9

Does vanishing of cases reflect a general trend across the languages or is this a false impression that one gets from the most Indo-European languages, like English and the Romance languages? A different angle: does the loss of case structure reflect natural language evolution or is it more likely to be a result of creolization (as happened to English under French influence or to Latin under influence of local languages)?

Background:

  • Modern Slav languages, which are also of Indo-European origin, do have extensive case structures, but it is less developed than in the Proto-Indo-European.
  • Modern Arabic languages seem to have lost case structure present in the classical Arabic, but the number of cases was not very big to begin with.
  • Uralic languages (like Finnish and Hungarian) do have extensive case structure, but is it more or less developed than in the distant past?
  • Is anything similar happening to agglutinative languages?
1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 21, 2022 at 13:05

2 Answers 2

12

It's not just a modern trend. Four millennia ago we see Hittite (Indo-European) gradually losing its elaborate case-marking system, and Akkadian (Semitic) reducing its three cases to two (and sometimes then to one).

Dixon argued that this was an eternal cycle:

  • Fusional/inflecting languages are at risk of having their information-dense markings worn away by sound change (like what happened from Latin to Romance, or Old English to Middle English); as those markings become less useful, other words are brought in to supplement them, and the language becomes analytic.
  • Analytic languages are at risk of having those function words semantically bleached, eventually being reanalyzed as part of the content words around them (like in Modern English), and now it becomes agglutinative.
  • Agglutinative languages no longer have word boundaries between their morphemes, meaning it's easier for sound changes to mix them up and make them harder to separate. When the morpheme boundaries become opaque enough, now the language is more fusional again.

It's not clear how eternal this cycle really is, because we've never seen a language go all the way around it. But each individual stage is well-attested, and sometimes we see languages pass through more than one, like English and French now trending toward polysynthesis.

12
  • 1
    How is English tending towards polysynthesis? French, yes, but not English.
    – bradrn
    Oct 18, 2022 at 7:47
  • 2
    @bradrn A lot less so than French, but the modals and auxiliaries getting reduced to clitics (i.e. contractions like 'll and 'd) seems like a step in that direction to me.
    – Draconis
    Oct 18, 2022 at 14:11
  • 4
    @RogerVadim As a general tendency, languages without inflections tend to acquire them, and languages with inflections tend to lose them. Language has been around a long time, and if one type of morphology was better or more favored than the others, we would expect all the world's languages to have converged on it by now.
    – Draconis
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:05
  • 2
    @Draconis Agreed. Though it may take a lot of time; the population was pretty thin until 10Kya. Perhaps the typological coherence of SOV languages is a developmental lobe in that direction.
    – jlawler
    Oct 18, 2022 at 18:07
  • 1
    @Draconis Not sure I’d agree with that… grammatically, English clitics still behave similarly to other words, even if they are phonologically reduced. This is quite different to the situation in French, where IIRC the reduced subject and object pronouns have quite different grammatical behaviour to their unreduced counterparts and can easily be analysed as affixes. Perhaps English may become more agglutinative in the future, but it’s not nearly at that stage yet.
    – bradrn
    Oct 19, 2022 at 2:46
-1

In Europe, as you go from West to East, the languages go from liberal (no cases) to conservative (lots of cases). Germany is in the middle with an intermediate number of cases. So I believe there is something geographic to this as well that needs to be examined. "The liberal West" isn't just culturally liberal, it's also linguistically liberal: it's lost most of its cases. The conservative Slavic and Baltic peoples have kept most of their cases. As I said, German is in the middle (coinciding with its middle geography), with 4 (arguably 3) cases.

6
  • 7
    That doesn’t really work. Hungarian is kind of in the middle of everything, west of a large part of the Slavic and almost the entire Baltic area, but has more cases than any other European language. Irish is the westernmost language in Continental Europe and still has four cases (related Welsh further east has none); Icelandic, even further west, also has four (related Danish, further east, has none except in pronouns). Basque is among the westernmost and has 14 cases. There are many counterexamples. Oct 17, 2022 at 21:45
  • Absence of cases is paid for by a rigid word order - I wouldn't call it liberal (although a native speaker of such a language cannot imagine that there exist freedoms that they have never had )
    – Roger V.
    Oct 18, 2022 at 4:41
  • It breaks down as you go further east too, you get to the Balkans and the loss of cases is evident again - Torlakian Serbian has fewer cases than other varieties of Serbian, Romanian has merged some of its original Latin cases into just 3, while Bulgarian has practically ditched cases entirely (save for pronouns and the vocative).
    – Nobilis
    Oct 18, 2022 at 8:53
  • 2
    linguistically the opposite of conservative is "innovative" not "liberal". The discussion of politics seems off-topic for this stack exchange as well
    – Tristan
    Oct 18, 2022 at 9:38
  • 1
    @RogerVadim yeah, I could potentially see an argument from Sapir-Whorf, but that particular question would seem primarily non-linguistics (more one for philosophers and political scientists). Plus strong Sapir-Whorf (as would be needed for this) is generally considered debunked these days ofc
    – Tristan
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.