groups of feminines and plural masculines, only the genitive case differs from the other three. Below is an example of the declension of ουρανός (sky), which has a different form in the singular of all four cases, together with the appropriate article in both the singular and the plural:

  • Nominative – ο ουρανός / οι ουρανοί
  • Genitive – του ουρανού / των ουρανών
  • Accusative – τον ουρανό / τους ουρανούς
  • Vocative – ουρανέ / ουρανοί

Ancient Greek had one additional case, the dative. At some point, it was replaced with the preposition εις, followed by the accusative. This became necessary when pronunciation simplified, merging the two long vowels eta and omega to short. The result was that dative did not sound much different from the accusative in the singular of the first two groups.

With time, only the sigma of εις was left and got attached to the article, except when an article is not used and it becomes σε instead. Below is an example with a modern dative is presented of the word πόλη (city):

  • Nominative – η πόλη / οι πόλεις
  • Genitive – της πόλης / των πόλεων
  • Dative – στην πόλη / στις πόλεις
  • Accusative – την πόλη / τις πόλεις
  • Vocative – πόλη / πόλεις


An example of a Latin case inflection is given below, using the singular forms of the Latin term for "cook," which belongs to Latin's second declension class.

  • coquus (nominative) "[the] cook" [as a subject] (e.g. coquus ibī stat – the cook is standing there)
  • coquī (genitive) "[the] cook's / [of the] cook" (e.g. nōmen coquī Claudius est – the cook's name is Claudius)
  • coquō (dative) "[to/for the] cook" [as an indirect object] (e.g. coquō dōnum dedī – I gave a present to the cook)
  • coquum (accusative) "[the] cook" [as a direct object] (e.g. coquum vīdī – I saw the cook)
  • coquō (ablative) "[by/with/from/in the] cook" [in various uses not covered by the above] (e.g. sum altior coquō – I am taller than the cook: ablative of comparison)
  • coque (vocative) "[you] the cook" [addressing the object] (e.g. "grātiās tibi agō, coque" – I thank you, cook)


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Latvian nouns have seven grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative. The instrumental case is always identical to the accusative in the singular and to the dative in the plural. It is used as a free-standing case (without a preposition) only in highly restricted contexts in modern Latvian.

An example of a Latvian case inflection is given below, using the singular forms of the Latvian term for "man," which belongs to the first declension class.

  • Nominative: vīrs
  • Genitive: vīra
  • Dative: vīram
  • Accusative: vīru
  • Locative: vīrā
  • Vocative: vīr


In Lithuanian, only the inflection usually changes in the seven different grammatical cases:

  • Nominative (vardininkas): Tai yra šuo – This is a dog.
  • Genitive (kilmininkas): Tomas paėmė šuns kaulą – Tom took the dog's bone.
  • Dative (naudininkas): Jis davė kaulą kitam šuniui – He gave the bone to another dog.
  • Accusative (galininkas): Jis nuprausė šunį – He washed the dog.
  • Instrumental (įnagininkas): Jis šunimi išgąsdino kates – He scared the cats with (using) the dog.
  • Locative (vietininkas): Susitiksime "Baltame šunyje" – We'll meet at the White Dog (Cafe).
  • Vocative (šauksmininkas): Jis sušuko: Ei, šunie! – He shouted: Hey, dog!


Hungarian declension is relatively simple with regular suffixes attached to the vast majority of nouns. The following table lists a few of the many cases used in Hungarian.

lakás – flat/apartment
Suffix Meaning Example Meaning of the example Case name
subject lakás flat/apartment (as a subject) Nominative case
-ot/(-at)/-et/-öt/-t direct object lakást flat/apartment (as an object) Accusative case
-nak/-nek indirect object lakásnak to the flat/apartment Dative case
-val/-vel (Assim.) with lakással with the flat/apartment Instrumental-comitative case
-ért for, for the purpose of lakásért for the flat/apartment Causal-final case
-vá/-vé (Assim.) into lakássá [turn] into a flat/apartment Translative case
-ig as far as, up to lakásig as far as the flat/apartment Terminative case


An example of Romanian case inflection is given below, using the singular form of the Romanian word for "boy":

  • Băiatul (nominative) "[the] boy" [as a subject] (e.g. Băiatul a stat acasa – the boy stayed home)
  • Băiat (accusative) "boy" [as a direct object] (e.g. L-am vazut aseara pe băiat – I saw the boy last night)
  • Băiatului (genitive) "[the] boy's / [of the] boy" (e.g. Bicicleta băiatului s-a stricat – the boy's bike broke down)
  • Băiatului (dative) "[to the] boy" (e.g. I-am dat un cadou băiatului – I gave the boy a gift)
  • Băiete! (vocative) "Boy!" (e.g. Stai acasă, băiete! – stay at home boy!)


An example of a Russian case inflection is given below, using the singular forms of the Russian term for "sailor," which belongs to Russian's first declension class.

  • моряк (nominative) "[the] sailor" [as a subject] (e.g. Там стоит моряк – the sailor is standing there)
  • морякa (genitive) "[the] sailor's / [of the] sailor" (e.g. Сын моряка художник – the sailor's son is an artist)
  • моряку (dative) "[to/for the] sailor" [as an indirect object] (e.g. Моряку подарили подарок – Someone gave a present to the sailor)
  • морякa (accusative) "[the] sailor" [as a direct object] (e.g. Вижу моряка – I see the sailor)
  • моряком (instrumental) "[with the] sailor" [as a direct object] (e.g. Отныне я дружу с моряком – Now I start a friendship with the sailor)
  • моряке (prepositional) "[about the] sailor" [as a direct object] (e.g. Я часто вспоминаю о моряке – I often remember about the sailor)


Grammatical case was analyzed extensively in Sanskrit. The grammarian Pāṇini identified six semantic roles or karaka,[7] which are related to the following eight Sanskrit cases in order:[8]

Sanskrit cases
Order Sanskrit case English case
Case 1 प्रथमा Kartṛ Nominative
Case 2 द्वितीया Karman Accusative
Case 3 तृतीया Karaṇa Instrumental
Case 4 चतुर्थी Sampradāna Dative
Case 5 पञचमी Apādāna Ablative
Case 6 षष्ठी Sambandha Genitive
Case 7 सप्तमी Adhikaraṇa Locative
Case 8 सम्बोधन Sambodhana Vocative

For example in the following sentence leaf is the agent (kartā, nominative case), tree is the source (apādāna, ablative case), and ground is the locus (adhikaraṇa, locative case). The declensions are reflected in the morphemes -am -at and -au respectively.

vṛkṣ-āt parṇ-am bhūm-au patati
from the tree a leaf to the ground falls


The Tamil case system is analyzed in native and missionary grammars as consisting of a finite number of cases.[9][10] The usual treatment of Tamil case (Arden 1942)[11] is one in which there are seven cases: nominative (first case), accusative (second case), instrumental (third), dative (fourth), ablative (fifth), genitive (sixth), and locative (seventh). In traditional analyses, there is always a clear distinction made between postpositional morphemes and case endings. The vocative is sometimes given a place in the case system as an eighth case, but vocative forms do not participate in usual morphophonemic alternations and do not govern the use of any postpositions. Modern grammarians, however, argue that this eight-case classification is coarse and artificial[10] and that Tamil usage is best understood if each suffix or combination of suffixes is seen as marking a separate case.[12]

Tamil English Significance Usual suffixes
First case Nominative Subject of sentence [Zero]
Second case Accusative Object of action -ai
Third case Instrumental, Social Means by which action is done (Instrumental), Association, or means by which action is done (Social) -al, -out
Fourth case Dative Object to whom action is performed, Object for whom action is performed (u)kku, (u)kkàka
Fifth case Ablative of motion from Motion from an animate/inanimate object -il, -ininru, -iliruntu, -iruntu, -itattiliruntu
Sixth case Genitive Possessive [Zero], -in, -utaiya, -inutaiya
Seventh case Locative Place in which, On the person of (animate) in the presence of -il, itam
Eighth case Vocative Addressing, calling e, a


As languages evolve, case systems change. In early Ancient Greek, for example, the genitive and ablative cases became combined, giving five cases, rather than the six retained in Latin. In modern Hindi, the Sanskrit cases have been reduced to two: a direct case (for subjects and direct objects) and an oblique case.[13] In English, apart from the pronouns discussed above, case has vanished altogether except for the possessive/non-possessive dichotomy in nouns.

The evolution of the treatment of case relationships can be circular.[2]:pp.167–174 Adpositions can become unstressed and sound like they are an unstressed syllable of a neighboring word. A postposition can thus merge into the stem of a head noun, developing various forms depending on the phonological shape of the stem. Affixes can then be subject to various phonological processes such as assimilation, vowel centering to the schwa, phoneme loss, and fusion, and these processes can reduce or even eliminate the distinctions between cases. Languages can then compensate for the resulting loss of function by creating adpositions, thus coming full circle.

Recent experiments in agent-based modeling have shown how case systems can emerge and evolve in a population of language users.[14] The experiments demonstrate that language users may introduce new case markers to reduce the cognitive effort required for semantic interpretation, hence facilitating communication through language. Case markers then become generalized through analogical reasoning and reuse.

Linguistic typology

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Languages are categorized into several case systems, based on their morphosyntactic alignment—how they group verb agents and patients into cases:

  • Nominative–accusative (or simply accusative): The argument (subject) of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the agent (subject) of a transitive verb; this case is then called the nominative case, with the patient (direct object) of a transitive verb being in the accusative case.
  • Ergative–absolutive (or simply ergative): The argument (subject) of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the patient (direct object) of a transitive verb; this case is then called the absolutive case, with the agent (subject) of a transitive verb being in the ergative case.
  • Ergative–accusative (or tripartite): The argument (subject) of an intransitive verb is in its own case (the intransitive case), separate from that of the agent (subject) or patient (direct object) of a transitive verb (which is in the ergative case or accusative case, respectively).
  • Active–stative (or simply active): The argument (subject) of an intransitive verb can be in one of two cases; if the argument is an agent, as in "He ate," then it is in the same case as the agent (subject) of a transitive verb (sometimes called the agentive case), and if it's a patient, as in "He tripped," then it is in the same case as the patient (direct object) of a transitive verb (sometimes called the patientive case).
  • Trigger: One noun in a sentence is the topic or focus. This noun is in the trigger case, and information elsewhere in the sentence (for example a verb affix in Tagalog) specifies the role of the trigger. The trigger may be identified as the agent, patient, etc. Other nouns may be inflected for case, but the inflections are overloaded; for example, in Tagalog, the subject and object of a verb are both expressed in the genitive case when they are not in the trigger case.

The following are systems that some languages use to mark case instead of, or in addition to, declension:

  • Positional: Nouns are not inflected for case; the position of a noun in the sentence expresses its case.
  • Adpositional: Nouns are accompanied by words that mark case.

With a few exceptions, most languages in the Uralic family make extensive use of cases. Finnish has 15 cases according to the traditional understanding (or up to 30 depending on the interpretation).[15] However, only 12 are commonly used in speech (see Finnish noun cases). Estonian has 14 and Hungarian has 18.

Some languages have very many cases. For example, Tsez, a Northeast Caucasian language has 64 cases.

The original version of John Quijada's constructed language Ithkuil has 81 noun cases,[16] and its descendent Ilaksh and Ithkuil after the 2011 revision both have 96 noun cases.[17][18]

The lemma form of words, which is the form chosen by convention as the canonical form of a word, is usually the most unmarked or basic case, which is typically the nominative, trigger, or absolutive case, whichever a language may have.

See also


  1. Clackson (2007) p.91
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Blake, Barry J. Case. Cambridge University Press: 2001.
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  4. "L. cāsus used to translate Gr. πτῶσις lit. `falling, fall'. By Aristotle πτῶσις was applied to any derived, inflected, or extended form of the simple ὄνομα or ῥῆμα (i.e. the nominative of nouns, the present indicative of verbs), such as the oblique cases of nouns, the variations of adjectives due to gender and comparison, also the derived adverb (e.g. δικαίως was a πτῶσις of δίκαιος), the other tenses and moods of the verb, including its interrogative form. The grammarians, following the Stoics, restricted πτῶσις to nouns, and included the nominative under the designation". Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Among Slavic languages, Bulgarian and Macedonian are exceptions.Slavic Languages on
  6. Frank Beetham, Learning Greek with Plato, Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007.
  7. Pieter Cornelis Verhagen, Handbook of oriental studies: India. A history of Sanskrit grammatical literature in Tibet, Volume 2, BRILL, 2001, ISBN 90-04-11882-9, p. 281.
  8. W.D. Whitney, Sanskrit Grammar
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  10. 10.0 10.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  11. Arden, A. H. 1942, repr. 1969. A Progressive Grammar of the Tamil Language. Madras: Christian Literature Society.
  12. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  13. R. S. McGregor, Outline of Hindi Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1972.
  14. Remi van Trijp, "The Evolution of Case Systems for Marking Event Structure". In: Steels, Luc (Ed.), Experiments in Cultural Language Evolution, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2012, p. 169-205.
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