Re: eight case or five?

From: Edgar M. Krentz (
Date: Wed Sep 06 1995 - 00:50:55 EDT

Bill Chapman recently cited what I had written about the origins of the
eight case system and then asked some questions.

>> Date: Thu, 31 Aug 1995 11:54:35 -0600
>> From: "Edgar M. Krentz" <>
>> Historical grammar lets us know that there were eight cases. There are
>> vestiges of some of these cases in unusual words. Greek XAMAI ("on the
>> ground") is often identified as a survival of the locative case.
>> So where do linguists stand on this? Historical linguists (using a
>> diachronic method) understand how the usages of the five case system
>> reflect the earlier eight case system in the usage of Greek or Latin.
>> Descriptive structural linguists (using a synchronic analysis of language
>> in a given period or collection of texts, such as the Septuagint or the New
>> Testament, e.g. Nida) seek to describe the use of the language as it occurs
>> in these texts.
>> Cordially, Ed Krentz
>In the sections I quoted above, it seems that you describe an "older"
>language with more "form-ality" that devolves into a "younger"
>language with less complexity. 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

I don't know that any historical linguist can answer the question of
origins. S/he can only describe what can be documented from surviving
languages. I can only surmise that at one point it was significant for
speakers to distinguish ablative from dative or genitive forms because the
difference was signficant to them. Why does Finnish need more cases than
we? Why did ancient Greek have so many words for "love"?

What Lindsay Whaley wrote you is also good. Simplification in one area of
language may lead to greater complexity in another. Let me add an
illustration to his. We used to distinguish between "shall" and "will" as
auxiliary verbs for the future tense in English. Today we make little
distinction. In part that is because American spoken English is in the
process of losing these future formations. "I'm going to eat pizza
tonight." has become the oral form of the future tense for many, i.e. the
verb "go" followed by an infinitive is the future of preference in many
situations, while ¾shall" or "will" formations either express
intentionality with emphasis or sound a bit archaic or formal. English is
simpler in the number of cases, but more complex in puteting words into the
proper order. We normally put the indirect object before the direct: "Write
him a letter," not "Write a letter him." Greek word order was less complex
because its inflected forms clarified meaning apart from word order.

Thus the future in one sense is losing some formations and adopting others.
Is that simplification or not?

In modern demotic Greek the locution EIS TEN has befome STHN.
Simplification? In Greek of the Hellenistic-Romana era, the every day
speech (koine) tended to use verbs compounded with prepositions and then
repeat the preposition later in the sentence. This is more complex.
Historically, prepositions originated as adverbs used to make the sense of
cases more clear--a more complex structure.

Ultimately the test of language is, does it enable a writer or speaker to
communicate what s/he means to say.

Sorry I did not get to answering you sooner. And I hope that this resonse
gives some clarity to what puzzled you.

Ccordially, Ed Krentz

Edgar Krentz <>
New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Voice: 312-753-0752; FAX: 312-753-0782

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