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Case is a feature that expresses a syntactic and/or semantic function of the element that carries the particular case value.
Most cases which express a syntactic function are also associated with a semantic function (e.g. of an agent, an experiencer, an undergoer) for particular classes of predicates in the given language. Arguably, the exception to this are cases which signal that the element in a syntactic position is a placeholder for a grammatical relation, i.e. it is not expressing a semantic participant (e.g. es in German, which may function like the expletives it or there in English).
Although most cases can be attributed a semantic function (or a range of semantic functions), a distinction is often made (and widely accepted) between more abstract (grammatical) cases expressing core syntactic relations such as subject and object, and more concrete cases that express various specific semantic roles, especially spatial relationships (Haspelmath forthcoming p.1; cf. Blake 1994:32-34). Haspelmath (forthcoming p.1) lists the following term pairs that have been used for these two types of cases:
Other terms pairs used for this distinction include:
The distinction is made in slightly different ways by different authors and for different languages, but the basic intuition behind it seems to be the same: the first type of case includes cases imposed by the verb on its arguments (or on core arguments), and the second type includes cases found on adjuncts (or on non-core arguments). One of the difficulties in clarifying this intuition stems from the fact that there is no consensus regarding argumenthood vs adjuncthood. Another difficulty stems from the fact that a further distinction within the second type of case remains unaccounted for: that between casemarked nouns functioning as adjuncts or non-core arguments vs casemarked nouns whose case has been imposed by an adposition (where the adpositional phrase functions as an adjunct or a non-core argument).
The distinction between abstract (grammatical) and concrete (semantic) cases is better understood when we consider the case system as having two parts: the set of case values available in the language, and the rules for their assignment (see the 'Feature Inventory' page for definitions of these concepts).
Abstract, or grammatical, cases in the given language are those cases whose values are assigned contextually. Case values can be assigned contextually either through government (typically by a verb or a preposition), or through agreement (e.g. in constructions with predicate nominals - nouns and adjectives - as in Polish or Slovene). Examples:
(1) nominative and accusative case values assigned by the verb, e.g. Polish:
(2) accusative case value assigned by the preposition, e.g. Polish:
(3) genitive case value on the predicate adjective matches the genitive case value of the quantified noun of the subject noun phrase, e.g. Polish (example adapted from Corbett 2006:134, who cited it from Dziwirek 1990:147):
It is important to note that the generally accepted definition of case as expressing a relationship of the dependent noun to its head (Blake 1994:1; Haspelmath forthcoming p.2) corresponds to abstract cases assigned through government (i.e. as in examples 1 and 2).
One of the main functions of abstract (grammatical) cases is to express grammatical relations - however, in some languages grammatical relations can be purely syntactic. In such languages the formal evidence identifies grammatical relations, not morphosyntactic cases.
Concrete, or semantic, cases in the given language, whether non-spatial or spatial cases, are those cases whose values are assigned to the elements inherently, i.e. without a governor or a controller. In instances of semantic case, the case value is imposed on the element only due to the semantics. The value may be selected from a range of available semantic values. For example, apart from assigning core grammatical relations to the principal participants and assigning case values to the nouns expressing them, the speaker may choose to use additional nominals in the same clause to express additional information. The motivation for the choice of case value for such oblique nominals is similar to the choice made by the speaker between, say, the singular or plural value of number, which is also assigned to the nominal inherently.
On this view of grammatical versus semantic case, predicate-less utterances (e.g. labels, titles and other instances of citation forms which are not part of connected discourse) in which nominals carry a default case (e.g. the nominative) would be considered instances of semantic case, rather than grammatical case, because a grammatical nominative must be imposed on the element by the governing verb.
Furthemore, in languages which do not use grammatical relations to organise their relational clause structure, but instead grammaticalise semantic roles or information flow (see Kibrik 1997 for a typology of relational clause structure), the cases found on adpositionless noun phrases are more likely to be semantic (assigned for semantic or discourse reasons) than grammatical (assigned due to government by the verb).
Since there is no consensus about the concepts involved in the category of case, not every linguist will extend the label 'case' to the same range of phenomena (see Butt 2006:Chapter 1 for an overview). In this Inventory case is considered an inflectional category, expressed morphologically (usually by affixation, also by tone, or changes within the noun stem; for an overview of case forms and the position of case markers on nouns, see Dryer 2005). In some languages case marking may be applied selectively across the lexicon, with either some or all cases being restricted to appear on a subset of the nominals (Iggesen 2005a,b).
On a different, widely accepted view of case, syntactic positions in a clause may be treated as case. This view is a consequence of adopting the definition of case as expressing a relationship between a dependent and its head. If this function of case is taken as definitional, it emerges that "[l]anguages may choose to encode this relationship either structurally in terms of designated positions (e.g., English) or via overt morphological markers" (Butt 2006:4). However, some languages, like Icelandic, employ both strategies simultaneously (combining a rather rigid word order with a fairly rich and complex case marking system; see Zaenen, Maling & Thráinsson 1985), and some other, like Bulgarian, have virtually no case marking and allow quite a lot of freedom in word order (word order in Bulgarian being governed by discourse configurational factors; see Kiss 1995 for a discussion with respect to Hungarian) (Butt 2006:5).
On the view adopted here, syntactic positions may constitute formal evidence for the identification of grammatical relations. However, case is a feature identified through morphology, and although it may be employed to express grammatical relations, grammatical relations do not have to be expressed with case. Hence, the expressions of case considered here will involve only those which make use of morphology.
The descriptive labels that were created for cases are sometimes also used to label adpositions (Haspelmath forthcoming p.4 gives examples of the grammar of Cavineña by Guillaume 2004:Ch.14, and the grammar of Burunge by Kiessling 1994:192-193). This is not unreasonable, as in most languages adpositions play at least some part in marking the relationship of dependent nouns to their heads and/or indicate the semantic function of the element in the clause. Thus, adpositions can be thought of as functioning in much the same way as cases in languages, the main difference being that they are analytic means of expression, as opposed to synthetic (for discussion of the range and variety of cases assigned by adpositions, including the nominative case, see Libert 2002; see also §6 below, 'Problem cases', for an overview of the differences between cases and adpositions). On the view of case presented here, however, case is treated as a feature which is recognised through morphology (a morphosyntactic, or a morphosemantic feature), so as such it must be inflectional, and the best guide to the affixal status of a case marker is its phonological integration into the host (see Blake 2001:9-12 for his discussion of adpositions as analytic case markers, including a discussion of Japanese, Korean and Hindu-Urdu).
A case value may be assigned to an element in one of three ways. For every language, it is possible to work out the case assignment system which is a set of rules that determine which of these three methods is used, i.e. how the syntax and/or semantics of the language assign case values to the elements that can carry the case feature.
When a case value is assigned contextually, the assignment follows the rules specified by government (most commonly), or agreement (less commonly). Case is typically a contextual feature of government. However, in some languages it is possible for case to be assigned through agreement in constructions with predicate nominals (nouns and adjectives; see example (3) in section §1 above; for other examples and discussion of case as a feature of agreement, see Corbett 2006:133-135).
When a case value is assigned inherently, the assignment follows the rules specified by the inherent case assignment system in the given language. Note that it is commonly assumed that case is not an inherent feature of the noun or noun phrase, and that it expresses a relationship the noun bears to its head. However, when a case value is assigned to a noun phrase for purely semantic reasons, without a governor or a controller, it can be thought of as being assigned to the noun phrase inherently, in much the same way as a number value is assigned inherently to a noun (which can then function as the controller of agreement).
Establishing how many cases (that is, values of the feature case) there are in a language may be a difficult task, the difficulty being caused primarily by syncretism. There are instances in the literature of careful argumentation for difficult instances, notably the debates as to the number of case values in Russian (Zaliznjak 1973 and Comrie 1986), Latin (Comrie 1986 and references therein; Corbett forthcoming), and Latvian (Fennell 1975; Comrie 1986). These three debates are summarised below in §6 ('Problem cases').
Where the case system in a language is used to express grammatical relations, the core cases include the nominative, accusative and ergative, with the genitive and dative often included in the core set. For detailed discussion of the functions of these cases, their terminological alternatives, and types of case marking alignments, see Blake (2001), Comrie (2005), and Haspelmath (forthcoming), and also Goddard (1982). For discussion of split case marking systems and a way of dealing with them with syncretism, see Baerman, Brown & Corbett (2005) and an overview in Baerman & Brown (2005).
Typical semantic nonspatial cases include the instrumental, comitative, and also proprietive, abessive, comparative, similative, causal, aversive.
Cases expressing spatial relations (also semantic) can be grouped into four broad directional classes: cases expressing location ('at'), goal ('to'), source ('from'), and path ('through, along'). The basic terms for these are: locative, allative, ablative, and perlative. Additionally, the label terminative is used for a movement that goes all the way to its endpoint, and orientative - for a movement that goes only in the direction of its goal. By combining directions and orientations (such as 'in', 'on', 'at', 'behind', 'under') with each other, and adding further markers for deictic distinctions, over a hundred spatial cases can be distinguished. In Finno-Ugric languages the actual figure is around a dozen or so, while in Northeast Caucasian languages it runs to around forty or fifty. However, as noted by Haspelmath (forthcoming): "Comrie & Polinsky (1998) and Comrie (1999) point out that these 'cases' are not single inflectional categories, but combinations of categories from at least two different inflectional category-systems. Already Kibrik et al. (1977:51) had set up a separate inflectional category-system localization for the different orientation markers, which combine with different spatial case-markers. On this view, a label such as super-elative would not stand for a single case, but for a localization-case combination" similar to a tense-aspect combination. See see Blake (2001) and Haspelmath (forthcoming) for more detailed discussion of semantic (spatial and non-spatial) cases, their functions and terminology, and Iggesen (2005c) for an overview of the distribution of languages with smaller and larger case inventories.
According to the most widely accepted definitions of case (e.g. Blake 2001:1: "Case is a system of marking dependent nouns for the type of relationship they bear to their heads"), case is not expected to occur on elements other than nominal phrases. However, in many languages case markers are found on adverbials of time (clearly adjuncts, not arguments of the verb) and other measure phrases. Examples come from Latin, German, Polish and other Slavonic, and Korean (although, arguably, some measure phrases could be analysed as objects rather than adjuncts). In the following German example (from Butt 2006:7), the measure phrase in (1b) appears in the accusative, while in the analogous Polish examples the adverbial of time appears in the instrumental:
Although case on adverbial phrases is a problem for those syntactic theories which assume that case can appear only on arguments of the verb, but not on adjuncts, this issue is not a problem for a theory of case which distinguishes between contextual and inherent case assignment and allows for semantic case values to be assigned inherently to any element of the clause. On this view, case values on adverbials in examples like (2) and (3) are instances of canonical semantic cases.
The vocative poses a similar problem to adverbial cases mentioned above: nominal phrases carrying vocative case typically do not appear as dependents of the verb, and often stand outside constructions (outside clausal syntax), being inserted parenthetically. Because it does not encode any syntactic relationship of a dependent to a head, the vocative is frequently not considered a case (Hjelmslev 1935:4; Blake 2001:8; Iggesen 2005:82-83; Haspelmath forthcoming: p.8; also Daniel 2005). In most languages which have the vocative, it is a morphological category which is usually badly integrated into the paradigm of case forms (for example, it very rarely has the plural, very rarely triggers special agreement, and is usually characterised by odd morphology). Corbett (forthcoming) re-analyses the vocative in Russian within a canonical approach and argues that, despite being non-canonical, it is the least problematic of the four non-canonical Russian cases (the other three cases being the second genitive, the second locative, and the adnumerative).
On the view of case presented here, the vocative can be considered a purely semantic case, since semantic cases are not dependent on a syntactic head. If we accept this approach, we will find some languages which have a morphological locative (a modified form of a noun) used as a form of address, but which do not have other case inflection. Blake mentions two such languages: Yapese (Austronesian) has no morphological case marking on nouns, but Yapese personal names have special forms used for address (Blake 2001:8; after Jensen 1991:229f); and Mohawk (Blake 2001:184, ft.8; from Mithun p.c.) has no case marking, but there is, or was, an address form. (Similarly, in Maori, bisyllabic names - but not longer names - used as terms of address are preceded by a preposition e which otherwise marks the demoted subject in the passive; also Blake 2001:184, ft.8). Thus, a morphologically marked vocative does not have to participate in a case paradigm. This situation is somewhat similar to that in languages in which the genitive is paradigmatically isolated and the existence of the genitive is the only reason to posit that the language has the feature of case.
In sum, a purely semantic case is not determined by a rule of syntax, and a morphological vocative can be considered a semantic case. Although in may be optional in languages which have a special hortative and/or imperative construction, often it can also function as an utterance on its own, without any syntactic configuration at all. Furthermore, it may sometimes be allowed to function as a second person subject, as in Polish:
The genitive is a case that may, in some (in fact, many) languages, be licensed by a nominal rather than a verb or a preposition. In such instances, the genitive has sometimes been referred to as a 'nominal case', licensed by and modifying a 'nominal predicate', as opposed to 'verbal cases' which are licensed and governed by verbal predicates (see e.g. Butt 2006:8-9).
Butt (2006:7-8) notes that it is often assumed in syntactic theories that finiteness and case marking are in complementary distribution. For example, embedded predicates are case marked typically only when they are non-finite (for example, embedded infinitives in Urdu). In many of the instances where an embedded predicate may be overtly case marked and it is not an infinitive, it turns out to be a nominalisation. In Urdu, the infinitive itself can be regarded as a kind of deverbal noun which has some nominal properties. Possible counterexamples to this generalisation have been discussed, e.g. by Nordlinger & Saulwick 2002 (see their example (32) for a dative (purpose) marked future). The interesting question of what it would mean for a finite form, such as a verb, to have the feature of case, is still open to discussion (cf. Harris 2007).
Kayardild modal cases (Evans 1995; 2003) are components of tense-aspect-mood-polarity (TAMP) marking in this language, and have been suggested to participate in agreement. For a re-analysis of Kayardild modal cases as exponents of semantically assigned TAMP values, see Kibort (2010).
Is there agreement in case within noun phrases? Corbett (2006:133) notes that traditional grammars often mention agreement in case on a par with other agreement features (gender, number, or person). Yet a closer look suggests that case is different. Within a noun phrase the adjective and the noun may stand in the same case, e.g. in Russian, v nov-om avtomobil-e in new-M.SG.LOC car(M)-SG.LOC 'in a new car', both the adjective and the noun stand in the locative. However, the value of case in such instances is not imposed by one of these elements on the other, but it is imposed on the noun phrase by government by some other syntactic element (in this example the preposition v 'in' requires the locative case). Therefore, if we define agreement as requiring a controller and a target, the matching of case values here does not count as agreement.
For all those who adopt a view of syntax based on the notion of constituency, nov- avtomobil'- is a constituent. Thus, we have matching of features within the noun phrase resulting from government, rather than agreement in case. Note that the same is true of case stacking phenomena, as in many Australian or Daghestanian languages (for examples and references, see Corbett 2006:135). (For those who accept a dependency view of syntax, if the noun is the head of the phrase and the adjective depends on it, and both show case, we would have agreement in case, as argued in Mel'čuk 1993:329, 337).
Dependent marking vs head marking. Case is typically found on noun phrases and expresses the relationship that the noun phrase (the dependent) bears towards the verb or the preposition (the head). This is referred to as dependent marking. In head marking, the head of the phrase bears information about its dependents, i.e. the participants in the clause. Since head marking also expresses the relationship between nominal elements and the verb, it has sometimes been argued that instances of head marking could also be seen as a type of case (for discussion, see Blake 2001:13-14, and Butt 2006:5-6 who notes that case-bearing affixes are often historically derived from the incorporation of pronouns). These two types of marking strategies can be represented schematically as follows (Nordlinger 1998:46, cited in Butt 2006:5):
It is taken here as definitional of case that it expresses a syntactic and/or semantic function of the element that carries the particular case value. The cross-referencing affixes or clitics are better analysed as either agreement in other feature(s), in particular the feature of person, or as incorporated pronouns. The majority of languages use some kind of pronominal representation of certain core grammatical relations apart from their representation via noun phrases, and crossreferencing a head and its arguments as schematised in (2) is better seen as a type of pronominal representation on the verb, rather than case.
Are there semantically assigned 'core' cases? Mithun & Chafe (1999) argue that there are instances of semantic assignment of 'core' cases. For example, Iroquoian languages arguably have an agent-patient system of case marking, and in Central Alaskan Yupik case marking depends on the affectedness or immediacy of involvement of the participants; hence, in none of these languages case marking appears to be determined by grammatical relations. However, on a different analysis, these languages can be thought of as having stricter conditions for arguments to qualify to be subjects or objects, and the selection of cases also varies depending on the verbs.
Ungoverned case in exclamations. Blake (2001:9) mentions one more instance of ungoverned case used outside sentence constructions. A standard Latin example is mē miserum 1SG.ACC miserable.ACC 'Oh, unhappy me!' (note that in corresponding English expressions, the oblique form of the pronoun is used). Mel'čuk (1986:46) gives a Russian example Aristokratov na fonar'! aristocrat(M).PL.ACC onto lantern(M).ACC 'Aristocrats on the street-lamps!'. Blake remarks that "one would guess that some expressions of this type have developed from governed expressions, but that the governor has been lost" (2001:9). Hence, exclamations of this type can be regarded as instances of ellipsis.
How many cases are there in Russian, Latin, or Latvian? In most traditional and pedagogical literature (for a current standard source listing declensional cases in Russian see, for example, http://masterrussian.com/aa071600a.shtml), Russian is described as having six cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and prepositional/ablative), but there are very good reasons for distinguishing at least three more cases in this language (Zaliznjak 1973; Comrie 1986; Corbett forthcoming). First, contemporary Russian is developing a separate vocative case (distinct from nominative). Second, some nouns such as syr 'cheese' have a distinct form for partitive (genitive) syru in addition to (nonpartitive) genitive syra. And finally, apart from the prepositional case, there is a distinct locative case in Russian, as in prepositional [o] sade ('[about] the orchard') and locative [v] sadu ('[in] the orchard') from sad ('orchard'). According to Comrie (1986), the fact that the last two case distinctions in Russian are an innovation may account for the reason why most contemporary sources are reluctant to recognise them: they do not fit in with the traditional assumptions as to what cases a Slavonic language may have. However, they have to be considered in any adequate synchronic description of Russian.
Latin and Latvian provide even more challenging examples of a discrepancy between the standard assumption regarding their case systems and the reality of the morphological phenomenon of case. Apart from pointing out the inadequacy of standard descriptions, Comrie (1986) uses these two examples as further support for his claim that the traditional characterisation of case, inadequately combining formal and functional criteria, leads to immense complications in the description of case.
In short, it is standard to describe Latin as having six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, and ablative) and then, while discussing the declension of individual morphological classes, introduce an additional form (locative case) for a small subset of nouns (names of towns and small islands, and a very restricted number of individually specifiable lexical items) in most of these classes. For other nouns, the function performed by the locative case is expressed by using the preposition in 'in' which takes the ablative case. Apart from the fact that, by the traditionally adopted distributional criterion, the locative has to be defined as a separate case, we have here 'distributional grounds for identifying a prepositional phrase (with one set of nouns) with a case (for another set of nouns)' (Comrie 1986:94).
The case system of standard Latvian, on the other hand, is an example of a system which is impossible to analyse adequately with traditional formal tools (Fennell 1975, Comrie 1986). Traditional accounts of Latvian list a separate instrumental case which, however, only occurs with the preposition ar. In the singular, the allegedly 'instrumental' form of the nominal that appears after ar is identical to the accusative, and in the plural it is identical to the dative. If a separate instrumental case was established on this basis, it would be distinguishable formally from both the accusative and the dative. However, according to traditional accounts, all Latvian prepositions take the dative in the plural regardless of the case (accusative, genitive, or dative) that they govern in the singular.
The best solution to this inconsistency in traditional description (though still adhering to the traditional rules of description) would seem to be to say that Latvian has no instrumental, and that the preposition ar governs the accusative case (with the provision that, like all Latvian prepositions, in the plural it governs the dative). However, by the distributional criterion, this suggestion (as well as the original traditional account) creates a contradiction: a given preposition may not govern one case in the singular and a different case in the plural, because in this way the very distributions of one and the same case would be different in the singular and the plural.
The distributional criterion forces us to say that the cases occurring after prepositions in Latvian (other than after prepositions that take the dative in the singular) can never be identified with singular cases occurring other than after prepositions, although 'accusative2' and 'genitive2' (which would be the cases occurring after prepositions) in the plural are homonymous with the dative. As is clear, this solution is redundant and misses the obvious generalisation, which should be captured in a grammar of Latvian, that all prepositions in Latvian require the same form of a plural nominal.
Comrie's solution to the description of a complex case system like this is an approach to the notion of case which attempts to synthesise the formal and functional aspects of case and, in particular, scrutinises the relation that holds between these two sides. His approach relies on the notion of feature analysis of case: both distributional and formal cases can be characterised in terms of the same component features (e.g. the feature [genitive]), but a formal case (e.g. syra 'cheese.NONPARTITIVE', syru 'cheese.PARTITIVE', muki 'flour.GENITIVE') may correspond to a subset of the features of a distributional case ([genitive, nonpartitive], [genitive, partitive], or [genitive], respectively), thus giving rise to many-to-one mappings between distributional and formal cases. This enables an adequate analysis of case 'syncretism' and at the same time accounts for generalisations within a case system (for details see Comrie 1986).
For the most recent contribution to the debate about the number of cases in Russian (adopting a canonical approach), and about determining the values of the feature case in general, see Corbett (forthcoming).
Cases versus adpositions. The following excerpt from a Wikipedia article on 'Preposition and postposition' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preposition), accessed on 7 January 2008, offers a light overview of the differences between adpositions and case markings which are observed despite their functional similarity:
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