There is a tendency in Germanic and Romance languages that the number of the grammatical cases is decreasing.

The Indo-European proto-language should have 8 grammatical cases, in Latin we already have only 7, in modern German 4, in English only 2...

What is suprising for me, the declension of the language was firstly becoming more and more complicated, and then there was a decrease. What have caused such phenomenon?

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    What are the two cases in English? By the way, you might want to specify "grammatical cases": every languages has cases, but some show them, others use prepositions.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 15:01
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    What makes you think case is the only marker of a language becoming more/less complicated?
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 16:36
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    @alenanno and I meant cases (nominative, genitive etc.) somehow explicitly marked on the word itself. Syntax not always == morphology. Hm, that needs its own symbol, really.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:01
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    I wouldn't say it's necessarily true that all languages have cases. The term "case" seems to have a more specific meaning relating to nominal inflections and a more general, less common extended sense that also covers adpositions in languages where nouns don't inflect etc. But I think there must be a better word for these "semantic roles" that all languages have. I know in Georgian there is a non 1:1 mapping between semantic roles and cases. The subject can be in nominal or ergative case, the object can be in dative or nominal case - and there are some other less common possibilities too! Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:50
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    I want to be clear to say that a) I believe semantic roles and cases are too independent things. Also b) There's probably a more standard term than "semantic roles" but that seems to be a straightforward way to say what I'm thinking. Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:52

1 Answer 1


As I understand, it's not that these languages are forever on a downward trend with respect to case markings, but rather that these things are cyclical. In general, languages seem to cycle between analytical (few morphological cases, as the question is concerned) and synthetic (many cases) over long spans of time. This happens as children analyze speech in slightly different ways than the adults they are exposed to. A quick example of this happening in earlier English is the word napron. Adults referred to it as a napron, and now we know it as an apron.

You can find more about this by searching on terms linguistic cycle, grammaticalization and reanalysis.

It should be noted that languages with robust case systems are not "better" at expressing ideas than those with sparse case systems. In English, for example, we can express the same ideas for which other languages require case markings by adding other words (generally prepositions).


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