Grammar Jargon – “What the heck are cases”

guy freaking out over casesHello everyone,

and welcome to a new rendition of Grammar Jargon. Do you know Bambi?
… It is a beautiful morning. Bambi, the cute little roe deer feels great and decides to venture into an unknown part of the woods. And although the sheer dimension of the unknown is a bit intimidating, Bambi is looking forward to discovering it step by step… kind of like a person who decides to learn a new language…
Soon our little hero comes to a glade… a beautiful glade… flowers of all kind and colors, small bushes with juicy green leaves, a small creek and butterflies galore… (think Disney). Bambi is fascinated. It must be so much fun to graze there…. but then suddenly, it changes… (score turning to minor)… Grey clouds cover the sun within seconds, a flash strikes the only tree on the clearing, leaving but a burning stump, thunder roars, the earth opens up, smoke, flames and amidst all this chaos THEY are dancing and chanting their villain song… disheartened and sad Bambi returns home… the new part of the forest, the new language has

 cases…. dun dun duuunnnnn 

Cases do have a really bad reputation. Especially to people who’s mother tongue is virtually case-free, “has cases” sounds like “has fleas” or “doesn’t shower very often”.  But even people who’s own language does have cases don’t like them too much. Finns complain about the German cases, Germans whine about Polish cases and everybody bitches about ancient Greek and Latin. Cases just seem to give everyone a hard time.
Partially this is because people do not realize what cases are… they are there and they suck… like speed-bumps. Knowing about the background of cases will definitely help to understand them.
So in this article we will look at the general concept of cases, without talking too much about a specific one. We will look at what cases do and how they do it and we will have a look at the variety of cases you can find in different languages. Then, we will see if we can make … a case … (just warming up the pun-gun) for or against cases and answer the – very very legit and frequent – question.

Are case really necessary?

And to wrap up we will take a look at how cases connect organic chemistry. Sounds good? Cool. Then let’s start.

What cases are

I sense that some of you are still a little bit tense. Trust me, there is absolutely no need to be scared… cases can be your friend. Don’t think so? Well, there are many useful cases around us everyday…
for example: beer cases. They contain up to 24 bottles of beer….24 bottles in  one easy to carry case. That is actually really convenient. Or if you’re not into beer that much think of…  wine cases,  or suitcases, or briefcases.
Now all these cases do have something in common… they contain stuff. And this is exactly what the grammatical cases do… they contain information.

Let’s look at verbs for a second. The verb “to go” can come in quite different looks.

  • I go home.
  • I went home.

Go and went don’t share a letter. And yet they are the very same action, even the very same verb. Looking up went in a dictionary will give you a reference to “to go”. Verbs have different dresses for different situations and all these dresses convey some information. “Went” tells you, that it is in the past. If you dress up a verb for it’s task, we call that to conjugate (read more that here). In some languages like French for instance, the verbs have a huge ass closet with a dress for nearly every language situation possible. English verbs on the contrary only have 5 dresses…. go  – goes – went – gone –  going… that’s all there is. You cannot convey much different information with only 5 dresses. English verbs compensate for this lack of forms by being extremely social. When English verbs have to express something in conditional-past-progressive, they just call 2 of their friend and do the job together.

  • If Steve hadn’t been missing, the project couldhave been finished in time.

In other language hadn’t been missing might be just one weird form of to miss… something like misseriatéait…

(Disclaimer: Example inspired by French, but may be exaggerated. Does not reflect real French grammar)

Why I am talking about conjugating when this is about cases? Well, because it is actually the same idea. Changing a basic word in order to add more information to it is what linguists call to inflect. If you inflect a verb, it is called conjugating. If you inflect other things, it is called to decline
And putting something into a case is one form of declension. Another form of declension is adding an s for plural. Let’s take the word tree. This is the basic word. Now I add an s to it, I inflect or more precisely decline it … trees … with the effect that it has more information now… it is plural.
Anyway… using cases is essentially the same as conjugating verbs. You alter the word to give more information to it.

How grammatical cases work

Cases are sort of the conjugation of things and persons. Now how are cases applied?
First thing important is that it is not the thing or person that is put into the case but the speech representation…. sounds obvious but let’s take a closer look at this representation because it can have quite different shapes. Let’s meet Marc. Marc is Claire’s boyfriend and he has long blond hair. We can speak about Marc in different ways:

  • Marc is hungry.
  • Claire’s boyfriend is hungry.
  • The blond guy who is with Claire is hungry.
  • He is hungry.

And one more example … let’s take a chair.

  • The chair is brown.
  • It is brown.
  • This chair is brown.
  • The brown one is broken.

Those are not ALL ways to refer to chair in a sentence… but you can see that it is not necessarily the word chair or the name Marc, that makes the reference.

Now if we put a thing or a person into a case, we will alter the speech representation of that thing or person. But this representation can be more than one word.

  • The blond tall pizza eating, coke drinking guy gets a call.

The guy is represented by the whole block here… and not just by the word guy… so when we have to put that certain guy in a case, we need to look at the whole representation – the blond tall pizza eating, coke drinking guy.

With that said, we can move on to the different possibilities or looks a case can have. Because depending on case and language there are quite a few possibilities  for the mechanics of cases… the only thing common is that something is changed. But the change itself can have different shape. You can change the beginning or the end of the word or you can change something in the middle of the word. Maybe you just have to change the noun or name (like chair or Marc) , maybe you just have to change the whole noun phrase including all articles and adjectives and in some languages, for example in German, the change might only affect the articles and adjectives while the actual noun remains unchanged.

Now all that is pretty theoretical so let’s imagine a fictive case in English:

1) the “with-ative” – the withative indicates that the thing or person is connected in sense of with (you’ll understand once you see the examples)

Putting something into withative is done by adding -con to the word that needs to be changed.

2) the “some-ative” – the someative indicates that you are talking about some of that thing.

Putting something into someative is done by adding -so to the word. And now we are ready to speak.

  • I write my black pencon.
  • I write with my black pen.

Now this is only one possibility. Suppose, our language declines (puts the case) to EVERY word of the representation. Then we would say:

  • I write mycon blackcon pencon.

This means the very same as the first example… it has just a different grammar. And just for completion… here is the same in a German like structure.

  • I write mycon blackcon pen.

Here only articles and adjectives are altered while the actual noun remains unchanged… quite confusing I have to admit.
For the other examples I will stick with the change all grammar. But remember… it varies from language to language and there is no right or wrong there. It is just different.

  • Marc goes Clairecon to the movies.
  • Marc goes with Claire to the movies.
  • Marc goes hiscon girflfriendcon to the movies
  • Marc goes with his girlfriend to the movies.

And what if the thing or person is only represented by one pronoun? Well it has to change of course…

  • I have a new colleague but I hate working himcon.
  • I have a new colleague but I hate working with him.
  • My girlfriend is angry mecon.
  • My girlfriend is angry with me.

I think you are starting to get the hang of it. So far we have only used the rather easy to grasp Withative… now let’s take a quick look at the Someative.. which does actually exist of sorts in Finnish, where it is called Partitive.

  • Do you have moneyso left.
  • Do you have some money left.
  • I need coldso waterso.
  • I need some cold water.

The latter one in German case mechanics would be:

  •  I need coldso water.

So… not that difficult so far. Now let’s see both cases back to back. I will not give translations anymore… I am sure you understand it without them.

  • I want my coffee milkcon.
  • Can I have milkso for my coffee?

And now something really crazy…

  • I want my coffee with some warm milk.

There are many languages like Finnish or Turkish that allow to add several endings together… so the sentence in our fictional English would be

  • I want my coffee warmsocon milksocon.

And just to stress it again… this system I used here is one possibility of case mechanics. How putting something in a case works in a specific language depends on the language.

Not all cases just replace prepositions like our fictional Withative.  Some cases like the German Dative can be really blurry and hard to grasp. But more on that later. First let’s look at English.

Cases in English

I think that many natives of English when confronted with case languages like German, Finnish or Turkish perceive English to be free of that mess… indeed, English has come a long way and has successfully left behind a large part of its Germanic and Latin case heritage. The still very present in the personal pronouns.

  • This is Marie. She is hungry.
    I give her something to eat.

Both words, she and her, refer to the very same person… so why are they different? Because her is she put in a case… her is she dressed up as object… … … a grammatical object of course :).

  • Who is that?
  • Whose is that?

This is another occasion of case in English. Whose is the question word who put in a case… the possessive case. If English completely devoid of all cases the question would be:

  • Of who is that?

The possessive case is actually still pretty well preserved in English. His, hers, yours, ours, Marc’s, Thomas’ … the s marks possession here. We have inflected (altered) the original word, thus adding more information to it. This is what cases are good for. Anyway… while it hasn’t completely vanished yet, the case concept doesn’t play a very important role in English, especially compared to languages like Finnish with their 15… yeah 15 cases. English things and persons are just like the English verbs very social and like to hang out with prepositions to express the little extra something. Here is a comparison between English and Finnish:

  • I am from Berlin.
  • Minä olen Berliinistä.

It means the very same. Finnish just uses a different approach to say it. Instead if adding an extraword, they modify the origin.

Cases all around the world

First of, I want to say that EVERY language can be considered to have one case… the default case. It is wrong to think that German has 4 … its actually just 3, because one is the default which you would have to use anyway. You cannot NOT use any case. Case 1 is the basic form, and this one exists in any language.
Cases are not something rare or weird and there are many large languages like Russian, German, Turkish or Hindi and many others that have cases.  Also English used to have cases but they disappeared over time in favor of prepositions.
But do people from India find it easy to learn German? I mean they have cases too so they it shouldn’t be such a pain for them… well, there are many … MANY possibilities for cases. Cases contain additional information. Now how many information is there that could possibly be given? Exactly… endless. You can assign a case to the information “rotten”… and to pick a different mechanic, let’s say the case works by replacing the first vowel of the word by “ew”.

  • I have rotten eggs in my fridge.
  • I have ewggs in my fridge.
  • Shit, I just put rotten milk in my coffee.
  • Shit, I put mewlk in my coffee.
  • The movie got 87 % average on Rottentomatoes.com.
  • The movie got 87 % average on Tewmatoes.com.

Ok… that last one  is kind of an insider maybe :).Anyway… Anything is possible and can be expressed using cases.  Hindi and German have about the same number of cases but the concepts expressed are TOTALLY different. So for a person from India it is just as difficult to make the distinction between Dative and Accusative as it is for a native English speaker. Even for people from languages that have approximately the same cases, it can be tricky due to different mechanics. As I said before some languages might apply the inflection (the alteration of the word) to the main noun only, others might put it to EVERY SINGLE WORD of the whole block that represents a person or a thing and then there are weirdos like German where the main changes are done to the articles and adjectives while the noun remains untouched for the most part. So… cases are a widely used concept, but it is just a concept, and the ways to interpret it are virtually endless. If you read up on cases you can find so many different names… like Vokative, Accusative, Locative, Essessive and  many many more… the examples we had, the Withative and the Someative are actually not that far fetched.
Some cases,like the ones we made up here, are rather easy to grasp… others, like the German Dative or the Vokative are harder to rephrase with a mere preposition. I actually found the Finnish system very easy, as they concept behind a case is very clear cut. So if a language has many cases does not automatically mean that it is more difficult. You can have a language that has just 2 cases. But the distinction between those 2 may be soooo difficult that you feel like you never get it right.

Most languages have a rather low number of cases, there are also examples where they went all out on that… like Tsez (here is a Wikipedia article), I just say 128. The German 3 cases are really not that many in comparison to that extravaganza.
Still.. the German cases are a headache for many many people, so the following question has been circling many peoples minds.

Are cases really necessary

The answer is a clear NO! You can express anything a case expresses by talking around it. You may find a weird case in some language only a few thousand people speak, that you find really difficult to comprehend and express in your mother tongue. But that is not so much about the language, it is about the word view. People might express some information in a case, that you just do not care about at all. I mean, some languages like … again… Finnish get along without a distinction between he and she… so ANYTHING is possible in language.
Anyway… cases are not necessary. There are 2 main ways to replace them. The first one are prepositions. This way works extremely well for cases that express information about time or place.
The second way is word order. If you have a fixed word order like in English, you need no case.

  • My sister gives my nephew my brother.

This is a stupid sentence but it is clear who is giving what to whom… by the way… whom is just another case leftover in English.
Anyway… if I change the order of the sentence above, the meaning changes.

  • My brother gives my sister my nephew.

So here the word order does carry information about the thing or person. If this information is carried otherwise, for instance through cases, word order is not important anymore and can thus be changed. German is more flexible than English when it comes to word order. But it is not better… it is just different.

Generally there seems to be a trend to that analytic approach. English has dropped the old Indo-European cases in favor of prepositions and one German case, the Genitive, is losing some of its every day usage to a preposition. People say

  • Das Buch von meinem Professor…

and the Genitive version of that would sound super stilted.

  • Meines Professors  Buch…

The Genitive is not disappearing (I did say that in an earlier edition of the post and that was a bit too general a statement, but hey… this post is almost 3 years old and I learned something new in the meantime). But the use is changing and it’s one example a preposition takes over the role of a case in German.
However, prepositions are not the end. Right now people say “to me” in English. But this is longer than it needs to be and it is not totally unrealistic that people start to shorten it to something like “t’me”. This already started… I mean … the phonetic transcript of someone speaking at a high pace saying” to me” is really something like “timmy”.. so… “t’me” is used as if it were one word and then at some point people start to write just “tme”… and then, another 200 years later, it is established as a form of “I”… there is I – me – tme – my – mine and  he – him – tim – his….   a new case is born, a case that expresses a direction towards the thing. It is a closed circle, and you really can’t answer what has been there first or what is better. It is just different. And the last thing I want to say is this:

Imagine you are a beginner in a language. What difference does it make, how something is written.What you hear is a stream of sounds. The combination “tome” expresses something. Write it as 2 words, you have a preposition. write it as one word you have a case. But essentially it is sound used to convey information…. so there is not that big of a difference.

So… this was a round up on cases. Cases add additional information to the thing or person and they do that by altering words… which information they transport and how they alter which words is entirely dependent on the specific language you study. You can have a language without them, just as well as you can express the least important bit using a case. It is just a question of what you are used to.
So… we are almost done, but I did promise you to shine some light on the connections between cases and organic chemistry…

What cases have to do with organic chemistry

Pretty much nothing.

I hope all this helped you to understand the background of cases and why they are how they are. And don’t worry… I will talk about the German cases in detail :)
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh and if you want to get to the German cases right now… here you are :)

for members :)

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JEAP
JEAP

Hi, I’ve got a question that’s related to this topic somehow: How do germans decide the article of a new word?
Last night I was reading on my kindle and thought what would be article of the word kindle and how was that even decided. So I went to my computer and started typing: der kindle (no results), das kindle (that’s the one). For some reason it didn’t look like “die” to me

Regarding the actual topic… would you consider a good practice to forget about the cases for the most part in favour of a more “natural” approach? I mean, when you learn as a kid you don’t care about cases at all, right? If you listen to you mother saying: “das kleine Auto” and “Wir haben ein kleines Auto” you’d notice the difference and take it as it is, or…. I don’t know… how’s the process for a german kid to absorb all that?

BTW… Congrats for this blog, I like your approach on things that are usually considered difficult. And there’s nothing more illustrative than Word of the day section! really like that one

JEAP
JEAP

Hallo again!

First, thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment, I knew it would require a response just like the one you just left… a big one!

After leaving my comment I started to think about how I learnt english (I’m a native spanish speaker). It took me too many years to get to my current level. I never cared about grammar. I started by translating rock lyrics, then repeating everything I heard on tv shows and movies. Instead of reading captions I was trying to understand what the characters were saying. After so many years of doing the same thing, I started participating on a music blog and having actual conversations with other human beings (when I felt comfortable with the language). The thing is that it took way too long to get to this point, but it felt natural somehow; there was no presure to get anywhere and no grammar to care about. Now I do care about english grammar; but with german doesn’t look that simple and I want to learn faster.

I got close to the end of the livemocha’s course and I didn’t like it. The good thing is that you can have feedback from natives. I will probably go back just for the sake of conversational practice; because it’s a pretty boring course.

Lately I’ve been isolating movie parts and I learn them by heart. I -of course- translate them to know what I’m saying (I also have subtitles to understand the meaning of the sentences) if I’m completely clueless about something I check the declension table or any other kind of documentation.

I don’t have the level to understand that article, but I just saved it for future reading. Thanks.

Mark Lange
Mark Lange

Hi, and also thanks for the article.

I’m replying to this comment in particular because I have kind of done it ‘both ways’ with German.

I learnt German, and was relatively good at it, at school in England, and being of a fairly logical mindset I found the grammatical rules quite reassuring if anything, unlike in French, which I learnt more by listening to than by constructing.

However, when I was 18, I spent a year in Basel, where I was pretty much back to ‘baby mode’ absorption, albeit with a very good headstart. My classmates soon gave up asking me questions about English grammar, because, although I could give them the right answer, I really couldn’t explain it in terms of rules. Not only are English grammar rules apparently in a league of their own, I simply hadn’t learnt the language that way.

Which is what then happened to my German… Using it rather than learning it, I absorbed it and became fluent, both in the sense that I could be universally understood, and in the sense that people did not know I was not a native speaker (if pushed they would say I was Swiss), but I pretty much forgot all the rules :( I am also pretty rubbish at translation, despite that being a strong point at school, and totally understanding the sentence in both languages…

Oh and then I learnt Swissgerman too, but I couldn’t even tell you whether there are rules for Swissgerman grammar…

Hence reading your blog now that, after 20 years of occasional use, I am now working in German (but not in a German-speaking country so absorption will be slow) and need to get a jump-start.

I think I’d better summarise that, it’s more of a story than a comment…
1. I learnt German at school, and was good at ‘constructing’ it from rules and (translated) vocab.
2. I lived in Switzerland, and became fluent by listening and speaking, and pretty much forgot all the rules, although not all the grammar.
3. I learnt Swissgerman, without learning any rules (I’m pretty sure they are at least stretched versions of German rules, if not actually different).
4. I am out of practice and suddenly using German for work every day, and find that I am making LOTS of especially gender/case mistakes, and need to re-learn them, and the only way now is through rules.

Mjsielerjr

Great post! Very clear and entertaining description of German cases!

May I repost this article on my blog?

– Michael

Paul
Paul

Nice post! A good intro to the general idea of cases.

One minor nitpick: I’m no linguist but I believe that declining a word is referred to as “declension”, not “declinsion”.

Ana
Ana

Bonjour Emanuel,
Juste une petite question. Pourriez-vous me dire où vous avez suivi votre formation de didactique de l’allemand langue étrangère ? Excusez-moi pour ma curiosité mais votre façon d’aborder un sujet, d’en comparer avec l’anglais ou bien d’autres langues est assez impressionnante.
Merci en avance pour la réponse

Ana
Ana

Alors… vous avez été étudiant en mathématiques. 
Your French is quite good. Thanks for answering my question.
Ich lerne Deutsch seit zehen Tage. Können Sie bitte meine Arbeit, einmal in der Woche korrigieren ?
Danke

Matt
Matt

I’m really enjoying (and finding helpful) your website for my German studies. One thing that I would say though, is that knowing another language with a similar case structure does make things much easier the second time around. I speak Russian which I learned as a foreign language (that is to say I spent hours and hours getting my head around its crazy case system) makes German cases much easier to grasp. Granted, there are a lot of differences, but it is already more natural for me now to be thinking about noun and adjective declensions.

Vale

Really cool blog! Keep up and thanks!

Lindsay
Lindsay

Hi. I bought a german language learning book and am trying to teach myself in my spare time. At the bottom of your article, it says you will talk more about German cases. I am new to this website and can’t find anything about it. Can you give me the link please and thank you. I don’t know what my problem is but I just can’t seem to wrap my head around this whole “cases” concept. Any additional info you might have would be appreciated. Thank you so much.
P.S. I searched and searched the web for some info on cases and couldn’t find anything worth reading until I came to yours. You actually make it understandable.

0rganiker
0rganiker

As an organic chemist I found this a bit disappointing. As a student of German, thank you!

Salman Ahmed
Salman Ahmed

After messing up my head since the past 8 months trying to make these cases stick in my mind, when see you saying “Relax, cases are nothing to worry about” it gives me so much relief. Phew! My vocab is good but the cases and genders are what fuck with me. It seems sometimes I’ll never be able to say them right.

josia
josia

Thanks man, I really really love your silly writing (just warming up the pun-gun: LOL) so refreshing, I have been learning German for about a month now making rapid progress and your blog has been enormous help, although part of it is I think I may have a talent, a knack. I will be posting in German in a few months time…;) Regards!

Paulina
Paulina

Danke schön for your super helpful explanation! I just came across this blog when looking for info about cases in German -gotta get to know the enemy before you tackle it and I’m definitely less scared and more prepared now (: Greetings from Chile!

Miloš Spasojević
Miloš Spasojević

Hi,
Before reading your posts I was so scared of German cases and articles that I failed to realize just how logical and similar to my mother tongue these grammar structures are. Serbian has more cases than German, but there are ones that match more or less to German cases, and that does help a lot now that I’m thinking about it.

So thank you very much for this and all other amazing posts on your blog. It’s super awesome!

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[…] except Romanian) – if you’d really like to learn about cases I highly recommend this article (and that blog in general for German learners), that’s what got me to understand […]

Arc RS

Nice article! BUT…(sorry about BUT), it is long and difficult to digest, simply because you to explain cases in all the languages and this is very confusing and not understandable for the German beginners who do not have such lingual background. I spent some time reading this article but I still cannot summarize what a “case” really is. My suggestion would be to condense this article to make it short and flat. It can save you time from writing such a long article and it can save readers’time as well ;)

Menal
Menal

Very very useful article. Thank you so much! I did 5 years of Latin at school and I’ve learned more from your explanation of cases today than in those 5 years! Looking forward to learning German on your site.

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Cases in German. Making a case for study. | Lingua.ly Blog

[…] with (and what got me to properly understand cases in German after several frustrating attempts) is this article, on ‘Grammar Jargon – What the heck are cases?’ over at German is Eas… (excellent blog for the English-speaking German […]

Ann
Ann

Thanks a lot for your writing! Got many useful things on it!
I am a native Chinese, getting stuck with German right now. For you may have know that Chinese is a highly analytic language, which has NEVER EVER in its history used the mechanic of cases. Therefore, all my colleges are quite bitchy at German cases (and genders). Why you westerners trouble yourselves with this bloody inflection? Why the Greek philosophers wasted their great mind to invent grammar rules …

It’s maybe the different minds of thinking, that Westerners squeeze their brain to build up a complex language system as perfect as possible, while Asians minimize the burden of grammar, yet getting lost in guessing the meaning through simple hint of word…

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hello,
I lived in Germany for 3 years in the early 90’s and although I was working in a European Center where the work language was English, I was happy to be able to learn some German and be able to have long conversations with non-English speaking people (some worked there for 5 years and did not speak a word of German!). I remember “Cases” being a big issue then. I decided to try to improve my German a few weeks ago and was surfing the web, getting help from many interesting sites. I must say that your blog is absolutely fantastic! Your ability to convey complex concepts with the right amount of “rigueur” and no-nonsense. It is a real pleasure to read you and learn along the way…

Mike from Canada