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Both postpositions and case endings are morphemes placed after the meaning-bearing morpheme of the noun and convey information like position and grammatical role, among others. Particularly in agglutinating languages where each suffix conveys one piece of grammatical information, they can sometimes function similarly to particles and postpositions. What criteria are used to distinguish between the two groups of morphemes?

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    I don’t know about Hindustani, but one obvious difference is that the Japanese endings (like the possessive -’s in English) attach to noun phrases (e.g., [大きな黄色い家] [ōkina kiiroi ie] niin the big yellow house’), whereas at least in Finnish and Hungarian (and I believe in Turkish as well), they attach to individual members of noun phrases (e.g., isossa keltaisessa talossa). Commented Jun 4 at 16:11
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    For Japanese, another argument to treat so called case particles (格助詞) as grammatically (not necessarily phonetically) distinct words is that some other particles can be placed between noun and case particle: 私が watashi ga "I", 私だけが watashi dake ga "only I", 家に ie ni "in house", 家だけに ie dake ni "only in house".
    – Arfrever
    Commented Jun 4 at 22:21
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    @Someone211 Cases don’t have to apply to every member of NPs, but even when they only appear once per NP, they are normally expressed on an individual member of the NP, rather than whole NP. Arfrever’s example illustrates that ni attaches to the entire noun phrase even if ends in an adverbial particle like dake. I believe this holds for Uralic languages as well; e.g., Hu. -ról ‘from’ is a case, while való is a particle, so in a nehéz témá-ról való beszelgetés ‘the conversation about the difficult topic’, -ról attaches directly → Commented Jun 7 at 12:46
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    → to the noun téma, whereas való attaches to the entire NP a nehéz témáról. It wouldn’t be possible to attach -ról to a nehéz téma való as a unit. (That’s not the best example, but I’m not great with Hungarian and can’t find a better clitic particle that can follow an NP.) Commented Jun 7 at 12:48
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    @Arfrever Sorry if this doesn't make sense, but what stops one from suggesting that "dake" also be seen as a suffix? Thus, the "ni" is still attaching to "ie", but with another suffix in between. Commented Jun 8 at 7:02

2 Answers 2

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This is a special case of criteria for word boundaries. Martin Haspelmath has written extensively about this topic, e.g. "The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax" (2011) and "Defining the word" (2023) (discussed in a blog post "From radical critique to constructive proposal").

Haspelmath 2023 proposes defining an affix as

a bound morph that is not a root, that must occur on a root, and that cannot occur on roots of different root classes.

"Bound" means that it cannot occur on its own.

"Cannot occur on roots of different root classes" is the criterion that is related to the point that Arfrever brought up in the following comment:

For Japanese, another argument to treat so called case particles (格助詞) as grammatically (not necessarily phonetically) distinct words is that some other particles can be placed between noun and case particle: 私が watashi ga "I", 私だけが watashi dake ga "only I", 家に ie ni "in house", 家だけに ie dake ni "only in house". – Arfrever Jun 4 at 22:21


Within languages, other specific tests are sometimes used. Haspelmath 2011 discusses and identifies problems with various alternative criteria.

E.g. we could argue that being affected by vowel harmony shows that a morpheme is a suffix, or we could argue that being able to be attached only to the latter of two coordinated noun roots (and left out on the first) means that a morpheme is a postposition—but if we accepted both of these as criteria, we'd run into trouble with the following Turkish examples mentioned in Haspelmath 2011:12 (citing Erdal 2007:178, 180 and Kabak 2007):

(17) a. kum ve çakıl-cı
sand and gravel-PROFESSIONAL
'supplier of sand and gravel'

b. kedi ve köpek-ler-im-e ([kedi ve köpek]-ler-im-e or [kedi ve köpek-ler]-im-e)
cat and dog-PL-1SG-DAT
‘to my cat(s) and dogs’

(The morphemes show vowel harmony with the root that they are attached to, but have syntactic scope over both of the conjoined nouns.)

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If by postpositions you mean enclitics, they are attached ony to the last of the similar members of the sentence, while case endings attach to all.

For instance: "senatus populusque" or "populus senatusque". When we charge the order of the nouns, the enclitic remains with the last noun and does not change place.

Example from English: "president and premier 's decision" or "premier and president 's decision".

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