As a non-linguist, I am confused about the concept of case. What is its definition, as linguists use it? Is it about the different forms that nouns/pronouns can take? Is it about the function of the noun in the sentence?

I find that the term "case" is used rather inconsistently.

For example, in Modern Greek, the ending of nouns changes with the case. Different nouns may have different endings for the same case though, so "case" is not only about form (the ending), but also about meaning.

In English, endings don't change. English is said not to have cases. But of course English can express the same meanings, even if this is marked in other ways than with endings, e.g. using prepositions or word order.

Hungarian is said to have many cases, but as a native speaker, I really don't see the difference between the suffixes used by Hungarian and the prepositions used by English. One comes before the word, the other comes after, but otherwise they communicate the same type of meaning. In both languages, they have the same form regardless of which word they're used with. (To be accurate, in Hungarian the endings change slightly to respect vowel harmony. But this is not comparable to the wildly different endings that Greek uses for the very same case.)

In Romanian schools, it is taught that Romanian has five cases. However, there is no difference at all between the form of nouns in the nominative/accusative and dative/genitive pairs. When schoolchildren are asked to identify cases in exercises, the distinction between these pairs is done based on meaning (which may be deduced e.g. from word order) and not the ending/form of nouns. The "case" couldn't be identified if the noun were not a part of a sentence.

I listed these examples to illustrate where my confusion comes from.

Is there a precise and universal definition of case in linguistics, or is it just a term of convenience that is applied differently to different languages?

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    Case can change the word radically. English is said not to have case, but it has vestiges of case in the pronouns. "she" and "her" is a case distinction. There isn't a prefix or suffix pattern there which maps to what is going on between "he" and "him". Also, "him" and "his" are distinct, but "her" (she, the object) and "her" (belonging to she) are the same. – Kaz May 17 '18 at 2:10
  • Also, you can assimilate the case somewhat to grammatical person and number in verbs, of which there is a tangible trace in English, namely the third person singular -s ending. The function of this ending is somewhat similar to that of a case, it indicates the modified words position in the grammatical environment and highlights its relationships/connections to other elements of the phrase. The case does a similar thing but with nominals. – Eleshar May 19 '18 at 10:32
  • Btw good question - I have always found myself on the very opposite end from you - I have linguistic education and my native language is highly inflectional (7 nominal cases), so I have always wondered how the English speakers actually perceive and understand the case and the principles of declensions. – Eleshar May 19 '18 at 10:37

There are multiple definitions of case, but the differences in conventional terminology between languages also just have a lot to do with different traditions for teaching grammar.

Morphological case

The original concept of "case" dates back to Greek and Latin traditional grammar. In this context, it's strongly connected to the concept of a noun's (or an adjective's, since adjectives were considered a type of noun) declension or inflectional paradigm. A paradigm can be visualized as a table containing different inflected forms of a word.

Although the concept of "inflection" (as opposed to derivation) has some complications of its own, in most cases it’s fairly straightforward, so I'm just going to assume in this answer that we're accepting the idea that "inflection" is a meaningful term. Inflection is considered to be a type of morphology, although the choice between different inflected forms of a word is often conditioned by the syntactic environment. A common phenomenon in morphology is syncretism, which can be thought of in this case as a situtation where the inflectional paradigm of a word includes distinct but formally identical forms. E.g. in English, some nouns have identical singular and plural forms (deer, sheep) and some verbs have identical past and present forms (hit, shed).

You can typically provide synchronic evidence for syncretism by looking at the overall morphological system of a language and seeing if some words show distinct forms, even if others don't. For example, in Latin, there are a number of third-declension nouns ending in -is with identical nominative and genitive forms in the singular (e.g. collis, collis m. 'hill') but many other nouns have different nominative and genitive forms in the singular (e.g. puer, puerī, m. 'boy' and puella, puellae, f. 'girl'). This constitutes evidence that Latin morphology as a whole has a nominative-genitive distinction, even if not all words have distinct nominative and genitive forms.

Syncretism may be conditioned by some semantic feature of the word, or by the word's categorization in terms of gender or noun class; e.g. all Latin neuter words show syncretism between the nominative and accusative cases, but there are other nouns that show forms for the accusative case that are distinct from the nominative forms (e.g. puer and puella have the acc. sing. forms puerum and puellam).

So if we're looking at a word that has syncretism in its inflectional paradigm, we may not be able to determine the case just from its form, but the syntactic context may make it clear that it is in a particular case.

With languages like Romanian, it's a bit different. As you point out, the nominative and accusative case are never distinct for common nouns (they are, however, for pronouns). Saying that Romanian nouns inflect for nominative vs. accusative is basically a remnant of Latin grammatical analysis; there doesn't seem to be any synchronic evidence within the language of common nouns inflecting in this way. It could be argued I guess that this is a case of syncretism for particular classes of nouns (all the classes except pronouns) but pronouns are such a small category and behave differently enough from other nouns (often not being classified as nouns at all) that it seems unwise to assume that all other nouns have the same kind of inflectional paradigm as pronouns. (For comparison, in English the "irrealis" or "past subjunctive" construction uses a form distinct from the "simple past" form for only one verb, and only in the 1st- and 3rd-person singular: "were" (as opposed to "was"). This doesn't seem to be strong enough evidence to support the idea that every other English verb has a paradigm containing theoretically distinguishable, but actually identical "irrealis" and "simple past" forms. And of course English, like Romanian, also distinguishes "nominative" and "accusative" forms for (some) pronouns.)

Your example of Hungarian just seems to be about how we determine if something is an affix or a separate word, a famous problem with no simple solution. For some discussion, see the related question How do linguists distinguish between case endings and postpositions, especially in languages which have both and/or have no traditional grammar?


There is, as you have indicated, a distinct concept of "case" (or, since it seems to often be capitalized, "Case") used in modern syntax (I think it may specifically be used as a concept in “Generative Grammar”), but I have never studied syntax (aside from trying to read a few random papers) so I can't say much at all about this. It has something to do with the syntactic role of words or phrases. "Case" in this sense is some kind of abstract syntactic thing that doesn't necessarily correspond to the "surface" morphological case of a word, although there's maybe some kind of connection between syntactic case and morphological case in some circumstances (this part is very unclear to me, so I asked a question about it: Are there any universals about how m-case can pattern for predicate NPs?).

As mentioned in Nico's answer, many sources draw a distinction between "structural case" and "non-structural case" (or "lexical case"), but this dichotomy is apparently disputed by some linguists ("Lexical vs. Structural Case: A False Dichotomy", JÓHANNA BARÐDAL). (The terminology seems to differ slightly between theorists; e.g. I found another article that gives the highest-level division as "structural case" vs. "non-structural case", and then divides "non-structural case" into "lexical case" and "inherent case": "Lexical Case, Inherent Case, and Argument Structure", Ellen Woolford, 2006).

Wikipedia has an article on "Case role" that I find fairly confusing, but you might find some links to relevant sources there. There seems to be some connection to theta roles.

There has been at least one earlier question on this site about syntactic theories of "Case" ( Are there any recent articles on the current state of Case theory?) that points to some (fairly) recent literature on the subject.

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  • Great answer, good to see actual formal linguistics! – Aryaman May 17 '18 at 23:36

This is actually a very well-thought out and interesting question, one that I have asked as well, as a non-linguist. In simple terms, a case is essentially any change to the form of the word that changes its relationship with whatever it modifies in a sentence. So you are right to say cases also have to with meaning, not just form. After all, cases only carry meaning when they are used to relate two (or more) things.

That does not mean that different cases always have to have different forms. Let's look at Sanskrit, known for its wildly complicated case system. In the dual number of a-stem nouns, the cases are the same for the following groups:

  • nominative/accusative/vocative (-au)
  • instrumental/dative/ablative (-ābhyām)
  • genitive/locative (-ayos)

I am sure Greek also has many forms that are the same (see comments); that doesn't mean there is only one case. The case has to do with the meaning, the form used to mark a specific case is just an expression of that meaning.

Cases don't have to be irregular either; for example, my native language, Hindi, has three cases (nominative, oblique, vocative) and they are always regular. Hindi also has postpositions (a preposition that is put after the head) that have replaced some of the earlier cases.

But here again, there is some ambiguity as to what a case is. In many South Asian language, the original cases have been lost and replaced with "suffixed postpositions". For example, in Hindi:

mujh (oblique form of the word for "I") + ko (dative postposition) → mujhko "to me" (dative form)

The word and the postposition are written as joined together in the Devanagari script. Many other Indian languages, such as Marathi and Nepali, don't have any obvious differences between cases and postpositions. So to answer your last question:

Is there a precise and universal definition of case in linguistics, or is it just a term of convenience that is applied differently to different languages?

Yes, "case" is often a term of convenience. And remember, linguistics is an evolving scientific study, so linguists may have disagreements on what a "case" constitutes.

(If a linguist would like to improve or fix my answer, please go ahead)

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    If the locative and dative case aren't distinguished in Greek (as is true in Classical Greek), then they are only one case, regardless of what the origins of those cases are. A better example would be the neuter nominative/accusative case, which are the same in Greek as in most (or all) IE languages – b a May 17 '18 at 8:14
  • @ba I'm not familiar with Greek, thanks for the correction! – Aryaman May 17 '18 at 23:35

You need to distinguish between case for encoding semantic roles (1) and structural case, which is related to prepositions (2).

(1) Case encodes the role assumed by participants in events. At least in languages within the European area, the nominative (which is unmarked with regard to nominal affixation) is related to an agent, i.e. to someone or something that acts/does something, the accusative denotes the patient (someone/something that is affected by the action of the agent) and the dative a recipient or a beneficiary (someone who receives something or who is meant to acquire some advantage through the action undertaken by the agent). Note that this is a very sketchy account.

(2) Here, case assignment is arbitrary. For example, in German the preposition "für" ('for') requires the accusative, whereas "mit" ('with') requires the dative. There is no reason behind this selection.

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According to Blake1, "case is a system of marking dependents for the relationship they bear to their head". The head in this case is (usually) a finite verb, and the dependents are NPs, DPs or XPs (depending on your theory). This is a semantic definition, which (as such) doesn't distinguish cases from adpositions, i.e. case and adposition are semantically partly co-extensive (denote the same phenomenon, semantically). Example: john hit him, where Nominative marks the hitter and Accusative the hittee, the head is hit, and the dependent XPs (or what have you) are john and he. Morphologically, there is a difference between cases and adpositions, as only the latter are words

1Blake, B.J. 2001. Case. Cambridge: CUP.

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    I started the question with "As a non-linguist", but in the second line you already jumped into "NPs, DPs or XPs" without explaining what those are ... – Szabolcs Apr 13 at 10:11
  • Noun Phrase, Determiner Phrase, or X Phrase (if you don't care which) – jaam Apr 13 at 15:41

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