This questions applies only to the languages which originally did not feature noun case systems and developed it over time through various sound, morphological and syntactical changes.

By a case system here I mean more or less the Indo-European, flectional one, the categories of number, case have to be marked by just one morpheme.

I assume that such development would occur through agglutination and/or grammaticalization of various postpositions, prepositions (this one morpheme could also be a prefix) and particles. As I understand, this excludes the agglutinative system of, for example, Finnish or Hungarian.

What interest me here are specific examples of such processes, their individual ways of evolution and what can be possibly extracted from them as maybe some universal truth about that kind of language transformation.

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    It seems some of the more adverbial cases in IE (or at least Skt) are derived from postpositions, or at least that's the usual explanation.
    – jlawler
    Sep 18, 2015 at 19:14
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    In Saussure's Course a process is presented. As I recall it concerns a certain development where a completely independent particle becomes an adverb then gets a fixed position around a certain part of sentence which ultimately ends in agglutination of that adverb to the part of sentence and produces a morpheme which then can be glued to other words in similar context. I am not sure if that would be the case with a development of cases but I would guess it would look somewhat similar. But what interests me more is a possible presence of any analogical processes in non-IE languages.
    – czypsu
    Sep 18, 2015 at 19:32
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    This seems like the Grammaticalization Cycle.
    – jlawler
    Sep 18, 2015 at 20:14
  • sorry, I misread: looks like you already know about Hungarian and Finnish. Sep 18, 2015 at 22:02
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    Yes, you are probably right about the gender thing, I am updating the question. Actually it appears to me now that gender doesn't necessarily have to be dependent on any morphological properties of the word at all. But as far as case and number goes, the noun endings (one morpheme -is, -um, -e, -ibus etc.) encode the information about both the case and the number.
    – czypsu
    Sep 18, 2015 at 22:19

1 Answer 1


You pretty much already described the accepted theory of how a case system has emerged:

"grammaticalization of various postpositions, prepositions (this one morpheme could also be a prefix) and particles"

This is expressed as the cline of grammaticality (oft mentioned in answers here), developed by Hopper and Traugott:

content word → grammatical word → clitic → inflectional affix

There are fairly well attested instances of the development of individual inflectional markers but none (as far as I know) of a whole system that would not be the result of contact rather than "organic" grammaticalization. The Wikipedia entry on grammaticalization has plenty of examples. If you want enter link description heremore, you can try the Oxford handbooks on grammaticalization and case where a lot of the key researchers in the field wrote contributions. The chapter on diachronic view of the case lists the main processes by which individual cases arise.

Editorial: While grammaticalization is a very plausible (and well documented) process of the development of individual forms, the examples given usually describe the emergence of new structures within existing inflectional systems or the very beginnings of inflection in non-inflectional systems (as in Creoles). However, the question of how a complex inflectional system such as the Slavic case system can emerge as a whole. Did it appear more or less at once or gradually form by form? We don't know but given how long grammaticalization takes, it is unlikely to have emerged completely gradually but given the complexity, it can also not have emerged at once fully formed. I think the sheer complexity of forms making up the system is underappreciated - for instance, to achieve full consistency Fronek has identified over 100 nominal paradigms in Czech (I'm working on a paper on this). It is quite hard to imagine this being learned (in the traditional manner), let alone evolved. Dixon's punctuated equillibria hypothesis (borrowed from biology) could be a part of the answer but I think there's still a plenty to be discovered.

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