You might be familiar with verb conjugations, like when verb endings change in Spanish, but did you know that in many languages nouns change, too? In languages like German, Latin, Russian, and—yes, sort of!—English, you'll find noun cases, which are sometimes called declensions. In these languages, nouns change to give extra information about what is happening in the sentence, so they can give learners lots of clues about meaning!
What are noun cases?
Let's take a look at noun cases in English first. English used to have a real noun case system, hundreds of years ago, but today it only remains in our pronouns:
- She gives the ice cream to him.
- Then he gives the chocolate sprinkles to her.
In English, we use different pronouns for the person doing the action of giving ("she" and "he") than for the person who is being given something ("her" and "him"). You could imagine saying "She gives the ice cream to he" instead—because why not? It doesn't change the meaning; it's just not what we do in English. If you've studied English grammar, you might have heard these called subject pronouns ("I," "he," "she," "we," "they," among others) and object pronouns ("me," "him," "her," "us," "them," etc). Cases tell you what the noun is doing in the sentence, like giving or receiving something. Even though English doesn't have a true case system anymore, our subject and object pronouns are the remnants of noun cases (subject pronouns are from the old nominative case, and the object pronouns came from a lot of other old cases, like accusative and dative). This might remind you of Spanish pronouns, too!
How do noun cases work?
In languages with more extensive case systems, every noun—not just pronouns—has to show what case it's in, depending on what else is happening in the sentence (like which verb or preposition it's linked to). In some languages, it's the noun itself that will show the case, maybe with a certain ending, and other languages will show case in different ways; in German, it's usually shown on the words linked to the noun.
In English, we always use the same form of the noun, no matter its place in the sentence. For example, the nouns "girl," "boy," and "ice cream" don't change even when their role in the sentence does:
- [The girl] gives [the boy] [ice cream].
- [The boy] gives [the girl] [ice cream].
- [The ice cream] gives [the boy] a stomachache.
But if you're learning a language with cases, you might learn different forms for each case! These changes are called declensions, so you can say that a noun declines a certain way in each case. Languages vary in the number of cases they have, but here are some you might see, along with examples with English pronouns (our last remnants of case!):
|Noun case||Example usage
(This can vary by language!)
(Remember, English doesn't have a full case system!)
|Nominative||for the subject of a verb||THEY make great ice cream.|
|Genitive||ownership or possessing something||But THEIR ice cream is so expensive!|
|Dative||for the thing that receives something or benefits from it||Show THEM your student ID for a discount.|
In languages with noun cases, those sorts of changes happen for every single noun. 😅
What to look for in languages with case
Case will work differently in each language, so here are some things to look out for!
- How many cases does the language have? Some languages, like Chinese, have no cases at all, and others, like Hungarian, can have more than a dozen! Russian and Latin have six cases (and used to have more!), and German has four.
- Which cases does the language have? For example, Latin has a case called the vocative, for when you speak directly to someone, but German doesn't. Russian had a vocative case that it lost over time. But there are still remnants of it—such as in 'bozhe', which means 'o god.'
- What words decline? Nouns and/or words associated with them might change for each case. That might include adjectives and determiners (words like "the," "these," "an," and many more)—that's why the examples above the table also include "the" in bold!
- Does the language have grammatical gender? If the language has case and grammatical gender, you'll probably see that there are multiple endings for each case: there might be one ending for masculine words in the genitive case, and a different ending for feminine words in the genitive case. (Not to mention masculine adjectives in the genitive and feminine adjectives in the genitive…and that'll be true for every case!)
There's another really interesting feature you'll see in languages with case: Typically, they'll have flexible word order. That means there are a lot more options for what order you put words in! English word order is pretty strict, and changing the order of words can create a whole new meaning. For example, in an English sentence with regular nouns (not pronouns)—which don't show case—word order is really important. Remember this example from earlier?
- The girl gives the boy ice cream.
- The boy gives the girl ice cream.
The only difference between these sentences is that "girl" and "boy" were swapped, but it totally changes who had the ice cream to begin with, who gave it away, and who then received it. But in languages with noun case, all of that information is included right in the noun, because it has a special noun case ending or maybe it has a particular form of "the" that makes the case clear. Those cases mean that no matter where in the sentence you move the noun, it's always clear what's happening. Take a look at this example from Russian, and notice how девушка (devushka, "girl," in the nominative) and мальчику (mal'chiku, "boy," in the dative) can move around:
|Девушка дает мальчику мороженое.
Devushka daet mal'chiku morozhenoe.
|Девушка (girl): nominative (for the person doing the giving)
Мальчику (boy): dative (for the person receiving the thing that was given)
Мороженое (ice cream): accusative (for the thing being given)
|The girl gives the boy ice cream.|
|Девушка мальчику дает мороженое.
Devushka mal'chiku daet morozhenoe.
|Same as above!||Same as above!|
|Мальчику дает девушка мороженое.
Mal'chiku devushka daet morozhenoe.
|Same as above!||Same as above!|
In case you were wondering…
…There’s more to come! Noun case systems can look really different across languages, and they help you understand a lot about the meaning of a sentence. Stay tuned for more information about noun cases and grammatical gender, and tips and tricks for learning cases!