Vocatives, which are basically nouns that refer to the person to whom the speech event is directed, are said to be detached from the sentences in which they occur.

Mary, I hate you.
I don't think I like you, Susan.
My ill feelings towards you, Carmen, are endless.

In order for a nominal to become overt, it needs to be checked by the case filter and be assigned case by proper case assigners.

If vocatives really are detached from their respective sentences and are not represented in syntactic trees, how are they assigned case?

What case vocatives get in English isn't quite clear. Perhaps someone could tell me what case they get in other languages such as German, Greek, Russian or other languages with rich case morphology.

  • 1
    It varies from language to language. In Greek and Latin, they get the vocative case (which is identical to the nominative except in the singular of thematic masculines); in Irish, there's a separate vocative for all nouns (singular and plural), made up of a vocative participle a followed by a form that may be identical to the nominative or genitive form or entirely separate; in Icelandic, Finnish, and (as far as I know) German, they get the nominative. Why do they need to be assigned any case in English, though? What case is “Crap!” or “Nice!”? (Is the misogyny intentional?) Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 16:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Just as a small quibble, in Greek some athematic nouns have distinct vocatives too.
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 17:35
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    This question only makes sense in generativist frameworks, since other theories of syntax don't necessarily assume that In order for a nominal to become overt, it needs to be checked by the case filter and be assigned case by proper case assigners. Maybe this should be made explicit in the wording of the question.
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 17:39
  • Who is it that says vocatives are "detached from the sentences in which they occur"? And what does that even mean? You can't hear the lines that connect parts of a tree.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 21:32
  • By "detached" you mean that it's not integrated into the grammatical structure of the clause (such as dangling topics)?
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 17:43

3 Answers 3


Vocative is problematic because it's not even clear, it should be considered a case since it plays a discursive rather than syntactic role (although you could make an outside case for the syntax by saying it marks it as not nominative or accusative).

In Indo-European languages with preserved vocative morphology, it is generally considered to be part of the morphological case paradigm (e.g. 5th case in Czech or 6th case in Latin). But you could just as easily call it a morpheme with a discourse function and exclude it from the paradigm (as some people have tried with the Genitive.)

Most Slavic languages have at least remnants of the vocative morphology. For instance, the Russian God! 'bozhe'. But mostly, they just use the nominative form. Czech has a fully preserved and functional vocative morphology that can be used across all classes of nouns (including inanimates). Related languages like Polish or Slovak have all but lost all the vocative morphemes in their modern varieties although there's still some awareness preserved of the archaic forms by native speakers. Vocative is also somewhat preserved in Bulgarian.

Modern Greek also has functional Vocative morphology which was inherited from Ancient Greek. Latin, of course, is famous for the vocative (which even got mentioned in the famous Monty Python scene).

Definiteness is also sometimes used for a vocative function - e.g. in Albanian where it expressed through a suffix.

Analytic vocative is found in Irish where it is expressed through a preposed particle.

  • The Irish vocative is both analytic and morphological (in the first declension). The vocative of fear (man) is a fhir, while the vocative of fir (men) is a fheara (or in some southern dialects, a fhearaibh, using the dative as a vocative). Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 8:48
  • Also, at least one scholar does consider the vocative to be derivation rather than inflection, even in languages like Latin and Czech that have fully integrated vocatives. Wish I could remember who it is, but it's gone… Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 8:51
  • So what is the status of a vocative noun in a sentence? Is it something like dangling topics in Japanese or Chinese? As for definiteness, it can also be the other way around - a noun used as vocative can be articleless (as in Armenian or Catalan).
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 15:30
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    @Dominik Derivation can be highly productive as well. Making a verbal noun from a verb in English with the suffix -ing, for example, is something I would classify as derivation, but it is highly productive. Verbing nouns by zero-derivation is clearly derivation, but it is also highly productive. I don’t actually agree with the claim that vocatives are derivations, rather than inflection; but I remember the argumentation as it was presented to me as being quite sound. The crux, I believe, was precisely that vocatives function as discourse markers, rather than having nominal functions. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 18:17
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Of course, you are right. It did come out as if I meant that derivational morphology cannot be productive. What I meant to express was that the vocative in Czech was (for lack of a better phrase) 'inflectionally productive'. Meaning, that vocative does not create new words in the way the -er suffix might that would then function on their own as discourse markers drawn from a lexicon. But even this seems an infelicitous way of expressing it. Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 5:51

Russian actually presents a curious example here: on the one hand, as Dominik Lukes pointed out above, it lost the original Slavic vocative case save for a few remnants, but it's also innovated a vocative form entirely unrelated to the original one. It's highly colloquial and only exists for a single paradigm — if it can even be called a paradigm, because it's only used with first names ending with -а (which tend to be female but also include a number of common male diminutives). It consists in simply dropping the final -a: Sash! for Sasha, Marin! for Marina, etc. Narrowing it down further, the name must be paroxytonal, i.e. the syllable preceding the one containing the final -а has to be stressed.

Obviously it's a reflection of what started out as a purely phonetic phenomenon, but at this point it's used quite consciously in both spoken and written form. Linguists are tentatively calling it the "new vocative" but it would be a bit of a leap to conclude that it's an extra case which is just identical to the nominative in all the other paradigms.

Complicating it further still, it's not the only example of a Russian "case-oid", a kind of Pluto in the solar system of Russian declension; there's already a (much older) paradigm-specific partitive (replacing genitive) and locative (replacing prepositional) which only exist for a strictly limited number of nouns, all of which are something of a challenge to the whole idea of cases as something that exists a priori, at least as far as Russian is concerned.

Perhaps these types of phenomena represent a kind of inflectionary primordial soup which may have also existed in early Proto-Indo-European and other inflecting languages; perhaps something becomes a "case" (in inflecting rather than agglutinative languages, anyway) only once there's a perceived equivalence between certain oblique forms across paradigms.

And that is perhaps why the Indo-European vocative got classified as a case in the first place: there was more than one way to form it, depending on the paradigm, but all of these forms and their respective endings came to be perceived as expressing the same thing — just like with the other and more syntax-dependent cases. Case assignment may be an emergent property of an inflectional system that starts out highly paradigm-dependent and thus, to a certain degree, ad hoc.

  • Thanks, these are great examples of why the whole case as just a morphological paradigm is problematic. Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 5:53

Like interjections and topics, vocatives occur only in root sentences (in the sense pioneered by Emonds). A root sentence is, approximately, (1) an independent, free-standing clause, or (2) a clause conjoined with a root sentence, or (3) a sentence complement to a verb of direct or indirect quotation.

For instance, (1) "O Lord, he is stupid!", but *"That O Lord he was stupid amazed us." (where I've put a vocative with a non-root clause), (2) "O Lord, he is stupid, and he is proud of it.", (3) "O Lord, he was stupid, they all exclaimed."

If you want an interesting way of connecting vocatives with the rest of a root clause, I suppose you might resort to a performative analysis, where the speaker and addressee of a root clause are given explicit form: I (Greg) hereby exclaim to you (O Lord) that he is stupid. Or something like that. Less interestingly, you could simply provide for vocatives in a phrase structure rule describing the structure of root clauses.

I have no idea what it might mean for vocatives to be "detached" from sentences.

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