Re: eight case or five?

From: Lindsay J. Whaley (
Date: Fri Sep 01 1995 - 13:50:30 EDT

--- You wrote:
If I pursue that line of reasoning
(mine, not necessarily implied by your post), and look at a "modern"
language like English with only a subjective and objective case,
the pattern appears to hold true.

This is very curious. From whence does the advanced, yet ancient,
form-full, language come? Now, I am thinking of cave-people grunting
and pointing (like we see in the movies), and wonder how a formal,
eight-case language could have come about, particularly if languages
tend to simplify over time.

Can some Historical Linguist help me?

Thanks, Bill
--- end of quoted material ---

I'm certainly not ready to speculate about the complex tongue of the
cave-grunters nor even about the form of the languange from which
Proto-Indo-European sprung!

However, I wanted to throw in a couple of comments. In a very general sense,
languages do simplify over time. In the case of case, the simplification over
time is usually tied in with phonological reduction. That is, since case
suffixes are rarely stressed, there is a natural tendency for them to become
further and further reduced until they disappear.
        However, case suffixes can also be "born" when there are
simplifications in other aspects of language. For example, verbs, nouns, and
adverbial particles are all known to have become case affixes in some languages
as they go through a process of grammaticalization. Typically,
grammaticalization is also accompanied by phonological reduction, but more
importantly, it consists of a semantic and syntactic simplification. For
example, the Modern Persian object marker -ra was originally the noun radiy
'goal, purpose'. Over time, it became reduced to -rad, and was used as a
postposition for datives and benefactives. Notice that as a benefactive marker
it still had shades of the meaning 'purpose' and as dative still had shades of
the meaning 'goal', but these meanings had lost their full sense. Still later
in the history of Persian, -ra became even more semantically general and could
mark any definite object.
        All this is to say that the maxim "language simplifies over time" is a
little misleading because it suggests a complex original language that slowly
whittles down to become maximally simple. If we see language not as a
monolithic block, but a group of interacting subsystems, there is no reason to
believe in such a teleology.
        Also keep in mind that the lexical subsystem is remarkably productive,
thereby insuring that new material is constantly being added.

Lindsay Whaley
Dartmouth College

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