Among others, according to Wikipedia:

"Case" is a linguistics term regarding a manner of categorizing nouns, pronouns, adjectives, participles, and numerals according to their traditionally corresponding grammatical functions within a given phrase, clause, or sentence. In some languages, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, participles, prepositions, numerals, articles and their modifiers take different inflected forms, depending on their case.

Among others, according to Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:

The marking of a noun to indicate its grammatical function, including nominative case (for subjects), genitive case (for determiners, including possessives), and accusative case (for objects and everything else).

To my reading, according to Wikipedia definition, the marking of the noun (inflection) is not an inseparable element of the term case; but according to the other definition, case, in a sense, is the “marking of a noun to indicate its grammatical function.” (Even though languages such as English has largely lost its inflected case system.)

Put another way, would the linguistic term case exist had there been no such thing as inflection?


The following quote from the book Theories of Case by Miriam Butt (suggested by @purlupar) makes me even more confused:

English does not allow the same freedom in word order as Latin. Instead of overt marking on the noun, it makes use of the position of of the noun in the sentence in order to indicate the seer vs. the thing being seen. (p.4)

Again, to my reading, the quote suggests that marking is not supposed to be in the form of overt morphological markers, but using position (or word order) is also a way of marking.

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    No. Nor would it exist if there had been no such thing as a noun or a grammatical relation.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 20:50
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    "Case" is a tough one, and probably neither Wikipedia nor that dude you cite here would give a satisfying cross-linguistic (meaning not English-centered) explanation. See doi.org/10.1017%2Fcbo9781139164696 for a view that's not biased by English but takes into account South-East Asian languages, with are different in this respect.
    – purlupar
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 21:43
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    WALS chapters 49 thru 52 (49 Number of Cases, 50 Asymmetrical Case-Marking, 51 Position of Case Affixes, 52 Comitatives and Instrumentals) are on various parts of case in languages of the world.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 22:49
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    Re: "Indeed, a survey of all the phenomena which have been described as “case” leads one to the conclusion that one does not know what case really is" - no, this is simply not true. While there is a lot of variation in terminology, inventory, and theoretical background, I'd argue almost all linguists would agree on this: cases express grammatical relations of a nominal, e.g. Malchukov, A. (2017, March 29). Case. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Retrieved 1 Nov. 2020, from oxfordre.com/linguistics/view/10.1093/acrefore/….
    – Alex B.
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 4:23
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    What Pinker says is more of less accurate cross-linguistically (and his examples are English because the book you mention is about how to write better in English) - and "dude" is not what we usually call Steven Pinker (who turned 66 this year I believe), one of the leading psychologists and psycholinguists, who works at Harvard btw.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 4:29


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