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I am sure I am not alone in having to think about whether to use "I" or "me" etc. and I also I sure I and others get it wrong frequently. What's really the point in retaining these isolated instances of declension? Why is it (afaik) that declension is confined to pronouns? (I think who/whom counts as pronoun.)

Edit: By declension I meant case: accusative, dative, etc. and I still can't think in English of an example besides pronouns where case affects the form of the word.

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    Do you really have to think about whether to say "Me went to the store" or "The dog bit I"? The cases where one might feel confused are comparatively rare.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 23:25
  • @TKR: No, I work with non-native speakers who make mistakes all the time.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 23:27
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    Non-native speakers will make mistakes in any language, but that doesn't generally bring about grammatical change. In any case, asking "what's the point in retaining these" isn't the right way to think about it -- it's not as if English speakers could just all decide to ditch pronoun declension.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 23:39
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    Declension is not confined to pronouns: it also applies to nouns, which decline for singular and plural. Case declension is confined to pronouns, though. And as @TKR says, there’s no reason to believe that’s going anywhere. The difference in conjunct phrases (like ‘me and John’ vs ‘John and I’) and comparative structures (‘he’s older than me’ vs ‘he’s older than I’) are really the only place where any native speaker ever doubts, and case may well cease to apply meaningfully in those specific cases; but elsewhere, it’s firmly embedded and used correctly by native speakers everywhere. Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 0:21
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I had thought that declension had to do with case -- nominative, accusative like in Russian -- I see the need for plurals but what I meant in my question and I can think of no example other than pronouns where case affects the word.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 2:02

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You're right that case declension in English is confined to pronouns. It used to be a feature of nouns and adjectives as well, but that was lost; presumably the reason it's retained in pronouns has to do with their frequency, since very frequent words often retain grammatical complexity or irregularity that is lost or regularized in other words.

It doesn't really make sense to ask "what's the point in retaining these", since doing so isn't a conscious decision on the part of English speakers. But there's no reason to think pronominal case is going away anytime soon. Instances where native speakers are unsure which form to use (between you and I? between you and me?) make up a very small proportion of the uses of pronouns. For case to be lost, speakers would have to start saying things like Me love you or You love I, which is difficult to imagine.

(The exception is who/whom, where whom survives mostly because speakers are prescriptively taught when to use it; many speakers don't use whom at all, so you could see that form eventually becoming obsolete.)

As another way to think about this, consider what would need to happen for e.g. I to get replaced by me. You'd need a critical mass of speakers to acquire a variety of English in which sentences like Me love you are grammatical. But no native speaker of standard English ever acquires such a grammar. This is because the forms I and me are so frequent that children learn their usage very early. For the replacement to occur, millions of children would somehow have to fail to do this.

Loss of case did happen with nouns and adjectives, but the picture there was different in several ways: there were a number of different declension types in Old English, so each type would have been less frequent (on top of the overall greater frequency of pronouns); the forms only differed in endings, which can more easily fail to be perceived or get eroded by sound change; and many case forms were already identical to each other because of earlier sound changes, which would have made general leveling more likely.

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  • I took Mandarin and they do great with just "I." Replacing all uses of "I" with "me" sounds grating for sure but there are people who misuse both I and me and will probably never change. I could see value in consistent usage of cases for purposes of clarity; surely some linguist has a theory as to why pronouns have retained this but other nouns have not.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 4:29
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    @releseabe Certainly languages can do without case marking, but for just about any grammatical feature you name there'll be languages that do fine without it (why does English retain tense when Mandarin manages without it?). As for why, see my remarks about frequency; also the pronoun forms are easy to acquire and use (apart from a few edge cases) and there's no particular reason why they'd be lost (unlike in nouns, where case endings got eroded by sound change).
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 5:51
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    I believe another reason why case marking is less likely to be lost in pronouns is because the forms for the different cases are so distinct from each other. It is much more natural to say "catt" when the correct form is "catte" than to use "me" when the correct form is "I". Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 6:00
  • Also note that English has lost a case distinction in pronouns: the dative and accusative cases, which were distinct in the third person (and in various non-personal pronouns) in Old English, have completely merged to form the general ‘objective’ case we find in Modern English (generally in favour of the dative, the accusative being lost). And in the second person, the nominative and objective have also merged (the nominative being lost) so that the only remaining form, ‘you’, indeed does not decline for case at all anymore. Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 10:01

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