Re: 5 case system vs. 8 case system

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Fri Oct 23 1998 - 13:59:57 EDT

Jonathan wrote, inter alia:

>Robertson uses the 8 case system to emphasize different usages, but I don't
>think Greek *ever* made morphological distinctions between 8 cases - I'm
>sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, which I often am. And the notion
>of teaching that Greek has 8 cases because Proto-Indo-European apparently
>had 8 cases is just a little odd to some of us.

There are two sides to this issue, i.e. the theoretical and the practical.
On the theoretical side, there is evidence for the locative case form (ATR
takes this for granted), but it is doubtful whether this supports an
earlier 8-case system. Threatte (Grammar of Attic Inscriptions) has the
locative (-oi sing., -si plural in alpha stems) appearing as a separate
case only *after* ca. 420 B.C., when the plural -ais endings for the dative
take over--leaving the -si forms to be exclusively locative. And there has
always been the assumption that Greek has ties with Sanskrit's 8-case
system (I believe Jaan Puhvel argues this), but I don't know whether there
is hard evidence for the connection.
The practical side is much simpler. Carl raised a good point re teaching
practice. My viewpoint is that from a logical perspective, it is preferable
to be able to determine meaning from form, rather than the reverse. In
other words, I should be able to parse then translate, and it should not be
incumbent upon me to translate then parse. I'm sure all will agree that
parsing does in fact take precedence because we take the simple cases at
face value. Those of you who have been students in a formal Greek course
know the frustration and glory of misreading or reading correctly the case
forms in translation exercises. For these reasons I prefer the 5-case
system, which minimizes the amount of interpretive parsing (e.g. ablative
vs. genitive) that one has to do. I.e. we do need to identify the nuances
to properly understand the meaning, but then determining that one has an
ablative rather than genitive has only theoretical value, like trying to
defend the existence of "ether" in the universe (to paraphrase Einstein,
"Who needs it?").

Don Wilkins

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