Grammatical Case Headspace....
July 22, 2009 3:15 AM   Subscribe

LanguageFilter: How can a native English speaker develop a better sense of grammatical cases?

So I'm learning some Russian and have just started getting into the noun & adjective case distinctions. But as a native English speaker it is quite difficult to think in terms of what noun cases are used in a particular sentence (ie is this the nominative, accusative, dative, ablative, locative, instrumental, vocative or genitive case of the noun/adjective that I need to use).

I've been reading some of the wikipedia entries on declension, grammatical case, noun cases, gender cases etc but it very quickly goes completely over my head.

So I was just wondeing if anyone here had say some tips, advice or resources on getting into the grammatical case headspace?

I imagine its just a matter of doing 'exercises' or something? (but is this really possible with English examples when we don't distinguish linguistically between most of them?)
posted by mary8nne to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I used the Japanese edition in this series of books when I was studying. They are very helpful for getting your English grammar straight so that you know how it applies in your new language.
posted by sconbie at 3:29 AM on July 22, 2009

First or third-person pronouns are a good way of distinguishing between nominative, accusative and genitive in English (2nd person "you" is the same in nominative and accusative). Even if a sentence doesn't use a pronoun, substitute one in:
The pronouns for dative are the same as accusative, but are always preceded by prepositions, so "to him" or "for him" would indicate dative.

I learned my cases studying German and never studied languages with ablative, locative, instrumental or vocative cases so I can't help with those.
posted by cardboard at 3:57 AM on July 22, 2009

According to Wikipedia Russian:

Nominal declension is subject to six cases – nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional – in two numbers (singular and plural), and obeying absolutely grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter).

Up to ten additional cases are identified in linguistics textbooks, although all of them are either incomplete (do not apply to all nouns) or degenerate (appear identical to one of the six simple cases). The most well-recognized additional cases are locative, partitive, and several forms of vocative. The adjectives, pronouns, and the first two cardinal numbers further vary by gender.

I think this is going to be harder than I thought.
posted by mary8nne at 4:16 AM on July 22, 2009

I'm not sure that looking for parallels between English & Russian (or more generally, your mother language & the target language) is the way to go about it. You'll end up having a lot of confused mappings in your head that will never really fit together.

That said, if you're using a book that teaches by way of linguistic terminology, you might want to learn what the different cases mean. Its important to remember that just because say the genitive case applies to some phrase in english does not mean that this same phrase will be considered genitive (in terms of word endings) in another language. Nothing of the sort.

I suggest memorizing the tables for how cases modify words and to think of cases as categories which apply to different situations. You will see some obvious rules (for e.g. the subject of a verb is nominative) and eventually find other patterns (or memorize when that is the only route) that will get you going.

What you will find hard with russian is that cases for different prepositions, conjunctions, etc. are often sort of arbitrary.

this is a basic introduction to the case system I found and this is more involved.
posted by breadfruit at 4:56 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

The purpose of the case is to show the grammatical function of the word in the sentence.

Here is an example in English about cases that carries over from Latin.

Take this sentence: He is going to the store. In this sentence he is the subject, and therefore is nominative.

Take another sentence: Ella hit him. In this sentence him is the direct object, and therefore accusative.

Can you use he and him correctly? You would never say him is going to the store, right? Good.

Notice the m in him? ...Well it shows up in another place.

Now, we're doing the same thing with who and whom: "Who goes there?" In this sentence who is the subject and therefore is nominative.

This time, an example with whom: To whom am I speaking? In this case, whom is an object of a preposition, or ablative.

In short, in English we add an m to show that the word is an object in the sentence. The trick for using who and whom correctly is to see whether he or him makes sense in the sentence.

The following is true for Latin: (IMNA Russian Speaker).

Case - Use
Nominative- subject
Genitive- possession of/'s
Dative- indirect object to/ for
Accusative- direct object object of a preposition, subject of an infinitive
Ablative- object of a preposition, ablative absolute
Vocative- direct address
posted by oceano at 5:03 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I only got the hang of cases (German first and now Latin) by systematically breaking down every sentence into subject/nominative, object/accusative, etc. and by memorizing through repetition which conjunctions take each case. I'm afraid that there's no real trick to getting it in your brain beyond tedious repetition. I find that thinking about cases while reading English sentences reinforces their place.

(That said, right now I'm shirking my latin repetition to browse MeFi... so maybe I'm not the best advisor.)
posted by rhinny at 5:40 AM on July 22, 2009

You're thinking about this the wrong way. There's no point trying to understand the cases in an intellectual way unless that comes natural to you, which it apparently doesn't. What you need to do is learn to use and recognize the forms correctly, and what that means is lots and lots of practice. The fiftieth time you hear/see/say "Я вижу его" and "Он видит меня," they will both feel perfectly natural to you; it won't matter in the least that я and он are called "nominative" and его and меня "accusative." Good luck, and feel free to write me with questions—I love Russian and am always happy to encourage people who are learning it!
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on July 22, 2009

While I haven't studied Russian beyond the grammatical case study level, I did my graduate work in language typology. There are subtle ways that these cases are used in different languages, but the general concepts are usually the same. Just think of case in terms of what noun phrases do in a sentence. Are they initiating action (nominative)? Taking it (accusative)? The location of it (locative)? Being used to do something (instrumental)? Is the action happening for them (dative)? Are they the owner of another noun in the sentence (genitive)?

Breaking down the cases:
~nominative - a.k.a the agent of a verb, this would be called the subject in English. (The woman went upstairs.)
~accusative - a.k.a. patient of a verb, this would be called a direct object in English (The dog ate the steak.)
~genitive - a possessor, (The professor's car wouldn't start.), can also include partitives and a few other categories, depending on the language
~dative - the target of an action, this is often known as an indirect object in English, (He baked Sam cookies. She threw Sam the ball)
~vocative - this case usually indicates when someone is being spoken to in a conversation, but it can also be used to indicate historical voice in writing. Think vocative=evocative. (I'm talking to you, John.)

The rest are just finer grained ways of looking at what would be prepositional phrases in English:

~instrumental - anything used to perform an action (He cut the cake with a knife)
~ablative - think of this as anything that would be in a 'from____' or 'of_____' prepositional phrase (They ran from the house.)
~locative - This one is easy to remember because it indicates a location, usually corresponding to 'in', 'at', 'on' (The kids played in the park)
~prepositional - covers the rest of the prepositional phrases (She looked under the table.)
posted by Alison at 6:06 AM on July 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

I speak as someone who only had three quarters of college-level Russian, but:

Start by memorizing only the declensions of nominative, accusative, and dative. You can build basic subject-object sentences with these. The other cases come into play mostly when you use prepositions, but a single preposition could use different cases according to its function in the sentence. E.g., "with" would be dative if you're saying "I went to the park with Misha" and instrumental if you're saying "I wrote with a pencil".

Also, English does have some vestigial traces of cases, for example who vs. whom.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:53 AM on July 22, 2009

Make a chart, and keep it with you when you're reading. Or keep it with you all the time. You need to memorize forms so that when you see a noun in the genitive, you immediately think "possession (and whatever else the genitive does in Russian). The only way to do this is through practice, hence the chart.

The most helpful charts for me consist of a grid, with the first column devoted to case (nominitive, genitive, whatever), then a column for the endings for each gender/declension, then a column describing what each case can do. If you have all of this information in front of you when you try to read, you don't have to scramble through all your reference materials when you don't recognize a form.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:13 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks all.
I think i just need to stick at it. I'm just listening to some 'learn Russian' stuff at the moment and enjoying it. Its the first language I've tried which uses cases to this extent instead of word order.

Its interesting how different some of the key concepts are to say English / Spanish / French which i've learnt a little of in the past.
posted by mary8nne at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2009

I think that what Alison said makes a lot of sense. But don't worry, you'll get it.
posted by k8t at 8:54 AM on July 22, 2009

I was lucky enough to grow up with German, but when I studied Latin, my professor had us do a lot of writing with many colours of pens (red=nominative, yellow=ablative, etc).
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 9:58 AM on July 22, 2009

I remember in German class, I remembered that Accusative is used for Direct Object, just by thinking of the word "ado". Maybe there are mnemonics (sp?) like this you could use.
posted by Penelope at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2009

Learning the rules is one thing, but languagehat is correct (surprise!).

Personally I find that memorising stories, or poems, or songs, or any snippets that strike uyour fancy is good, because then you start to store real sentences that exhibit correct usage. As LH says, when you have enough, you will develop a sense of what is natural. But for me, before that point, if I know a sentence that's parallel in construction to what I want to say, then I can mentally refer to it.

Also, it may help to break down the tasks you have ahead of you.

1. Gather vague conceptual understanding of the relationships that cases express.
2. Memorise case inflections. (Tables stuck to the wall above your desk, on your refrigerator, to the bathroom mirror, chant them to yourself on the bus, recite them in the car).
3. Study examples of when and how these are used.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:04 PM on July 22, 2009

Seconding 'English Grammar for Students of Russian'. It's the best language book I've ever used, and while I may have forgotten almost all my Russian my gratitude to that book remains!
posted by Coobeastie at 4:26 PM on July 22, 2009

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