In Czech poetry you can say something like this:

"zvukem kulek k tobe promlouvam"

which is "I speak to you with(through) the sound of bullets/shots"./"Mluvim k tobe se(skrz) zvukem(zvuk) kulek."

But you cannot say: The sounds of bullets to you (I) speak"/"zvukem kulek k tobe promlouvam"

Because "The sounds of bullets" is always nominative case in EN, even though that it's the combination of instrumental and genitive.:

zvukem = instrumental (kym?/cim? zvukem)

kulek = genitive (koho? ceho? kulek)

In English it's nominative, no matter what ;), at least in the written form. I don't know how the EN people translate it in their brains.

The solution would be something like: "Them soundems of bullets to yoem speakujem/speakuji".

-em would be the indicator of instrumental case ;D.

So, e.g. I see EN as very weak competitor in e.g. poetry when compared with languages that use cases (most of Slavic languages, German, Latin, Sanskrit etc.) , because you have everything just in nominative. And sometimes genitive (man's house).

Another advantage of cases is answering to the questions:

Q: "Jak jste se tam dostal?" / "How do you get there?"

A: "Vlakem". / "By train"

So, the EN "By train" would be in Czech "S vlak" which is robot-like talk.

You need to use the correct case not the nominative.

The correct case for this example is instrumental so it could be "S vlakem", which is perfectly fine, but we always drop the "s"/"with(or by)" because we know that from the word vlakEM. "EM" told us that it's instrumental.

It's a little more complicated in real sitautaions, because you have multiple genders and 14 paradigms of noun declension/Slovak has 15 ;D.

Anyway, EN is great for the students, they just need to learn the 1 one word for singular and 1 word for plural ;) and there is in most cases the difference just -s in plural.

You have 4 - 7 or more different sound possibilities and if you multiply that with 3 genders (14 paradigms of noun declension in Cezch) and combine that for 4 or 5 words in the sentence the number of combination is enourmous when compared with English. Not to mention the word order (notice that we are using in all cases just the same 3 words) ;D:

Češi udělali revoluci (The Czechs made a revolution -> stress on "revolution/revoluci")


Revoluci udělali Češi (It was the Czechs who made the revolution -> stress on "Czechs/Češi")


Češi revoluci udělali (The Czechs did make a revolution -> stress on "did/udělali)

which creates even more possibilities in poetry.

My question is how do native English speakers translate the nominative cases in their brains? Does it stay there in nominative. or they translate it to causality-like grammatical cases form?

  • 4
    The question is too long-winded for what is actually being asked: a psycho-linguistic perspective of grammatical cases, and the lack of it. Could you please trim the question?
    – prash
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 14:45
  • @prash it's all about the declination, cases and how they are complex in non-English langs. Actually, it's very trimmmed ;D
    – Derfder
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 15:52
  • 3
    Could we please close "questions" such as these?
    – Fryie
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 5:14
  • 1
    "Through the sound of bullets to you I speak" could be poetic, but the prepositions keep the meaning clear.
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:34
  • English doesn't have any cases. We use word order instead. So your question doesn't really have an answer. One might as well ask how Czech does A-Raising.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 1:23

2 Answers 2


It's not that everything in English is nominative, it's simply that English doesn't have productive morphological case at all - although there are some remnants of the old English case system, such as in the pronominal system, and the who/whom distinction. Lack of m-case is hardly unusual typologically - neither Chinese not Dutch has it, for example.

To answer your question of how "native English speakers translate the nominative cases in their brains" - assure you that we get by! More seriously, Jean Vergnaud, in a 1977 letter to Chomsky & Lasnik (http://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262062787_sch_0001.pdf) suggested that all languages possess 'abstract' case underlyingly, and it just so happens that it is spelled-out in languages like Czech, and not in languages like English, Chinese etc. This means that in English, abstract case is assigned based on the structural position of the Noun Phrase - for example, the grammatical subject is assigned abstract nominative, and the grammatical object is assigned accusative case. This conception of case is quite widely accepted in generative linguistics. It's worth emphasising that on this view, case is purely syntactic - it is not taken to dictate the semantic role of a Noun Phrase. A nominative subject can, e.g. be an agent ("She hit John") or a patient ("She was hit by John").

English does indeed rely much more on things like word order - generally speaking, languages with rich case morphology are 'non-configurational', which means that they display more flexible word order. English is conversely 'configurational', so it has a more rigid word order. As an aside, languages like Chinese are an exception - it has no case morphology and free word order. We call these 'discourse configurational' languages.

I'm not sure it's worth seriously addressing your contention that languages without m-case are inferior with regards to poetry, but i'll just add that Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth etc. would beg to differ...

  • Thanks. But I write poetry on a semi-professional basis. One of the "competitions" between poets is to create a poem using 100, 500 or 1000 predefined words. Even I like English, it fails horribly, because of the strict word-order and unability to decline words etc. ;) Sorry, but it's a truth. But notice, that it's slightly different in songs, because a lot of basic and common/cliche words like love, do, i, you, me, night, all, dance etc. are very short and sounds quite nice, so to create a catchy song is very easy in EN, compared with CZ. But in poetry it's more than "I wanna wanna dance";D
    – Derfder
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 12:22
  • 1
    Admittedly, i concentrated on the aspect of your question which i thought it was possible to answer - the role of case in English. It seems to me that which languages are better for poetry is completely subjective, and not something that linguists care very much about. I do however disagree with the characterisation here of English as only suitable for pop songs!
    – P Elliott
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 12:40
  • I simply don't know many good English poetry, it sounds to me very predictable because of the strict word order and no declination (ok, sometimes there is genitive). In EN you cannot reorder words to stress the important things (unless you add additional words) like you can see the reorder in this this poem from my favourite Czech poet Jiri Wolker - Umirajici (poem about his dying and death in general) and it's called youtube.com/watch?v=0DTZSZ43RO8. He died only 24 years old on tuberculosis) youtube.com/watch?v=0DTZSZ43RO8
    – Derfder
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 13:07
  • 3
    It sounds like the subtleties of English poetry might be lost on you. In your specific case here, you are wrong - poetry in English does allow for unusual word order that you wouldn't expect outside of a poetic setting. In my experience, this is true of all languages - rules are relaxed as authors try to express themselves.
    – Mark D
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 23:11
  • 1
    You might find the poem discussed in this paper -- and all the ways that it finds to mean -- interesting, then. The poem is a short one by William Carlos Williams -- The Red Wheel Barrow -- and it is one of the most beautifully structured poems I've ever encountered, in any language. The paper lays bare why.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 2:50

There's more than one way to analyse just about anything in linguistics.

Sometimes which cases a language is analysed to have depends on the number of inflected forms that nominals can take. Well after taking into account which parts of the inflection are due to other factors such as number and gender.

Sometimes which cases a language is analysed to have is based on comparison with a previously analysed language due to tradition. This was once very common using Classical languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek as a basis.

Sometimes which cases a language is analysed to have is based on traditional analysis of the language as it was in former times even though it may have changed quite a bit since. Georgian is usually considered to have the same cases as Old Georgian but in fresh analyses it's been noted that some of the postpositions have

It could even be possible to analyse which cases a language has based more on syntax that morphology, especially for languages which have both inflectional and analytic features. For instance, genitive and dative might be considered to be two cases in a language even though they may share a single inflectional form.

So let's look at English. English nominals are nouns, adjectives, and pronouns.

Nouns have two forms or four forms depending on how the possessive is analysed: dog, dog's, dogs, dogs'

Since number is not related to case this leaves either one or two cases, depending on whether you analyse possessive to be a case. In English three of the forms are the identical in pronunciation but differ in orthography.

Adjectives have three forms, none of which reflect case: big, bigger, biggest.

Pronouns have more forms which reflect cases than nouns have. But again it depends on analysis. Pronouns often share a kind of paradigm with possessive adjectives and are often suppletive: I, me, my, mine.

So pronouns in English would usually be labelled "subject" and "object" and then nouns and adjectives have a "possessive". But not necessarily in your preferred analysis.

You could compare the English "subjective case" to "nominative case", English "objective case" to "dative case", an English "possessive case" to "genitive case".

You could analyse English as having just one case for nouns and two cases for pronouns and not count possessive as a case at all.

So you see there is no "natural law" - there's just many ways to describe what happens using terminology that fits to varying degrees across many languages.

  • Our goal in linguistics is to discover the correct analysis though, no? A couple of small remarks: 1) Adjectives aren't a type of nominal. 2) I don't understand what you mean by possessive adjectives. I was under the impression that 'my' and 'mine' are just the weak & strong form of the possessive pronoun. Maybe this is just a question of terminology. 3) Isn't the goal of linguistics to uncover the so-called 'natural laws' underlying linguistic phenomena?
    – P Elliott
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 13:28
  • 1
    How can an analysis be "correct"? Adjectives generally behave pretty much like nouns or pretty much like verbs across all languages. In Indo-European languages they are like nouns and thus nominal. In Japanese and Korean for instance they are not. I think you could do well to ask some of the questions from your comment as fresh new questions on the site! Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 14:11
  • Thanks for the response - You're right, the questions are fairly broad and not really answerable in the space of a comment. By correct i mean an analysis that accurately reflects the knowledge structure of a speaker/hearer (so explanatorily adequate in Chomsky's sense). Analysing English as having abstract case is only correct if speaker/hearer's do actually represent abstract case features, and it's incorrect if they don't. Linguistics can hardly call itself a science unless we have some evaluation metric for distinguishing good analyses from bad ones.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 14:44
  • 1
    Au contraire, i think we can learn a lot from our friends in the hard sciences! This is a really interesting debate to have, but perhaps this isn't the right place for it.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 17:01
  • 1
    Drop in to the chat room some time! Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 1:55

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