The function of cases is to differentiate nouns in order for the reader/hearer to know what syntactic/semantic function it is performing in a sentence since others languages, such as Portuguese, have a flexible order in the sentences, OK!

However, in languages such as English (nominative-accusative languages), are the declension or adpositional case-marking systems really necessary considering that the sentence's arrangement is always the same (SVO)?

  • Declension - Case-marking system where the noun changes its form morphologically.
  • Adpositional - Case-marking system where the noun receives a suffix or prefix.
  • 3
    Your question is not very coherent. Case marking is vestigial in both Portuguese and English (limited to personal pronouns). Secondly whether a language is nominative-accusative or some other arrangement is completely independent of whether it uses case marking.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 11:17
  • A language's word order becomes more rigid as it loses case marking (unless there's some other mechanism at play such as in Macedonian or Abkhaz which have no case-marking on nouns yet free word order).
    – Atamiri
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 12:33
  • English isn't rigidly SVO either, but rather it's more rigidly just SV, with OSV allowed for emphasis ("the cow I did see, but not the dog"). You don't need rigid SVO
    – Darkgamma
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 12:34
  • @ColinFine - Why not coherent? In fact, case-marking system in both English and Portuguese is almost vestigial, and that's exactly what I am asking; there is no need to have a morphological change onto the personal pronouns since it is a nominative-accusative language, as you, yourself, said: "whether a language is nominative-accusative or some other arrangement is completely independent of whether it uses case marking"; however, something came into my mind, probably over the time, case-marking system in English reduced almost to zero, but they decided to keep them on personal pronouns.
    – Davyd
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 21:41
  • @Haseo: you seemed to be distinguishing English and Portuguese, and I didn't understand why, since they are almost identical with respect to the features you are talking aobut. Nobody "decided" to keep case marking on personal pronouns in English: it's just what happened.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 16:55

1 Answer 1


The circumstances under which case marking is "really necessary" can best be summarizes as "when otherwise most sentences become highly ambiguous and communication becomes impossible". In languages with fairly fixed word order and with prepositions / postpositions signalling certain grammatical functions, case marking could be dispensed with: in a strict SVO language "child sold cat" is unambiguous. In a strict SOV language "child cat sold" is likewise unambiguous. If you have free word order where all word orders are possible and equally likely, you can't rely on word order, so having case marking to distinguish subjects, objects, recipients and so on would be a good choice, communicatively speaking. Even so, given free word order and no case marking, there is little confusion over the meaning "cut child meat knife".

Case marking (in the normal understanding of the concept) is not even always required for free word order languages. In Khoekhoe, "basic" word order is SVO, but pretty much all word orders are possible. There is gender marking in the language: and the language uses gender marking to disambiguate. The subject has just it's own lexical gender; if you scramble an SOV sentence, the non-subjects have to also bear the gender marking of the subject (so any double marked NP is not subject).

Finally, a number of Bantu languages are pretty flexible with word order, but they have subject and sometimes object agreement. By matching the agreement properties of the verb, you can tell that ng'ombe akagura mwana means "The child (mwana) bought a cow" and ng'ombe ikagura mwana means "The cow (ng'ombe) bought a child", bizarre as the latter may be.

  • So, to sum up, you would say that English doesn't necessarily need such a thing, considering that only a few inversions are possible (such as when questioning, and giving emphasis on something)...
    – Davyd
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 20:37

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