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Most languages with cases seem to be either gaining or losing them diachronically (The Indo-European languages are an example of the latter, and the Uralic languages of the former). Manchu and Xibe (a Manchu dialect spoken by the descendants of a Manchurian guard unit posted away from their kinsmen) have the same number of "major" (grammatical?) cases. Specifically, the Manchu dative-locative corresponds to the Xibe locative, the Manchu ablative to the Xibe dative, and the Manchu prolative to the Xibe ablative. For background, see the Wikipedia article on Manchu cases.

How common is this reassignment of case usages without absolute gain or loss?

  • Could it be related to Indo-European languages being inflected compared to Uralic being agglutinative? – hippietrail Sep 28 '11 at 19:22
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    Fascinating question. Also a tantalizing first statement about "either gaining or losing" cases. Do you have examples of gaining cases? You mention Uralic but can you give a specific language and declension example for it? – Mitch Sep 29 '11 at 22:43
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    Many, perhaps most, Uralic cases can be shown to either stem from postpositions or be combinations of otherwise unclear suffixes. The former would a case of gaining a case. See e.g. Hungarian -kor temporalis (but without vowel harmony yet) from kor 'age, period, time'. – kamil-s Feb 28 '12 at 18:41
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The question appears flawed, to begin with. It doesn't seem typologically sound to speak of trends of this nature among entire language subgroups, much less linguistic families. Further, as one commenter mentioned, the families you speak of contain entirely different languages in terms of their structure. Such comparisons are meaningless at this level.

It can be said that all changes in case are essentially reassignments, however. Consider English, which now has only a hint of a nominative and accusative case in pronominal constructions. Its dative case was lost (essentially) by having it folded into its accusative. A language will never experience an absolute gain or loss spontaneously – it always occurs through reassignment.

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    I think the OP is referring to trends within specific languages in a family, not a change in the family as a single entitty. – Mitch Sep 29 '11 at 22:48
  • So reassignment is always the underlying phenomenon and the net change in grammatical case is the surface phenomenon? – Anthony Miles Oct 6 '11 at 19:18

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