(EN) Cases

“There are so many cases! How will I ever learn what the difference is between accusative, nominative and dative?!” This is a frequent complaint heard on the lips of English-speakers attempting to learn German or, indeed, any other language that has more than one definite article – more than one word for “the”. “English is so much easier,” they grumble. “We don’t have any of these silly differences in our language.” And you might be forgiven for thinking that they’re right. At first glance, English does appear to be caseless. This impression is compounded by English speakers’ general – and I write this with the utmost affection for my linguistic compatriots – ignorance when it comes to matters of grammar, especially where it concerns their own language.

Linguists have reconstructed a language that they call “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE), which they believe approximates the language spoken on the Eurasian continent before English became English, and even before even Latin became Latin, around 4500-2500 BC. Languages ranging from Spanish to Sanskrit, from Portuguese to Punjabi, from Norwegian to Nepali, and from French to Farsi are thought to be the modern descendants of this ‘original’ language. PIE is thought to have had eight or nine cases, which were declined morphologically, which means that the words or nouns themselves changed, depending on the function of the word in the sentence. Some Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit still have just as many cases, while others, like many of the Slavic tongues, still have six or seven, and languages such as German, Icelandic and Swedish get by with a comparatively paltry four.

In German, aside from the fact that there are three different genders and a plural form to begin with, the case of the word for “the” (let’s take the masculine form as an example), “der”, can change three times – to “den” (accusative), “dem” (dative) or “des” (genitive) – depending on what the noun it is attached to is doing in the sentence. And that’s just the masculine form! Combined with the feminine and neuter cases, together with the plurals, this means that, in German, there are sixteen different forms and six whole words to remember, just to say “the”.

But don’t be fooled: Despite the fact that we now only have one word for “the”, Old English still had four cases, which were formed as in German by changing the words themselves. With grammatical gender to boot, Old English therefore also had roughly one dozen words for “the”, most of which disappeared with the advent of Middle English, when the cases were whittled down to three and grammatical gender disappeared altogether. This was accompanied by the development and cementation of sentence order. This means that, in order to show who is doing what in a sentence, English now requires a specific word order – “The boy eats the apple,” subject, verb, object. This is different in German, where the grammatical cases apparent in the different words for “the” let speakers create sentences like “Den Apfel isst der Junge”, which, word for word, translates as: “The apple eats the boy,” but still means the same thing.

The last vestige of morphological case in English is our pronouns, where we have “I”, “me” and “my/mine”; “she”, “her” and “hers”; “he”, “him” and “his”; “they”, “them” and “theirs”; and “it” and “its”. These differences correspond with the nominative, objective/oblique and possessive cases, which provide the answers to the questions: 1. “Who is doing it?” 2. “To whom is it being done?” and 3. “Whose is it?” However, some of the last indicators of case that we do still have now look set to disappear too. Nowadays, you’re much more likely to hear somebody ask “Who should I address this letter to?” than “To whom shall I address this letter?”, which sounds a little pretentious to the average English-speaker’s ear. But there’s nothing pretentious about it – it’s the same as saying “him”. So, next time you have to make a choice, don’t be scared of using “whom” – and if anyone asks, just say you’re keeping the history of the English language alive!

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