Cases | What this word means for language learners Language Resources

Cases. If you’re about to learn a language and you’ve been doing a bit of research, you may have stumbled across this term in your reading.

Perhaps it was someone celebrating that their language didn’t have any cases or another complaining that the language they’re studying has too many. Either way, it’s definitely something that gets brought up.

If you’re not past the newbie stage in your language, however, you might not know what these things called cases are.

So what exactly are cases when it comes to language learning?

When I decided to study my first Slavic language, I was completely ignorant of cases and what they would mean for both my grammar and vocabulary studies. If I had known about them, I might have thought about my decision more carefully. But all I cared about was the fact that my grandfather spoke the language, that it sounded pretty, and that it was different than the other languages I had learned.

It would be a grand adventure!

And then I began hearing the word “cases” come up in my lessons and as I started to realize what I had signed up for, I was already knee-deep in learning Croatian, madly in love with the language and it was too late for me to turn back.

So that’s why I want to share what I’ve learnt since then with you. I want to help you make an informed decision when you’re selecting your next language.

Why are cases a big deal?

Different language learners struggle with different aspects of language learning. For some, memorizing vocabulary may be more difficult. For others, absorbing grammar rules may seem impossible.

Languages are also unique in that there are certain aspects of each that are more difficult for learners depending on their background and native language. The grammar of languages with a lot of different cases will be much harder for a learner whose language does not have many, while a language with a tonal system, like Chinese, may be difficult for someone who struggles to remember vocabulary since many of the characters sound similar if you don’t have an ear for tones.

If grammar isn’t your thing, learning a language with several cases might not be for you. But if your love for the language can help you work through it, then by all means go ahead!

As long as cases aren’t something that will deter you from continuing on with the language, they’re not a big deal. But if you really don’t want to spend the time memorizing extra vocabulary and learning the rules surrounding cases, then a language with several of them might not be the right fit for you.

So what are cases?

When you look up the definition of cases, a lot of the material you’ll find contain long and complicated explanations. And when you’re starting to learn a language, long and complicated explanations are one of the things that can quickly deter you from continuing your learning.

The truth is, cases are pretty complicated, but it’s all about approaching them within a context. Trying to memorize the rules and the words that are tied to them in isolation can make that part of learning a language that much harder, so I don’t recommend it.

The word “case” is derived from the Latin word casus which means “to fall.” It is used to describe words that have fallen away from their nominative, or root form.

Cases are the grammatical function of a noun or pronoun within a phrase, clause, or sentence. To use English as an example, it’s essentially the difference between I and me, he and him, she and her. “I fell in love with him” or “He fell in love with me.” It helps indicate who or what is doing the action and who or what it’s being done to.

In some languages (*cough* Croatian), the adjectives are also modified to indicate the case being used. In others, only the nouns themselves reflect which case is being used.

What does this mean?

It means that you have to study several versions of every noun you learn in a language with cases. In a language like Croatian ,where you’re already dealing with gender and plural forms of words, cases add a whole new dynamic to the memorization of vocabulary and grasping even basic grammar.

Cases can be pretty intimidating for someone who doesn’t like grammar. Especially since they’re quite important relatively early on. In comparison to a language like, French, where the grammar isn’t too hard at the beginning (for English speakers), a language like Russian is going to challenge you grammatically right from the get-go. You can’t even say something as simple as “I live in the US” or “I am from Ireland” without encountering them. My Croatian teacher even advised me not to try to really delve into the language or learn too much vocabulary until I had a basic understanding of cases!

But please don’t let cases deter you from learning a language if it’s one you really want to pursue. Yes, they’re hard, but they’re not impossible. And once you learn the rules, they become second nature. It may be hard working getting to that point, but once you do, you’ll feel even more rewarded for sticking through it.

What are some of the different cases?

I’ve included this section just to provide a description of a few of the different cases. There are, of course, more than what’s listed here, and the descriptions I’ve included are really simplified versions of the rules that surround cases. The ways in which cases are used vary from language to language, and they can be significantly more complex than what’s below.

So why am I including this section? To give you a few, basic examples of cases and how they work.

So let’s take a look at 8 different cases:

Nominative // This case indicates the subject. I love pears.

Accusative // This case indicates the direct object of a verb. My mom loves me.

Dative // This case indicates the indirect object of a verb. My mom bought me some pears.

Ablative // This case indicates movement from something. It can also indicate a cause. She bought them from the store.

Genitive // This case illustrates possession. It also corresponds with the preposition of. My pears were delicious. I enjoyed every bite of the pears.

Vocative // This case indicates who or what is being addressed. Hey, Mom! Thanks for the pears.

Locative // This case indicates, you guessed it, location. I can’t hear you, Shannon. I’m in the kitchen.

Instrumental // This case indicates an object being used as part of an action. I’ll just send her a text with my phone to say thanks.

Wikipedia has even more examples of cases in different languages if you fancy taking a look.

What languages have the most cases?

Hungarian has a whopping 18 cases and Finnish has 15. Basque, Estonian, Georgian, and Bengali each have more than 10 cases. West Greenlandic has between 8 and 9 depending on who you ask (you can see where this starts to get complicated) while Tamil has 7 or 8. Polish, Czech, Serbian, and Croatian have 7. Latin and Russian have between 5 and 6. Romanian has 5. German, Icelandic, and Modern Greek have 4.

You should also take into consideration something that I mentioned above. In some languages, like Icelandic and Croatian, cases not only change the noun but they can also modify the articles, adjectives, and personal names.

Here’s an awesome map with a breakdown of languages and the number of cases they have.

Which languages don’t have cases?

Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Dutch, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Indonesian are among some of the languages that don’t have cases.

Want to avoid cases in a language that has them?

To a certain degree of course, there are two ways to do this. They may not eliminate the need to use cases entirely, but they just might cut down the number you need to express your thoughts.

One way is by throwing in a preposition. In another language, changing the sentence from “My mom gave me some pears” to or from “my mom gave some pears to me” can make your life simpler.

Another is by changing the word order. Again. “The pears were given to me by my mom” as opposed to “my mom gave me some pears” can make a huge difference your ability to form sentences.

It’s all about flexing your language muscles and using what you know to construct the things you’d like to say. Sometimes that means going at it in a round about way. And that’s okay as long as you’re saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

An Interesting Little Tidbit About How Languages Evolve

There’s actually a special word to describe the loss of cases or the merging of two separate cases into one. It’s syncretism. This word describes the loss or reduction of cases in the different languages, which includes Modern Greek, English and German.

Older forms of the three languages originally had more cases but they either melded into fewer cases or fell out of use. In fact, cases seem to be more prominent in older languages – Old English, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin – but they are not as common in languages used today. Instead, we’ve replaced their place in our grammars with our little friend, the preposition.

Further Reading

Are you learning a language with a lot of cases? What has your experience been? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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  • I took Hungarian for a year in college. During the first semester, I was also taking a linguistics class on Morphology so it was nerdy cool to do that in tandem. Hungarian was a challenge because verbs conjugated differently depending on whether there was a definite/indefinite object. Verbs and nouns could take case and they had to match – like for “I go into the house,” go has a prefix and house has a suffix for “into.” It was a nightmare haha. I took Italian too, and thought that it had examples of case, like English, since there are different direct and indirect object pronouns but it’s been a while!

    • That is so cool that you took Hungarian! Was it for any particular reason?

      Verbs taking cases definitely would make things tough. I have a hard enough time of it with adjectives and nouns!

      • Mostly, I just wanted to try learning a language that was really different from English, but didn’t have a different alphabet (since it was my senior year and I had previously studied Japanese for a few years). I liked it since it seemed like a puzzle at times 🙂

        • I admire you for your ambition! I don’t think I could take on a language like Hungarian, the 7 cases in Croatian were enough for me.

  • Cases blew my mind when I started learning German! It must have taken at least 18 months before I had a clue what I was doing when I had to change those articles. And to think German having 4 cases is way down on that list you mentioned scares me…! One day I will have to face another case language! 😀

    • Yeah, cases are pretty intimidating! I don’t know why, but I didn’t really think about it in German. It was always just this semi-annoying grammar thing that I had to deal with – I hadn’t heard the word “cases.” In Croatian, however, it was something entirely different. It was pretty much all my tutor talked about and it’s basically impossible to say anything correctly without a basic understanding. It is definitely something I think about now when I’m looking at languages to learn.

  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    Come on, cases aren’t that hard. You just have to soak them up in context and not try to memorise case endings, especially not all at once. A good method is to start with bilingual texts and dialogues and just try and piece out which elements are equivalent in each text, with a case table by your side to refer to so that you can check which cases are involved without having to get into rote memorisation.

    • I think it depends on the learner and the methods they use for learning cases. I made the mistake of avoiding them and I think that complicated things for me. Thanks for stopping by Saim. I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

  • Kanrei

    I started to learn Finnish, so yeah I do now encounter cases. Hadn’t them while learning Korean and Japanese. Since I’m just at the beginning of Finnish, I can’t yet say, if I think of cases as difficult. But then, even in German, my native languages, words like dative and genitive irritates me, I never know what exactly is it and just get confused, when thinking about how we use them in German. Maybe this just means I should inform myself deeper with German grammar, as native I just use the languages, without thinking much, why things are like they are, or how you build them.

    • If you tackle them up front, they’re not so bad. I think that putting them off only makes them more difficult later, which was likely my mistake. I ignored them for too long! I wish you luck with Finnish and German! There are quite a few resources out there for German cases, I’m not sure about Finnish. Hopefully that will help you.

      • Kanrei

        Thanks for your answer. German is my native language, it is just that I not really think about why when which casus is used, I just use it. I just want to deeper understand the grammar of German, because I juste note, when people ask a thing about it, I have no idea, why something is the way it is.
        ^^ Yeah I will see how it works with Finnish, some casus I meet already. I found at least a book about Finnish grammar, so maybe it will help me.

  • After 7+ years of dealing with Russian, I still loathe cases, although for the most part I can ‘hear’ the right case. I studied Hungarian for a semester and couldn’t continue. I’d only made it through 3 or 4 cases. Ahhh!

    • Wow! I’m sorry you had such a tough time with cases, Polly. Glad to see you still stuck with Russian despite loathing its cases! Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you taking the time to chime in!

  • Romanian has 5 cases, not 2, as mentioned in the WALS link.

    • Thanks Claudia! I added Romanian to my list so that I could mention that it has 5. I appreciate the information!

  • I’ve been learning Finnish for a short while and I’m slowly getting to grips with the more common cases, which also modify the adjectives etc. I kinda like that they do, if I miss it in the first word when I’m listening, I get a second chance in the subsequent ones 😉
    The thing I find more sticky with them is that when the case endings are added to the word the word can be subject to consonant gradation (letters are dropped or changed, I think to make pronunciation easier), it’s a lot to take in!
    It’s such an interesting language though and I’m enjoying the challenge, 15 cases or not!

    • Hi Rachel! So glad that you’re enjoying your Finnish studies even though it’s a lot to take in! Cases can be quite a challenge. Thank you for stopping by and best of luck with your language learning!

      • You are welcome! The cases are a challenge but they’re keeping my brain healthy (got to look for the silver lining!). Hee hee.

  • Vincent Parbelle

    Hi! There’s a typo in the title: lanugage for language 😉

    I studied Turkish and there are 6 cases including nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative and ablative.
    They affect only nouns and pronouns and can also be considered as add-on particles.

    What puzzled me at first is the different use the cases have compared to German, that I already knew.
    Direction requires accusative in German (in den Wagen), but dative in Turkish (arabaya).
    In Turkish, cases are not redundant (as they can seem to be in German) since there is no strict equivalent of prepositions, so you must learn them from the beginning.
    Another funny thing is that accusative and genitive, if omitted, convey a different meaning.
    If you use müzik, in: I like “müzik” (no case), it means you like music in general
    If you use müzigi, in: I like Müzigi (accusative), it means you like *the* music (that is being played or that was mentioned earlier in the conversation) ; in this case, the case ending replaces the lack of definite article in the language.

    • Whoops! Thank you you for catching that. I’ve fixed it.

      That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that different cases are used for the same context depending on the language. I really enjoyed your examples about music!

    • Charline David

      There’s something similar in Finnish too. objects can be in partitive or accusative (which is formed either like genitive in the singular or nominative in the plural).

  • As a Slovak native (6 cases – vocative and ablative are syncretised) I would recommend you to write the “word in a certain case” in bold or underlined. Otherwise it is a bit hard to understand because there are several nouns in your sentences. Even for me it was difficult to understand which noun you are talking about.

    As to studying cases. It is difficult to understand differently synreticed cases. For instance when I try to learn german (4 cases) I have to relearn the cases, because they use even the same ones a bit differently to what I am used to in my native (6 cases). On the other hand to learn any slavic language is much easier for me because the usage of cases are much more similar among them.

    So don’t be afraid of cases. Just be afraid of cases from totally different language group than you actually know.

    • Hi Matej – thanks for the tips! I like the idea of highlighting the different cases in some way in my notes. I think I just might start doing that.

      I appreciate you stopping by and sharing your experience!

      • Charline David

        I think he meant in the article.
        The example phrases have different cases in them. You need to highlight the one each sentence shows.

      • You are welcome. (In Slovak: Nemáš za čo.)

        • Love the new vocab! Thanks for teaching me for my first sentence in Slovak!

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  • Ablative is not a special case in any Slavic language. It was a case in Latin (and still is).

    Your example for the genitive case: “My pears were delicious.”

    When translated to Croatian, does not use the genitive case at all, but a possessive adjective (or pronoun) instead, which is there in *nominative*. This also applies to most languages that have possessive adjectives.

    The problem is that cases are not really the same across languages. Well, nominative, accusative and dative tend to be similar. But then there are languages with the ergative case, which works in the opposite way than nominative-accusative.

    Tamil does not have that many cases, actually. Traditionally it’s described as an 8-cases language (like your list, like Sanskrit), but it’s a bad description, actually.

    There’s no way to avoid cases in languages that have them. You cannot say even “I’m drinking coffee” without a basic knowledge of the accusative case. Even worse, if you are unaware of cases, you’ll be unable to understand written and spoken sentences, as languages that have cases tend to use them in interesting way.

    For example, the way to say “I’m cold” in both German and Croatian is with the dative case of the pronoun. It would be like learning English and trying to avoid forms “him”, “me”, “us”. Won’t do.

  • Ablative is not a special case in any Slavic language. It was a case in Latin (and still is).

    Your example for the genitive case: “My pears were delicious.”

    When translated to Croatian, does not use the genitive case at all, but a possessive adjective (or pronoun) instead, which is there in *nominative*. This also applies to most languages that have possessive adjectives.

    The problem is that cases are not really the same across languages. Well, nominative, accusative and dative tend to be similar. But then there are languages with the ergative case, which works in the opposite way than nominative-accusative.

    Tamil does not have that many cases, actually. Traditionally it’s described as an 8-cases language (like your list, like Sanskrit), but it’s a bad description, actually.

    There’s no way to avoid cases in languages that have them. You cannot say even “I’m drinking coffee” without a basic knowledge of the accusative case. Even worse, if you are unaware of cases, you’ll be unable to understand written and spoken sentences, as languages that have cases tend to use them in interesting way.

    For example, the way to say “I’m cold” in both German and Croatian is with the dative case of the pronoun. It would be like learning English and trying to avoid forms “him”, “me”, “us”. Won’t do.

  • Femme Nikita

    Both Spanish and Catalan ( as a mixture of French with Spanish) do have cases but introduced by pronouns, probably why a native speaker of English doesn’t even notice them while learning them. In here for example You can see how to identify cases in Catalan.

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