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Re: Def. of Case WAS: Cases, again

From:Mark J. Reed <markjreed@...>
Date:Thursday, March 18, 2004, 16:41
On Thu, Mar 18, 2004 at 10:27:39AM -0500, Matthew Kehrt wrote:
> This leaves me somewhat confused as to the definition of "case".
The term "case" refers specifically to the syntax of a given language, usually to noun inflection, often also to adjective inflection for purposes of agreeing with the modified noun. The semantic terms for the roles are often used to explain what each case is used for in a given language, they but are not equivalent to the idea of "case" itself. This is clearly true since different languages have different cases, and often use different names even for cases that serve the same semantic role. As you noted, English is generally regarded as not having an accusative (or dative or oblique) case; instead, it has a single case which is called the "objective" that is used where those other cases are used in other languages. Note also that there does not have to be a visible difference for two words to be in different cases. In general, if *any* noun makes the distinction visible, then the distinction is considered to be there for all nouns, even when not visible. In Latin, nouns of the neuter gender always have the same form in both the nominative and accusative case, but in the context of any given example such a noun may only be correctly said to be in one or the other case. So there is really a three-way distinction: semantic role, grammatical case, and syntactic marking (or lack thereof) to indicate the case. As we covered on here recently, there are three primary roles a noun can play in a sentence (and many, many secondary or tertiary ones). Linguists refer to these with single letters to avoid confusion with how specific terms are used in reference to a given language. The role "S", which in English we consider to stand for "subject", refers to the subject of an intransitive verb ("witch" in "The witch melted"). The role "A" we consider to stand for "agent", which is the subject of a transitive verb ("water" in "The water melted the witch"). And "P", for "patient", is the direct object of a transitive verb ("witch" in "The water melted the witch."). Most languages group two of these roles together syntactically by using the same case for them, while using a separate case for the third role. Most commonly, S and A are grouped together into a "nominative" case while P is placed in an "accusative" case. Such languages are called "nominative-accusative" or simply "accusative". English, Latin, German, Russian, etc. are in this category. In distant second place by number of languages are those which group S and P together into an "absolutive" case, while A is placed into an "ergative" case. Such langauges are called "absolutive-ergative" or simply "ergative". In my example, this means that "witch" would be in the same case in both sentences, which seems logical enough. :) Basque is probably the most well-known ergative language. There are, of course, other ways of grouping S, A, and P, which are much less common than the above. The other 2:1 grouping is to put A and P in the same case while putting S into a different one. Since A and P appear together in the same sentence and can never appear in the same sentence as S, this would seem to be a really stupid way to divide things up. For that reason, such languages are called, at least on here, "Monster Raving Loony" languages, or "MRL" for short. Languages which are "tripartite" have a separate case for each of the three roles. This is perhaps a little excessive, but not loony. Finally, "clairvoyant" languages lump all three roles together into a single syntactic category. They're presumably called that because you have to be clairvoyant to tell which is which, since there's no visible distinction made. Context is usually sufficient that clairvoyance is not required, however. Some languages have a built-in hierarchy into which nouns fall, and the default roles are determined by their relative ranks. In an animacy hierarchy, for instance, assuming "boy" is more animate than "cat" is more animate than "ball", "The cat hits the ball" and "The ball hits the cat" both mean that the cat is doing the hitting, while "The cat hits the boy" and "The boy hits the cat" both mean that the boy is doing the hitting and the cat is getting hit. -Mark