Making my case

Dec 26, 2011 by

In the last couple of posts, I’ve discussed the issue of grammatical complexity and have shown that even if an objective measure of such complexity is absent, languages clearly differ as to which grammatical distinctions they “care about” and how they encode them. For example, languages may choose to “care about” such pronominal features as person, number, gender and formality; or tense (with more or fewer distinctions present). Another category where languages vary widely is case marking.

Even if we don’t consider the actual cases and how they are used in any given language, but focus on the number of case distinctions made, languages can vary from a minimal 2-way case system to as having as many as 40 cases or more. Or, of course, a language can have no case marking at all, as is the case in many Romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Catalan (Romanian actually has a 2-way case distinction, as does English in its pronominal system: he vs. him). Languages with no case marking use other means to express “who did what to whom”. One way to encode such grammatical relations is by word order; for example, in English nouns are not marked for case so the only way to know who kissed whom in  John kissed Mary vs. Mary kissed John is by looking at the word order. Another way in which grammatical relations can be encoded is by bound morphemes — prefixes or suffixes — on the verb. For example, in Abkhaz (a Northwest Caucasian language of some 105,000 speakers) prefixes on the verb are used to encode agreement with the subject, the object and the indirect object. In a-xàc’a a-pħwəs a-šq’wə ø-lə-y-te-yt’ ‘The man gave the woman the book’ (literally ‘the-man the-woman the-book it-her-he-give-PAST’), the prefix lə- shows agreement with the indirect object ‘the woman’, the prefix y- — with the subject ‘the man’, and the absence of another prefix (marked by ø-) — with the direct object ‘the book’. (Abkhaz actually has a 2-way case distinction, which is supplemented by the pluripersonal agreement, as described above.)

In addition to English (in the pronominal system) and Romanian, languages with the 2-way case system include Irish (Celtic, Indo-European), Urdu (Indo-Aryan, Indo-European), Berber (Afroasiatic), Squamish (Salishan) and Mapudungun (Araucanian). A smaller number of languages, including Modern Greek (Indo-European), Pashto (Indo-European) and Khanty (Finno-Ugric), distinguish three cases. An equally small number of languages, including Icelandic, German and Albanian (all Indo-European) distinguish 4 cases. Languages with a 5-way case system include Latvian, Serbo-Croatian and Armenian (all Indo-European). Languages with a 6- or 7-way case system include Russian (Indo-European), Northern Saami (Finno-Ugric), Malayalam (Dravidian), as well as Korean, Aymara and Dyirbal. Altogether in the WALS sample of 261 language, the largest number — 37 languages — exhibit a 6- or 7-way case system. Languages with 8- or 9-case systems are rarer and include Burushaski, Burmese (a relative of Mandarin Chinese, which has no case marking at all), Japanese and Yidiny (a close relative of the above-mentioned Dyirbal).

Finally, languages with the richest case systems (10+ cases in the WALS categorization) include Finno-Ugric languages like Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and Udmurt; Siberian languages such as Ket and Evenki; a couple of Dravidian languages (Brahui and Toda); some Australian Aboriginal languages and, most notably, languages in the Caucasus region, such as Ingush, Hunzib, Lak, Lezgin, Avar, Tsez and Tabasaran.  Most of the cases in these Nakh and Dagestanian languages are the so-called locative cases, which mark various locations and directions:

While the exact number of cases in these languages is debatable (cf. Comrie and Polinsky1998), it is clear that (a) languages in the Northeastern Caucasus region use case marking for location and direction (where languages like English use prepositions instead); and (b) there are many more location and categories distinguished in these languages. For example, as can be seen from the table above, Tsez uses different markers for ‘in’ depending on whether it is in a substance or in an empty container; for example, whereas English has the exact same preposition in There’s a fly in my soup and There’s a fly in my bowl, Tsez requires two different case markers. Similarly, English uses the same preposition for ‘on’ regardless of whether a horizontal or a vertical surface is involved: The picture is on the table and The picture is on the wall, but Tsez once again marks this distinction via case markers. Nor does English have separate prepositions to mark all of the combinations of location and direction, lexicalized in Tsez. For instance, there is no special preposition in English to mean ‘from under’, but Tsez has -ƛ-āy and -ƛ-āz-ay (the former form is used if the location ‘under’ is close and the latter — if it is far). Note that Russian — which as only 6 productive cases and uses prepositions, like English, to mark location and direction — also has a separate preposition iz-pod to mean ‘from under’, so the fact that English uses prepositions rather than case markers per se does not prevent it from lexicalizing certain locations/directions. This is a purely language-internal matter. Languages can do that. Because they do not need to be — and are not — equally grammatically complex.


Comrie, Bernard & Maria Polinsky (1998)  The Great Dagestanian Case Hoax.  In: Anna Siewierska & Jae Jung Song (eds.) Case, Typology, and Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 95-114.


Previous Post
| Next Post