My question is a direct consequence of this question and its answers and comments.

What completely baffles me (as a non-linguist) is the claim (decision? definition?) that there can be a language on Earth (at least, the most used languages and language groups) that has no grammatical cases (at least according to my understanding of cases).

I will not talk about my personal feelings and personal conclusions - I am not an expert. But the definition of "grammatical case" taken from Wikipedia clearly states:

A grammatical case is a category of nouns and noun modifiers (determiners, adjectives, participles, and numerals) which corresponds to one or more potential grammatical functions for a nominal group in a wording.

Also, the definition of the tag "case" here on Linguistics is:

Inflectional forms that indicate the grammatical functions of nouns, pronouns and their modifiers (such as adjectives).

and also:

Case is a system of marking dependent nouns for the type of relationship they bear to their heads. Traditionally the term refers to inflectional marking, and, typically, case marks the relationship of a noun to a verb at the clause level or of a noun to a preposition, posposition or another noun at the phrase level.

So as long as a language actually sends information about "things", as long as the words are useful for transmitting a message, grammatical cases have to exist - as a minimum, in an undefined way. Before the "invention" of grammar, the cases still existed, but nobody called them so.

In my mind, any language needs at least 3 cases (or their equivalents): nominative, accusative and genitive. Dative and vocative come very close too.

So, why is it OK to claim (or: why was it defined) that a language "has no grammatical cases"? Because as long as the language can transmit information, the words of the language serve a purpose and thus have a function. And with function comes the grammatical case, unavoidably.

I can understand that the French language (or whoever) might not want to recognize the existence of its grammatical cases, or that there are some word hacks to avoid admitting the existence of cases, but the idea remains: if the words have a function inside the sentences, they have grammatical cases.

Note: it is not the main scope of this question to compare the case systems of any languages. The comparison is acceptable of course for supporting the main question.

  • 5
    The sources you quote actually give you the answer. Note that none of them says that grammatical case is the function a nominal entity has, but that it is a marker, usually inflectional that corresponds to that function. The function itself is necessary in language; marking the function with inflection (or clitics or something else that has a surface manifestation) isn’t. Feb 21 at 12:01
  • 2
    There’s never a complete one-to-one relationship between case and function. For example, subject and subject complement are different grammatical functions, but even in languages that have large case systems, they are usually marked with the same case (though not always – I believe Russian often uses the instrumental for subject complements). Why function without case? As with many other things in language, we can really only say ‘because’. Why some languages mark X overtly, while others don’t is unfortunately not a question we’ll ever have an answer to. Feb 21 at 12:49
  • 7
    My reasons for the downvote: (1) the mention of "civilized" is not clearly related to the rest, so there seem to be hidden assumptions; (2) the question assumes language is for "sending information" or "transmitting", but that is controversial at best; (3) the question assumes a high degree of confidence for a non-expert and the choice of "claim", "OK", "recognize", "hacks" makes it sound polemic; (4) by excluding empirical investigation in the last paragraph you have made your question unanswerable. Of these especially (3) and (4) are red flags.
    – Keelan
    Feb 21 at 12:50
  • 3
    @virolino - Not “for simply asking a question”, but for refusing even to try to reason your “idea”. You don't notice the key words in the definitions of case you quote, “Inflectional forms” in the 2nd one, “system of marking” and “inflectional marking” in the 3rd one. >>
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 21 at 13:39
  • 2
    @virolino - >> Cases are to be marked with something material, e.g. with a suffix, it's like in one store all the staff wear uniforms so you can tell the staff from the customers, but another store has no necessary staff uniform, and although the shop assistants still fulfill their function of selling goods they still look like customers. Cases is about marking the function, and if the function is not marked we say there are no cases in this language, the same way as we'd say there are no uniforms in that store. >>
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 21 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


ONE: As Yellow Sky and Keelen explained in their comments, case is an explicit way of marking a noun for its grammatical function and the term "case" does not signify the function itself.

a) One can mark case with an affix (usually a suffix), for example, as we see in Latin.


b) However, one could also mark case chiefly through the choice of the articles that a noun may take, as we see in German.


c) Marking pronouns for case may involve using different word-stems depending on case. We see this in English.

Nominative (subject, subject complement, citation form) first person singular is "I."

Accusative or dative (direct or indirect object) first person singular is "me."

d) There may be other ways of marking nouns & pronouns (and adnominal words like adjectives and determiners for case-agreement) for case that we might hear about in any comments about this answer.

TWO: In many languages, the function of a noun isn't marked in the noun phrase itself but is instead marked by word-order.

Let's leave aside English's possessive case, which behaves more like a clitic than a case, as we see in group possessives. (e.g. "Don and Linda's cat.")

When it comes to which noun is a subject, subject complement, citation form, or object, English relies on word order, NOT cases. The nouns must occur in certain positions in a sentence in order to have a certain grammatical function, but they are not modified to mark case. English has no nominative versus accusative-dative cases for nouns.

THREE: The reason it is OK to say that French doesn't have a case system is that French doesn't have a case system. It doesn't mark nouns for grammatical function but uses word order instead.

FOUR: There are other ways to mark who does what to whom in a sentence, but let's stop here.

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