Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Slavic Cases - Learning tips I

One of the most difficult elements in learning the Slavic languages is dealing with all the noun declensions. Here are some questions you may have:

What's a noun declension?
A noun declension lists the forms a noun takes according to case and number.

What's a case?
Case means, roughly speaking, that you stick endings on nouns to show what they're doing in the sentence.

In English, there is only one distinct case, the possessive. Take the following phrase:

Wilbur's boat sank in the ocean.

The "'s" ending makes Wilbur "possessive."

The other two nouns, "boat" and "ocean" don't have any special endings, so we have to figure out what they're doing by 1) where they are in the sentence and 2) context. In the Slavic languages, that isn't the case. There's an ending for every situation they thought of (there are six of them). Let's see if we can link up English and Slavic to make this make sense.

Imagine that we tightened up the English system a little. We're going to switch things around like this:

Subjects end in "a". Wilbur's boata sank in the ocean.

Possessives end in "i". Wilburi boata sank in the ocean.

Places where things happen start with "o" and end in "e". Wilburi boata sank in the o oceane.

Oops! We don't need that "in the" any more; the o...e takes care of it. So:

Wilburi boata sank o oceane.

Can you read that? A little tricky? But I'll bet you get it. Try these and see:

1. Johni frienda is o worke.

2. Jacobi teachera is o Peteri mansione.

You should have guessed...

1. John's friend is at work.

2. Jacob's teacher is at Peter's mansion.

The second one was a little tricky, but it should make sense.

This system seems kind of funny, but not too difficult, no? Let's add a few more things:

Direct objects end in "en". Johna saw Wilburi boaten.

Things you use to do other things end in "an". Johna saw Wilburi boaten telescopean (with a telescope).

Indirect objects end in "e" (but without an "o" in front). Boba gave boaten Wilbure.

Lastly, if you want to talk to someone, you stick an "o" on their name so they know you're talking to them, not about them. Johno, did Boba give boaten Wilbure? (John, did Bob give a boat to Wilbur?)

I know this is hard, and you may right about now be wondering if I'm completely mad, but let's try the following passage before that discussion takes off:

Boba gave boaten Wilbure. Wilbura thanked Boben. Wilbura put boaten o watere. Wilbura liked boaten very much. Johna saw boaten. Johna saw boaten o watere. Johna said Davide, "Davido, Boba gave boaten Wilbure." Davida saw boaten. Davida saw boaten telescope-an.

Let's mix it up a little:

Boba Wilbure boaten gave. Wilbura Boben thanked. O watere put Wilbura boaten. Very much Wilbura liked boaten. Johna saw Wilburi boaten o watere and Davide said, "Davido, Boba boaten Wilbure gave!" Davida boaten telescope-an saw.

Let's summarize our rules one more time:
subject = "a" / direct object = "en" / indirect object = "e" / place = "o" + "e" / possessive = "i" / case for using things = "an" / case for addressing people = "o"

Now look at the passage starting "Boba Wilbure..." again. Following these rules, you should be able to make sense of it (I hope). If so, congratulations... not only can you use cases, but you know the case endings for feminine singular nouns in Polish.

That's right. If you take authentic feminine singular words (whose stem ends in a consonant), you pretty much know what to do to use them in Polish sentences.

Pretty easy, huh?

You knew there had to be more to it, didn't you?

Article 2 on cases has the messy stuff. But before you dig in, I want you to take another look at this, because this little game represents the fondest hopes of what the logic of cases is all about. Furthermore, if you keep it as your foundation and build on it, you'll have the tools for making the unquestionably complex Slavic case system a little more user friendly.