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  • Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusa-what? (11/25/2018)

    This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while: Cases! Although not really present in English or the Romance Languages (except for Romanian – love you, Romanian!), cases were once a massive part of their ancestors, Latin and Old English! Though it is easy to be naïve of features of other languages, it by no way means that they don’t exist! Cases are still a rich and beautiful feature in German, Icelandic, Russian, most Indic languages, Hungarian (there’s debate as to whether they are cases as such but I am going to call them cases for brevity), Arabic, Finnish – they’re everywhere! Cases add functionality to languages, allowing for changing word order for emphasis, to say more with fewer words, and they can remove the need for prepositions – they can do so much!

    Now – What exactly is case?

    A case isn’t the easiest thing to describe as to what it actually is, what it does is much easier to describe, though I shall try to describe a case.

    Case is a name given to the category of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, participles or numerals which reflect the grammatical case performed by that word in its current position (in a phrase, clause etc). The reflection is via inflection of the various parts of the sentence. Inflection can be as simple as adding an “s” for possession: her → hers (this is the remnant in English of the genitive case, sometimes called the possessive case) or by changing the word entirely she → her. This type of inflection is called declension, whereas the inflection of verbs is referred to as conjugation.

    It is crucial to the understanding of cases to see what sort of cases there are and what they do. There appears to be a hierarchy of cases, a theory developed by Barry Blake (https://web.archive.org/web/20070929161614/http://www.latrobe.edu.au/linguistics/LaTrobePapersinLinguistics/Vol%2005/01Blake.pdf) which shows:

    nominative → accusative/ergative → genitive → dative → locative/prepositional → ablative/instrumental → others

    The general idea of the hierarchy is that if a language has a particular case, it will most likely have at least one case from each of the categories to its left. So, if a given language has a locative case, it probably also has a dative, genitive, accusative or ergative, and a nominative. This is a generalisation and does not always hold true, for example Old English had an instrumental case but not a locative or prepositional case.

    Here, I will show what each of the above named cases are for:


    This is the subject of the sentence (technically a sentence with a finite verb). To illustrate this, I will use the German word “Der Mann” meaning “the man” in English,

    The man gives [to] the girl the boy’s dinner = Der Mann gibt dem Mädchen das Abendessen des Jungen

    Der Mann is in the nominative form as is the subject of the sentence, the person doing the verb. In terms of pronouns, this is what most of us are familiar with, it is the I/you/he/she/we/they form!


    The direct object (of a transitive verb), this is when we would use “me” or “us” in English, such as “She likes me”, the direct object is “me” here.

    She loves the man = Sie liebt den Mann

    Notice how “der Mann” has become “den Mann”, this is the accusative form of the verb and it is different to the nominative form! Because of this, you could equally say “den Mann liebt sie” which adds more flavour to what you are saying, it puts an emphasis on the first thing said, this is like saying “No no, it is the man that she loves”, not, say, the woman.


    This is more complicated, it requires the knowledge of transitive and intransitive verbs; Transitive verbs require an object, intransitive verbs do not. So for example “to have”, in English you say “she has [X]”, you can’t simply say “she has” and have it have any meaning on its own. Whereas, taking a verb such as “to sneeze”, saying simply “she sneezes”, this doesn’t require an object, [X], for it to make sense.
    Now, ergativity means that the subject (argument) of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb but differently to the agent (subject) of a transitive verb. This case is less common to English native, or most European native speakers, however it is in languages such as Basque and Tibetan! It is best understood through example.

    The best example I found of this is on the Ergative-Absolutive wikipedia page with an example in Basque. It uses the two sentences “Martin has arrived” (intransitive) and “Martin saw Diego.” (transitive) and I will show the contrast to a nominative-accusative language too:

    Martin has arrived = Der Mann ist angekommen = Martin etorri da

    Martin saw Diego = Der Mann sah Diego  = Martinek Diego ikusi du.

    As you can see, despite Martin being the doer of the verb in both examples, the subject changed in appearance (it change morphologically; in its form). Compared to a nominative-accusative language like German, it uses Der Mann in both the transitive and intransitive forms. (I used Der Mann instead of Martin to show that there really was no case change). This exemplifies morphological ergativity – there are other types of ergativity but I will leave it there. Ergativity puts Martin in the first sentence and Diego in the second sentence in the same case, when most languages would have them in nominative and accusative respectively.


    In its most general form, this shows one word modifying another word but many common uses are: possession (Cameron’s blog), composition (a selection of books), origin (People of Pompei) or compounding (this is often in Germanic languages when an “s” appears between two words to form a compound such as Realitätsverlust, a loss of reality, or in Grímnismál, the “Sayings of Grimnir” in Old Norse). Back to our example:

    The boy gives [to] the girl the man’s dinner = Der Junge gibt dem Mädchen das Abendessen des Mannes

    What happened here? We had Der Mann, Den Mann and now Des Mannes? Notice that in the genitive, Mann has a morphological change as well. This is because it is a masculine noun and masculine/neuter nouns in the singular get either “s” or “es” as a morphological ending in the genitive case. Note also that there was a second, subtle change: “Des Jungen” became “Der Junge” – this is because it is a weak masculine noun ending in an “e” and that’s what they do! Now, moving on – this isn’t a post dedicated to German! However it does show the crucial point that cases do not just cause the inflection of articles (words like “the” and “a”) but many parts of language such as nouns and adjectives too. Russian, like Latin having no articles, shows cases through noun cases, meaning that the nouns are heavily inflected to show their case.


    The indirect object of the sentence is marked by the dative case:

    The girls gives [to] the man the boy’s dinner = Das Mädchen gibt dem Mann das Abendessen des Jungen.

    We see again a new form of the definite article, German’s fourth case, so our examples are now depleted from German! Though there are several uses for the dative case which vary between languages, the example above shows the most common usage between those languages.


    This is the location of whatever is being inflected. This case has merged with other cases in many current Indo-European languages, even in Classical Latin this had begun to happen but it still exists in, say, Sanskrit and also in the modern Balto-Slavic languages, except for Macedonian and Bulgarian, though it is almost exclusively used with prepositions. For example:

    She sits at the table and eats = One siedzi przy stole i je.

    “Przy” is one of the 5 prepositions in Polish that can take the locative and is the only preposition to only take the vocative. The nominative of “table” is “stół” and as you can see, in the locative, the became “stole”, a very different pronunciation to the original!


    The locative is often called a prepositional case because of its tendency to only be used with prepositions. As such, a prepositional case is the case that marks the object of a preposition or a postposition. This term describes a case that is exclusively used with prepositions, not just prepositions that are used with certain cases.
    In Russian, the prepositional case is used to designate place, to designate the object being thought about or talked about or to show time.

    This was in May = Это было в мае

    With the nominative of May being май. However, this demonstrates the independence of the prepositional from the locative as there is no location shown here.


    The word “ablative” itself comes from the Latin ablatus meaning “to carry away”. The ablative isn’t that common of a case, existing notably in Latin, Armenian, Hungarian and Finnish (and still quite a few others) though not in Ancient Greek. Given its etymology, the ablative is used to show “from”-ness as in from a place, a person etc. The most common way of exemplifying the ablative would be through Latin given that that is whence it got its name, however, here I’ll choose Hungarian, the language of my family on my mother’s side.

    Reggel hattól nyolcig – From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

    Here, -tól is the Ablative but in a more abstract sense of from 6 a.m. until 8 a.m. whereas there is a literal of “from”-ness as in

    A háztól – from the house

    which is the “from” that most of us would think of straight away.


    Having nothing to do with musical instruments, the instrumental case does what it says in its name, it indicates that the noun is an instrument (a tool) or means with which a subject does something. In English, the case would be used when you could use “by means of”, “by use of” or sometimes “via”. Languages which use or used an instrumental case are Old English, Basque, Armenian, Japanese (if you count Japanese particles as being case markers), Nahuatl and many others!

    Under the assumption that particles class as a case in Japanese, the sentence:

    この本はペンで書かれた。- This book was written using a pen.

    (This was not in quote fashion as the kanji were in italic and it just looked a bit too weird). Here, で (de), shows the means by which something is done and in this example it is the means by which the book was written. Another example is from Nahuatl:

    ātlān ācaltica in huāllahqueh – They came on the water by boat

    Where “ācalli” means “boat” and the suffix -tica shows the instrumental case.


    An honourable mention is the vocative case. With its name deriving from the Latin vocare meaning “to call”, this is the case used to address someone and the addressee is marked with this case. In English, the comma used before someone’s name is called the vocative comma, demonstrating, using punctuation, the case’s use:

    Are you coming, Kasia? = Idziesz, Kasiu?

    With this example coming from Polish, you can see that even personal names get affected by case! Though this would come to no surprise to someone who had begun studying some Latin via a certain popular university’s course; with Caecilius (nom), Caecilium (acc), Caecilii (gen), Caecilio (dat) etc.

    A note on case usage

    Even though above I have shown how cases are used and their general usage, each language has their own differences on how they employ the case. Prepositions trigger certain cases. Every student of German has at some point had to find a way of remembering the list of Dative prepositions, accusative prepositions and the dual prepositions and everything else is probably genitive, especially it if ends in -halb! And it is not just prepositions that do this, verbs can as well. Again in German, if we take the verb “danken” meaning “to thank”, this always takes a Dative object so “I thank you” becomes “Ich danke dir”. A way of rationalising this is that you could imagine “I give thanks [to] you”. So this could easily be a reason why the Dative is employed here. Languages are so broad and beautiful that one could not hope the explicitly list exhaustively what each case does – their list of functions would end up looking the same!

    What is the point of case?

    Now that we have an understanding of what cases are, what’s the point of them? Well, to an English-speaking native, case seems like an abstract concept, but to someone whose native language is filled with cases, it gives linguistic freedom; word order no longer determines meaning (at least entirely). In languages such as German, some of the cases look identical, such as feminine nominative/accusative (die) or genitive/dative (der) but that is bound to happen – a unique form for each gender and each case would be tasking for anyone to learn and especially to keep it up over the centuries of linguistic development!

    If you made it this far – thank you for sticking it through, you must love cases as much as I do! There were probably more concise ways of wording this but this post is aimed at people who might not know much about cases or just want to know more! 

    Oh on a final final note, if it didn’t come through – I adore cases, they are a beautiful addition to language, seeing how even a single word can convey the equivalent of several in, say, English. They are wonderful to study! Equally, prepositions are super fun. Languages are just pretty!

    Stay tuned for more linguistic content!

  • Language Profile: German (8/5/2018)

    German is a member of the Germanic family of languages (the name Germanic itself deriving from Germanus/Germanicus from Latin), with the family being:

    Germanic Languages

    The languages with an asterix* next to them are languages that are now extinct. As you can see, the entire East Germanic tree is now extinct. Norn* is perhaps a language that you may not have heard of, this was the Norse language spoken on Orkney and the Shetland islands. Norn developed through Norse settlement over a thousand years ago, like how Icelandic and Faorese came about.

    Back to German

    German is an inflected language, meaning that it has different endings depending on case. There are four cases in the German language, namely the Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and the Accusative. I haven’t yet written about case but in short the nominative is the subject of the sentence, the accusative is the object, the dative is the indirect object (to someone) and the genitive is possession. In spoken German, the genitive is become less common (due to its slightly more complex nature) and is being replaced by the nominative. There has even been a book published whose name is a play on this “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” (The Dative is to the Genitive its death) where the title uses the Dative construct rather than “Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs” which uses the Genitive construction. Similar “dativications” appear when using prepositions which are standardly governed by the genitive yet people use dative, for example “wegen dem Wetter” instead of “wegen des Wetters”.

    There are also three genders in German: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Combine this with the 4 cases and a plural form and you have 16 combinations. And this is when the articles come in. German, like English, has definite and indefinite articles and because of the nature described above, there are 16 scenarios for each definite and indefinite article. Thankfully there are only 6 distinct forms of each (Der, die, das, den, dem, des and ein, eine, einen, eines, einem, einer), though they usually pose a problem to learners as first.

    Adjectives in German decline for number, case and definite-ness. You would think that there are only 2 types, being definite and indefinite, however there is a third: no article. This means learning (though it makes sense why the endings are why they are) three tables of 16 entries and remembering adjective endings is something I sometimes forget!

    German  verbs conjugate for person/number and tense, with the people including 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and plural and politeness (the same form “Sie” for both singular and plural).
    Verbs in German are often supported with an auxiliary verb such as “werden” – to become, “sein” – to be, or “haben” – to have.
    Es wurde gegessen – It was eaten (Imperfect passive construction, uses werden as the auxiliary verb)
    Er ist gegangen – He went (Perfect tense, uses a verb of motion so uses sein as auxiliary verb)
    Er hat gegessen – He ate/He has eaten (Perfect tense, not a verb of motion so uses haben as auxiliary verb)

    German has two participles, the present and past participles. The present participle takes the form of infinitive + d for example, the present participle of “essen” (to eat) is essend, and can be translated as “eating”, the “ing” form of the verb and is used to adjectivise (turn into an adjective) a verb for use of avoiding relative constructions.

    Present Participle Example (Called Partizipkonstruktionen in German)
    Without PresPart.
    Die Menschen, die nach Deutschland reisen, sind cool – The people who travel to Germany are cool

    With PresPart.
    Die nach Deutschland reisenden Menschen sind cool – The people who travel to Germany are cool

    As you can see, reisenden acts and declines like an adjective, gaining an +en ending for definite plural (to be distinct from feminine singular).
    *Note this is for all active sentences that this can be used and only the main verb is adjectivised. For passive sentences, the Past Participle Construction is used:

    The past participle is the verb form used with past perfect tense such as Ich habe das gemacht – I did that, a generalisation is that it is ge+3rd person singular conjugation of the verb – machen is “to do” and the 3rd person singular conjugation is “macht”, “does”, and so following that rule, we get gemacht you can also apply this to spielen and get gespielt however this only applies to the so-called “weak verbs”, these are verbs which don’t have a vowel change – aka regular verbs, “strong verbs” are verbs that do have a vowel change – aka irregular verbs, such as the verb finden, to find, which becomes gefunden. There are many strong verbs and their past participles end in en. There is also a class of “mixed verbs” which are essentially irregular weak verbs.

    Past Participle Examples
    Without PastPart.
    Die Pizza, die gestolen wurde, wäre lecker sein sollen – The pizza which was stolen ought to have been delicious

    With PastPart. 
    Die gestohlene Pizza wäre lecker sein sollen – The stolen pizza ought to have been delicious
    This takes two clauses and makes one singular, more complex sentence – interestingly you can do exactly this with the plain form, instead of with participles, in Japanese! (Though that is a whole other article in and of itself)

    Interesting Parts of German

    • All nouns in German are capitalised – all of them! When writing in German, it becomes such a habit that sometimes it just feels wrong not to capitalise nouns!
    • V2 position – Verbs go in 2nd position in German. By this I mean that verbs only ever change their position when acted upon by a subordinating conjunction (see below). This only applies to main verbs so either the auxiliary verb, modal verb (see below), or main verb. Examples of V2, taking the sentence “The woman greets the man every day:
      • Die Frau begrüßt den Mann jeden Tag
      • Jeden Tag begrüßt die Frau den Mann
      • Den Mann begrüßt die Frau jeden Tag

      Die Frau – the woman (feminine nominative, a case, I’ll write about this at another point)
      begrüßt – greets (3rd person singular present conjugation, weak verb)
      den Mann – the man (masculine accusative)
      jeden Tag – every day (this is in the accusative so Tag is masculine like Mann (as they both use “der”) and is in the accusative because temporal phrases take the accusative)

      I would say that the first two are standard word orders and the third is used to emphasise that it is the man whom the woman greets, rather than anyone else, whereas the first two don’t really have any strong emphases. The key thing to note is that in these sentences, the verb begrüßt never changes its position within the sentence.

    • Verb Scarers – In British education of the German language, there are conjunctions called verb scarers, i.e. subordinating conjunctions, words such as because/that/although etc. These are named as such because they scare the verb to the end of the sentence, an example:
      • Ich wusste nicht, dass ich ihn nicht zu meiner Party eingeladen hatte – I didn’t know that I hadn’t invited him to my party.

      The sentence without the conjunction reads:

      • Ich wusste nicht ich hatte ihn nicht zu meiner Party eingeladen.

      The past participle is “always” placed at the end of the sentence (always is in quotations because you can have a fronted participle to stress the action such as Herausgefunden hätten sie das nie! – They would have never figured it out, meaning that they could’ve done anything else other than figured it out – this is only stylism and in standard writing a fronted participle isn’t used). The point I was making is that verbs get forced to the end by the verb scarers! Though I can still remember a sentence from my A Level speaking exam that uses “dass” (that) in a way and such a specific tense that standardly, it doesn’t scare the auxiliary verb, that sentence is:

      Dieser Witz deutet darauf hin, dass die vier Mächter und zwei Länder hätten doch eine bessere Lösung finden können – This joke suggest that the four powers (political) and two countries (West and East Germany) could have found a better solution.

      It was about the joke “2 + 4 = 1” in the film Goodbye Lenin this was part of my analysis of the film that the solution to reunify Germany sounded crazy at the time; two countries plus four world powers (England, France, Soviet Union, and USA – these were powers that controlled a Besatzungszone, an occupied miliarty zone Berlin and the controlling powers of East and West Germany – anyway) come together to form a singular nation. This is about grammar, not film/linguistic analysis.

    • Modal Verbs – In German, as in many languages, modal verbs are used to indicate suggestions, likelihood, ability, permission etc these are all grouped into a term called modality. There are 6, I will list them in their infinive, then their 3rd person conjugation, then their english equivalents.
      • können, kann, can
      • sollen, soll, should/shall
      • wollen, will, want (Remember that in English a “will” is what you want, your final requests/wanting, and in archaic use, “will” can mean “want” as in “I will that he be gone”)
      • müssen, muss, must/have to
      • mögen, mag, may – as in “I may come” in a probabilistic sense – Also means “like” as in “Ich mag das nicht” – I don’t like that
      • dürfen, darf, may – as in asking permission
    • “To know” differences – There are two verbs that are “to know”, namely wissen and kennen and the rule of thumb is that wissen is for knowledge and kennen is for people, though for words for example ich kenne das Wort – I know that word; it gives a more intimate sense to knowing a word, as if you personally know the word and its essence.
    • Separable verbs – Some verbs have a prefix that is “separable” so this goes at the end of the sentence. If the verb has been scared or a modal verb (or is in the future tense, which uses the auxiliary verb “werden” which acts on the main verb like a modal by forcing it into the infinitive at the end of the sentence!) has been used, the prefix is reattached with the original verb! If not, they are a whole sentence apart. An example of such a verb is ankommen this is “to arrive” and can be used in such examples:
      1. Er kommt sofort an – He is arriving immediately
      2. Er wird sofort ankommen – He will arrive immediately
      3. Er ist sofort angekommen – He arrived immediately

      Here you can see that you conjugate the verb and then worry about the prefix, look at the 3rd example, angekommen is the past participle but “gekommen” is the past participle of “kommen” so it is just that plus “an”!

    I think that is where I’m gonna end the German profile there! Though I’m tempted to write about German grammar more! And as something extra, look at the name “LinguaLiebender” – the first part, Lingua, you can get that bit but Liebender is “lieben”, to love in German in its present participle form (can be looked on a bit like present progressive, “is loving”) plus the suffix “er” to make it into a male. So LinguaLiebender could be translated as “He who is loving languages” or simply LanguageLover.