23 July 2008

Grammar: Case

I was discussing grammar with the Adorable Husband earlier this week (why, yes, we are a bit weird, why do you ask?) and was bemoaning the fact that unless you took a second languages in school, you probably didn't really get any formal lessons in grammar -- case, tense, etc. It was just assumed that you'd learn the language and understand the constructs without necessarily knowing the details of why things are the way they are. Diagrammed any sentences lately? Probably not.

At any rate, as soon as you pick up a textbook to learn another language you are suddenly bombarded with grammatical terms for nouns and verbs and relationships and the texts assume you simply know what these are. Genetive? Pluperfect? Vocative? Huh?

Nouns have a number of attributes that determine what form they are in and how they can be used. Nouns have case, gender and number.

The case of nouns has to do with the form of the word when used in different ways in a sentence. We have it pretty easy in English - most forms are the same and we really only differentiate possessive use from all the other types . Some languages (Russian or Lithuanian, for example) have six or seven cases: nominative, accusative, genetive, dative, vocative, locative, and instrumental. Eek!

Irish is a bit more complex than English, but not too bad. Irish combines a couple of the other cases into a common case, just like English does, so there are really only three cases that we need to keep track of: the common form, genetive, and vocative. The forms of the word change depending on how it's used.

It's probably easiest to discuss the specifics first: The vocative case is used when addressing someone or something directly.
'O, Fortune!'--> Fortune is in the vocative case.
Mary, how are you? --> Mary is in the vocative case
In Irish, this is usually signaled by using the particle 'a'. A Mhaire, conas tá tú? Any time you address something directly (whether a person or a thing), it will be in the vocative. Easy.

The genetive case is the possessive, or relational case. 'Hat' in the following English sentence is in the genetive case.
The man's hat
it's not 'man's' that is technically in the genetive case, according to my notes, which was confusing to me (since I said before that the genetive case is the possessive case, but what that means is that the thing is owned/had - the possessive form in English signals the genetive form). In nearly all cases, the noun in the genetive case can be replaced by the phrase 'of the [x]'.
The man's hat --> The hat of the man.
A country's citizens must vote --> The citizens of a country must vote.
Genetive forms are used to express origin, possession, position, kind, use, value, titles, contents. Not quite so simple, but if you use the quick test of replacing the word with 'of the...' as noted above, it's easy to identify which word is affected.

Pretty much everything else is in the common case. The common form includes the nominative (subject) case, accusative (object) case, and dative case. There are some specific exceptions (mostly in Munster Irish), but they are rare in the modern form of Irish. Here are some English examples:
  • Nominative: the 'naming' case. This is the form of the word that is in the dictionary, and is used primarily as the subject of a sentence. The cat chased the dog.
  • Accusative: used when the noun is the direct object of the verb in the sentence. The dog chased the cat.
  • Dative: used when the noun is the indirect object of the verb in the sentence. The dog gave the cat a bone.
Obviously, this is hard to see in English, since the word forms don't change at all. 'The cat' looks and sounds the same in all of those sentences. I don't understand all the rules yet on how to change the words for each of these cases, but just trying to get my head around the terminology was enough for today!

A very detailed explanation of the cases in Irish can be found here. It's more complicated than a beginner needs to know, but it's a good reference.

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