Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Slavic cases - Learning tips II

The premise of cases is simple: you add different endings to nouns to show their function in the sentence. In the Western Slavic languages, there are six cases, namely:

Nominative (subject)
Accusative (direct object)
Dative (indirect object)
Genitive (possessive)
Locative (place)
Instrumental (thing used to do something)
Vocative (for addressing people)

Q: What's so hard about that?

There are lots of endings.

Q: I thought you said there were six.

There are six singular endings and six plural endings (i.e. 12 endings) for each declension.

Q: What's that mean?

Different nouns have different endings. There are a handful of really common patterns but lots of exceptions.

Q: What?

The word for horse might use different endings from the word for car from the word for cabinet...

Q: Why?

It's easier that way.

Q: What?

Pardon me... easier to pronounce. Ask the next person you meet what he or she is doing tonight. If you're like most people, you aren't going to make it easy for them by saying "What are you going to do tonight?" You'll probably say, "Whatcha gonna do t'night?" Looking at the declension tables, you can see some commonalities that indicate there were probably one or two sets of endings to start with. Unfortunately, they got changed into lots of different patterns according to what seemed easy to say hundreds if not thousands of years ago, and while the changes made sense at the time, they don't always even make sense to native speakers of these languages, which means you're going to have to learn them, because you won't know them intuitively.

The good news, though, is that lurking underneath, there do seem to be a few standard sets of endings. While you can't just use them, if you look at irregular declensions you'll notice, over time, little connections that make the memorizing easier. But, no, the memorizing never goes away.

Incidentally, there are languages where instead of having to learn either numerous tables or hypercomplicated sound change rules, you can in theory just add the appropriate meaningful endings to words. Such languages are called "agglutinative" because you "glue" the words together. Unfortunately, most of them (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Mongolian, the Turkic languages) do require you to learn sound change rules, if not hypercomplicated ones. It seems that nobody likes to keep their endings pure and simple when they actually have to speak a language, however nice such systems seem on paper.