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Now, I'm a Latin student, and that being said, I understand how cases operate and what they do for a language, but I've never enjoyed learning/studying/keeping track of them. That being said, I feel like my conlang needs at least a simple case system. Question is: should I try and base it off of what I'm familiar with (English and Latin), or can I make my own (albeit extremely watered-down) system? Example: having one noun case that is its name in any instance (whether it's the subject, object, etc.), a case indicating possession: "something of the noun", a vocative case, and maybe some other simple cases.

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Latin's case system is fairly standard for Indo-European languages. But it's by no means the only option even within that language family.

  • At most, English has nominative, accusative, genitive, and possessive. Only the pronouns still distinguish them: they, them, their, theirs. (In general English has no noun cases at this point, except for arguably the 's particle—but that's a separate debate.)
  • German has nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative: he, his, to him, him.
  • Russian also has similar cases to Latin, but the ablative is split into the prepositional (object of some prepositions) and the instrumental ("using ___").

If you look at non-Indo-European languages there are even more possibilities.

  • Mandarin Chinese has no cases at all.
  • Finnish has fifteen, such as the elative ("out of the house"), the illative ("into the house"), the allative ("to the house"), the ablative ("from the house"), and the translative ("turning into a house").
  • Basque (sometimes) divides ergative-absolutive rather than nominative-accusative: in other words, the subject of an intransitive verb looks like the object of a transitive verb.
  • Japanese and Korean have two types of nominative, the "subject nominative" and the "topic nominative".

In general, cases tend to "appear" in the following order, in that the later ones usually aren't found without the earlier ones. But there are lots and lots of exceptions to this; it's more of a general guideline than a rule.

  • Nominative/ergative
  • Accusative/absolutive
  • Genitive
  • Dative
  • Prepositional
  • Ablative
  • Instrumental
  • Vocative
  • Anything else (looking at you, Finnish)
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    Not sure it makes sense to describe "genitive" vs. "possessive" as a case distinction (even setting aside whether we classify case distinctions that only show up on pronouns as a case system). It's based on the presence or absence of following words in the noun phrase, which isn't a typical conditioning factor for case. – brass tacks Dec 5 '16 at 19:54
  • @sumelic I agree that the names are not good. The way I've heard it described is that "genitive" is used in attributive position while "possessive" is in predicate position, which allegedly also conditions cases like the "essive" in other languages. But the meanings are exactly the same, and the distinction is marked on a total of five words in the entire language, so you're right that calling it a case system is a stretch. – Draconis Dec 5 '16 at 20:19
  • Hmm. The theories that I am most familiar with treat determiners as the head of their phrases, so I'm not used to thinking of "my" in "my brother" as an attributive. – brass tacks Dec 5 '16 at 20:27
  • The root meaning of the genitive is source not possession, so it would be very conceivable to have two distinct cases. Add the partitive while you're at it. – curiousdannii Dec 6 '16 at 2:37
  • Genitive and possessive generally aren't distinguished unless they clearly represent something different, like they do in Turkish. The possessive suffixes for nouns ('my book') are very common, and there's also a genitive case for nouns ('the woman's doctor'), along with quite a few other cases. More depends on the variety of inflection you choose, and the branching direction; agglutinative languages like Turkish and Finnish use mostly regular case markers, but fusional languages like Latin have multi-dimensional paradigms. – jlawler Dec 6 '16 at 4:11
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In a conlang, you can essentially try out whatever you want. When you want to go for a naturalistic, but simple case system, there are are languages with just two cases termed nominative (for the subject of a sentence) and oblique (for everything else, including direct and indirect objects as well as nouns in prepositional phrases).

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One personal example: my mother tongue has no case structure and most people I know do not speak a language that has a real, rough case system like Latin. After I learned some languages that had cases I felt the need to create a conlang with a very simple case structure in order to teach my friends what cases were. Now, most of them already spoke English, so I decided to make a conlang based on English. After thinking a little about colours and numbers, I created the following structure:

  1. Nominative
  2. Genitive
  3. Accusative
  4. Locative

Those were the easiest cases to explain. The numbers represent them. This means that we can translate a simple sentence like

Michael knows the place in which Olivia's apples were.

to

Michael-1 knows place-3 which-4 Olivia-2 apples-1 were.

Now, the numbers can be translated to sounds:

  1. No sound
  2. -'s
  3. tow
  4. ins

And get

Michael knows placetow whichins Olivia's apples were.

where I tried to emphasize word ordering is mostly secondary in case-rich languages.

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  • Otherwise +1, but {Olivia's apples were} is a dependent clause, so it must be continuous. In other words, the last sentence should read, {Were Olivia's applestow} {Michael finally understood} {where}. Also, quite often in case-rich languages, the logically-linked parts stay nearby, so {where} may be placed in between the other clauses. – bytebuster Dec 5 '16 at 21:55
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    Apples isn't an object but is the subject of its subordinate clause, so probably should not be in the accusative. – TKR Dec 5 '16 at 22:07
  • You're both right. I'll repair my examples tomorrow :) – QuantumBrick Dec 5 '16 at 23:52
  • @TKR's comment is also right; the sentence could say something like "Michael knows place-3 which-4 … apples-1 were", does it make sense? – bytebuster Dec 6 '16 at 2:36
  • @bytebuster I've changed my example based on your suggestion. Take a look and see if it's OK =) – QuantumBrick Dec 6 '16 at 11:52

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