The English alphabet has two "cases", UPPER CASE and lower case. Japanese hiragana has one case. Are there any writing systems, with, say, 3, 4 or more cases?

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    You'll have to explain a bit better what you mean by a case. Are hiragana and katakana two cases of the same alphabet? Is italic a different case from roman? Why or why not? – Joe Sep 21 '14 at 0:32
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    Italic or bold or underlined are not cases. Hiragana and katakana are better examples as they could be used as cases but in practice they are not. – hippietrail Sep 22 '14 at 1:44
  • OP: are you talking about the positions of the cases of type on compositors' desks or are you talking about the everyday sense of capital letters vs "small" letters? – hippietrail Sep 22 '14 at 9:28
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    @hippietrail, I'm asking about capital letters vs small letters. – Jane Nguyen Sep 23 '14 at 1:43
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    So if I had to explain the Latin cases I would describe it as two sets of gylphs where which one is used depends on word class and sentence position. Are any of the other suggestions parallel to that? – curiousdannii Sep 25 '14 at 9:56

English and other Latin-script writing systems have upper case, lower case, italic, bold etc. Arabic has as many as four different forms for each letter (initial, medial, final, isolated). It is all a question of how you define "case".

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    Arabic's positional forms are not related to any definition of case. They are completely analogous to the ways the same letter in any other cursive script join together, including English. It's just that in Arabic it's a bit more stylized and standardized as cursive is the main/only way to write it. – hippietrail Sep 22 '14 at 1:42
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    As I said, this all depends on what you mean by "case". When type was set by hand the capital Roman letters were kept in the upper case (box) on the compositor's desk, the miniscule Roman letters in the lower case, the Italic letters in another set of cases, and so on. – fdb Sep 22 '14 at 9:15

The Georgian script has the resources to have three cases, since it has three distinct complete sets of glyphs to cover the same single set of sounds. Yet in practice Georgian is almost always unicameral and only occasionally bicameral.

  1. Asomtavruli, also known as Mrgvlovani (, , , ...)
  2. Nuskhuri (, , , ...)
  3. Mkhedruli (, , , ...)

Asomtavruli was the original form, Mkhedruli is the current form, with Nuskhuri occupying an intermediate place in history. This is only a bit more complicated than how the Latin alphabet evolved the "uppercase" letters at one stage of history with the "lowercase" letters evolving much later. Only later still were the two actually used together as true upper and lower cases. Before this Latin script was unicameral.

Even though Georgian has been mostly unicameral through history, there have been bicameral uses too:

  • In Nuskhuri manuscripts, Asomtavruli are used for titles and illuminated capitals. The latter were used at the beginnings of paragraphs which started new sections of text.
  • Nuskhuri was augmented with Asomtavruli illuminated capitals in religious manuscripts. The combination is called Khutsuri.
  • Georgian linguist Akaki Shanidze made an attempt in the 1950s to introduce Asomtavruli into the Mkhedruli script as capital letters to begin sentences, as in the Latin script, but it didn't catch on.
  • In my own experience, some software on some operating systems treats Georgian as a bicameral script so that if you use the uppercase function on normal, Mkhedruli, script it will change letters to Asomtavruli in a way not really done in Georgia. This is probably due to Unicode capitalization tables created by somebody without a full understanding of Georgian and those tables being used in other projects.
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    This is an interesting observation, even if not exactly like upper case and lower case in Latin scripts. Syriac works very much like Georgian: the Old Syriac (Estrangelo) script is used for chapter headings alongside West Syriac (Serto) or East Syriac (Nestorian) script in the body of the text. Also in Arabic you can find illuminated manuscripts using (pseudo-)Kufic in the superscriptions and Naskhi in the body of the text. – fdb Sep 22 '14 at 12:43
  • Aha and your two observations here are also interesting. I hadn't been aware of them before. I was kind of thinking and wondering about Kufic when thinking about one of your other comments. Personally I wouldn't count using one for headings as case rather than style or font, even for Georgian. It's possibly a common step between unicameral and bicameral though. I do think illuminated capitals from a different glyph sets are much more related to case as we now think of it. – hippietrail Sep 22 '14 at 12:53

Perhaps no for the "normal" sense, but in some other important senses there is a kind of yes answer:

There are languages which use Latin script with some extra digraphs or ligatures not present in English. Of these there are a couple in which some of those digraph or ligatures have three case variants, but only by one way of looking at case:

  • Lower case: dž, lj, nj, dz
  • Upper case: DŽ, LJ, NJ, DZ
  • Title case: Dž, Lj, Nj, Dz

This is a kind of corner case that might only come up in typesetting and computerized fonts since the title case digraphs and ligatures are obviously made up of an upper case initial letter plus a lower case final letter.

There are a lot more analogous glyphs in Ancient Greek, where certain letters could be written as diacritical marks depending on upper vs lower vs title case. This stuff is pretty confusing and I make no claims to understand it. Here are the Greek glyphs that Unicode categorizes as "Letter, titlecase":

  • , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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  • The wikipedia page on ligatures is quite interesting. They seem mostly derived (like Greek and Latin lower case) from hand writing evolution, and possibly merging of letters into new glyphs as for the "&" which is originally "et". However, I do not think they have a structural role, especially grammatical, and are more a matter of style. This can be observed in printed books using the Latin alphabet, where the use of ligatures is associated with specific fonts. – babou Sep 23 '14 at 9:54
  • @babou: Exactly. It's not a third case in the "normal" sense. But it's a third case in some important senses. I should add a first line that says pretty much just that ... – hippietrail Sep 24 '14 at 5:46

I do not know too much about more than 2 cases, except for one language (see answer end), but only one case was quite common, and, from what I read, the use of two cases is historically fairly recent, at least for writing with Greek or Latin origin.

From what I learned in another question, some (at least) ancient languages, such as Latin or Greek, had only one case. What is now taken as lower case was the everyday fast scripting for common tasks, while important books, documents and monuments used exclusively the well formed version now known as uppercase.

This is for exemple quite clear with the letter Xi. The well formed version, used on monuments is Ξ, which is not so easy to write as it has 3 separate lines. The cursive version was ξ, which is clearly a way of writing the three lines without raising the stylus, when you are trying to write fast, even if it does not look as nice.

The wikipedia article on this topic states:

Both majuscule and minuscule letters existed, but the difference between the two variants was initially stylistic rather than orthographic and the writing system was still basically unicameral: a given handwritten document could use either one style or the other but these were not mixed.

The syntactic uses of cases and capitalisation is a fairly modern practice. Actually, despite modern usage, the ancient distinction is more a difference of font (letter style) than a difference in case (orthographic forms of a given font).

And fonts kept evolving, new ones being created, throughout history, as shown in the wikipedia chart. But they are not seen as distinct cases. Neither are italics, bolface, underlined, barred or shadowed variants, which are also stylistic, though sometimes used to convey a technical intent, rather than obey a grammtical rule.

When discussing these issues, it is probably important to distinguish orthogonality of the existing variations (as in lowercase-italics-boldface-times font), and the uses made of these variations.

Now, if we consider the case of Greek, written as we do now with two cases, it does have variants for some letters that could be seen as additional cases. This is the case in particular for sigma, with uppercase Σ and two lower case σand ς, the second (lunate sigma) being used when ending a word. There may be others, but I am no expert on Greek.

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    I was going to mention variant final forms too. Another writing system that has more of these than Greek does is Hebrew: כ -> ך, מ -> ם, נ -> ן, פ -> ף, צ -> ץ. In fact there's even a Wikipedia article on "Final forms". When I was trying to study Traditional Mongolian script there were even differences between syllable-final and word-final forms of some letters! – hippietrail Sep 23 '14 at 0:32

As a type designer I consider Latin (and Greek and Cyrillic) to have four cases: 1 Uppercase 2 Small Caps 3 Petite Caps 4 Lowercase. All four cases may exist in all weights (Light, Bold) and also in Italic. Small caps are supposed to be higher than the lowercase x-height and are often used in abbreviations and subheadings, Petite Caps have exactly the height of the lowercase x, and are used in Phonetic extensions, e.g. u0262 u026A u0274 u0276 u0280 u0299 u029B u029C u029F but also in rich typography. Luc(as) de Groot

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    Unicode may assign them differently, but there are really still just two cases because the glyph shapes are the same for all of the Uppercase variations. – curiousdannii Mar 10 '16 at 5:44

No, there are no writing systems nor languages which employ more than two cases (sets of aesthetically coherent unique forms of each letter) the use of which goes beyond style and even augmenting or clarifying meaning. While some freedom of their usage exists, a set of formal rules prescribes certain obligatory usage scenarios which also carries syntactic and grammatically significant information.

This question has generated an interesting thread with some insightful and interesting observations and perspectives. A great deal of confusion and misunderstanding (or misinformation/ignorance) has also been revealed. Most of this could have been avoided by a careful and thoughtful reading of the question. The OP's misidentification and association of the Latin script with the English language gives implicit specifications of the type and scope of information solicited and expected. That being: a system of letter/character cases whose usage has a linguistic and grammatical component which is not considered optional. Another important aspect of cases is that they are complete sets of different forms of the same letters/characters (not glyph variants, contextual alternates, positional/decorative forms, or different characters of parallel/historic systems), and their distinction is recognizable to even someone unfamiliar with the script because of the shared characteristics of each case.

(For instance, even without knowing or being able to read Cyrillic or Armenian, I don't think anyone reading would have trouble picking out phrases, words or even individual capital letters from text of either script – even if we can't enumerate all the distinctions like a type designer.)

I was quite surprised by the amount of discussion about features of writing not even closely related to cases. But I was very pleased to learn of the origin of terns "upper" and "lower" cases! In fact, in a sense – in the original sense of the common use terminology, there are/were more than just two cases (storage containers) for the Latin script; however, that does not apply to the originally asked question.

While the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana are complementary sets of character forms representing the same set of phonetic elements which share aesthetic characteristics specific to each group, and they have interesting, distinct usage protocols as well which is required and not interchangeable; their shapes are not related or linked in any way which excludes them from being cases. But each set does have two forms with similarities to our cases... They have half and full width forms of each character some of which differ in their shapes in ways that is definitely parallel to how upper and lower case letters are related. But this doesn't carry any of the information or meaning that the uses of capital letters impart.

Actually, most of the world's writing systems do not have cases, or any feature that resembles that feature. Of course, many other writing writing systems are far more complicated & extensive that the Latin alphabet often requiring dozens or even hundreds of unique ligatures and various other contextual forms and for them to be represented/displayed in print or by computer software. Many require specialized, complex rendering engines which must process and analyze the input information with intricate rules & algorithms which re-order and store the data internally in a particular, canonical abstract form which is distinct from the characters used to display or print it so that the text may be dynamically edited. While our concept and use of letter cases has become an integral aspect of our written languages it is actually technically a superfluous and unnecessary convention which could be abandoned without losing or altering the underlying basic information stored, communicated or expressed in the text. However, it is interesting to note that while most writing systems (present & past) are unicameral, but the systems which do – particularly the Latin alphabet – are used extensively around the world and have influenced developing scripts and have been adopted to encode numerous spoken languages which means that the majority of text (in printed, handwritten, inscripted/engraved, or in digital form) which exists in the world is encoded using one of the bicameral alphabets.

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