Do unschooled people use cases correctly, e.g. in Germany and in Russia?



I wonder if the case system is devised/imposed by literates and not really natural: it is said that the vulgar Latin that most people really used didn't have e.g. the cases (or all of them) of the 'classical' Latin, so I wonder if the common speakers of languages with cases normally fail using them as the prescription says (e.g. not caring for gender).

I would like to know about the situation for German (it seems quite analytic so not too dependent on case for expressing meaning?) and Russian, but any example is welcomed, e.g. Georgian is said to be very morphologically complex; do their speakers simplify it?

In all cases it would be better to know about this for people that is not particularly studied, how well they use case systems without studying them at school. If there are studies of this correct/incorrect case use in 'uneducated' (or even studies on schooled ones?) people of countries like these, better, but witnessed/anecdotal answers are welcomed too.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 241

24While English (and I assume other languages) does suffer from a load of zombie rules dreamed up to persuade people who don't know them that they are inferior, the use of noun declension in general is a natural property of many languages.Colin Fine 2014-12-09T11:05:29.777

1A small observation, in languages with a mind boggling number of possible forms for the same word, they are not all used at the same frequency. For example in Icelandic depending on who is counting there are 200+ forms of an adjective (many of them being duplicate forms). Occasionally fluent speakers may pause at what the appropriate form might be for an uncommon combo of case, definateness, gender, number, etc. But like the answers say, this is not the norm. The norm is that fluent speakers choose the correct for at lightning speed with no obvious effort.MatthewMartin 2014-12-09T16:37:54.827

6"Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod": there can be differences in case usage between slang and official language. But will you consider the slang to be incorrect because of it? Or because it is a slang?rumtscho 2014-12-09T21:45:22.127

4It's just like the uneducated English people are using the word orderDanubian Sailor 2014-12-10T08:16:27.540


A side note for German. Only the position of the verb is fixed, and the cases express a large part of the meaning. Translated Example without cases from here: The woman the man borrows the daughter the cook the car the brother. The cases make clear that "the daughter of the cook borrowed the brother's car from the man's woman"

Harald 2014-12-10T13:53:29.700

3@Harald it is more like "The man's wife lends the brother's car to the cook's daughter." The declension allows Germans to change the order of the objects without losing any meaning, because if you translate it word for word, it is "The man's wife lends (to) the cook's daughter the brother's car.".Alexander 2014-12-10T17:05:55.603

3there are no "unschooled people" in Germany ;-)ProblemsOfSumit 2014-12-10T17:09:28.283

1Rumtscho quoted just the right book's title. In german, while there are some idioms which often, in colloquial language, incorrectly avoid the usage of Genitiv there are also more extreme/uncommon cases ("dem ... sein") the usage of which is usually attributed to the lesser-educated. Especially among poorly educated teenagers there is, during the last 10-15 years, a tendency to basically only ever use 2 of the 4 cases in spoken laguage, which many people directly associate with a bad social background and lack of education.JimmyB 2014-12-10T17:10:39.107

2@HannoBinder: It should be noted that, while not conformant with (the current definition of) standard German, expression such as dem ... sein do use their respective cases consistently. So, as a direct answer to the question, "cases are still used naturally" there (just not in a construction that would be officially sanctioned).O. R. Mapper 2014-12-10T19:05:27.740

The Russian and German case systems are inherited from Proto-Indo-European language, which had even more cases. And there were no "schooled" people at the time.Anixx 2014-12-12T12:05:13.077

8The word order system seems really artificial and unnatural to me. Do unschooled speakers of English sometimes get totally confused when hearing a sentence like "This cheese, he said, the mice had not yet eaten"?user3503 2014-12-12T19:21:27.253

I was in Germany for a month this summer, and I remember being told by three of the teachers at the camp that "the genitive case isn't very commonly used in speech and sounds stuck-up" or something to that effect.Soham Chowdhury 2014-12-13T14:25:43.093

@Sumit Except for some 7.5 millions and counting....

maaartinus 2014-12-13T18:24:29.157


There are examples of several languages where the standard/official form is in fact simpler than various local dialects. Examples: Norwegian dialects typically have 3 genders vs 2 in standard bokmaal. Standard Hungarian has only past/present/future tenses, but several other tenses survive in dialects spoken in isolated villages (some of those places have little access to education in Hungarian, see Csángó people)

Szabolcs 2014-12-14T19:17:47.130

@octatoan This is true but it doesn't make the language simpler as instead of the genitive one uses a PP (von + NPdat) or a structurally equally complex phrase such as "das Buch des Lehrers" (the teacher's book) = "das Buch vom Lehrer"/"dem Lehrer sein Buch"Atamiri 2015-02-20T21:51:50.357

6It doesn't take schooling to handle a complex case system. I worked for over a week with a Yawelmani informant in California who had never encountered a written form of her language, which has many cases, and a very complex morphology overall. I was especially concerned to collect case declensions, and once it was clear to her what I was interested in, she had no problem at all in rattling off entire declensions for me. I'd give her the nominative singular of a word, and she'd tell me the rest.Greg Lee 2015-06-12T13:24:43.637



The World Atlas of Language Structures Online Chapter 49 lists 84 languages with at least 6 distinct cases (24 of them with at least 10 cases). A number of them are spoken in remote areas of Australia or South America where schooling is limited, if it happens at all. As far as I know, speakers of these languages have no problem using the case system in an extremely consistent way. In fact, many of these languages have a degree of morphological complexity that makes me sweat just thinking about it, but native speakers, even unschooled ones, manage to use it flawlessly on a constant basis.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 904

4As a Hungarian speaker, I believe numbering cases can be deceptive. The linked chapter of WALS lists Hungarian on top with 21 cases, but most of these are really just things expressed with declension instead of prepositions in other languages (we don't really have any of those). They lead to no more complications than the same number of prepositions would.MPeti 2014-12-13T16:47:56.863

@MPeti Fellow Hungarian speaker here and yes, you are perfectly correct. The "huge number of cases" is often quoted as an example of how difficult Hungarian is. In fact it's not nearly as difficult as reputed.Szabolcs 2014-12-14T19:13:55.627


The question has been well answered for specifics. I'd only want to add that a little thought would have answered it in general: most of language learning happens before a learner ever goes to school, so level of schooling cannot possibly be relevant. Furthermore, for most of human history, most people have been unschooled, unlettered, and illiterate, and in many places today most speakers do not have advanced schooling. Under those conditions, how would languages with complex morphological rules have ever developed?

As a final point, consider English word order, the rules for which are quite as complex as those for case in other languages. Do you find that English speakers make mistakes in word order if they lack adequate schooling? Any native speaker of English could parse a sentence like "The man that John said Mary expected to receive a watch from hit him" and know that Mary expected the watch from the man (and not from John) and that John was hit by the man (and not the other way around). This is not something you're taught in school, and neither is case (which is used to express exactly the same relationships)

Jon Kiparsky

Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 471


Though as some other posters have noted, some Russians may use dialect case forms, anyone who is out of diapers uses the full case system. Case is a core concept of the language. The very idea that using cases is a burden is alien to Russian.

If you hear someone speaking Russian while ignoring case and gender, he isn't uneducated, he is a foreigner. He doesn't know it, but nobody is quite sure what he is saying.

In English we have the literary language with fairly strict grammar and a relaxed conversational form with loose grammar. For example, the literary form is "It is I." wereas the conversational form is "It's me." In the conversational example we use the wrong case. We can do this because case is now so weak a concept in English that nobody notices that the meaning which "me" as opposed to "I" once conveyed does not fit logically into the sentence.

As a result, English speakers learning Russian have a very hard time accepting that case is an important concept. They assume that it, as in English, is an affectation of the educated which they can safely ignore. Nothing could be furthur from the truth. If you say "It's me." (Это меня.) in Russian people will look at you blankly.

I have had some success explaining this to Americans using the following example: In popular culture Tarzan says "Me Tarzan!". We understand this to mean "I am Tarzan." This is because our ideas as to the difference between "I" and "me" are hazy. Also, we expect the subject of the sentence to come first. So we accept "me" as the subject even though the fact that it is in the objective case theoretically indicates that it is either the direct or indirect object.

But a Russian does not expect the subject to come first and very clearly understands the difference betwee "я" (I) and "меня" (me). He will immediately reach two firm conclusions: 1) the speaker is most definitely not Tarzan, and 2) the sentence is incomplete. The part which tells what Tarzan did to the speaker is missing. The sentence would be complete if we added a verb such as "saw".

So no, a Russian would not consider a form of the language in which the use of cases was relaxed to be simpler. He would probably consider it to be borderline incomprehensible baby talk.

You mention a difference in case use between classical Latin and vulgar Latin. I am not well informed about this subject, but some things I have read have left the impression that classical Latin reflects an earlier form of the language before so many cases were lost. There is a general trend for languages to lose cases due to pronunciation shifts or foreign influence.

EDIT to address comments

As Andrey Chernakhovskiy and @Annix point out "Это меня!" is a valid utterance if a subject and verb are supplied by the context. The difference between English and Russian is this: If an American says "It is me.", the grammatical error is not even noticed because case plays almost no role in conveying meaning. But if our American is learning Russian and translates it word-for-word and says "Это меня!", he is likely to get blank stares because his use of case implies that there are a subject and verb in the context when there are none.

@Annix compares the ommision of case to the ommision of the word "of" in English. This is a brilliant example. I wish I had thought of it.

@SixthOfFour asked how Tarzan might speak while still learning Russian. In reality his speach would be incomprehensible much of the time. But in a movie it would contain errors carefully selected to impair comprehensibility as little as possible. In Russian he might leave nouns undeclined, avoid the use of pronouns, and speak in the third person. As @Annix points out Tarzan could utter the words "Меня Тарзан!" in a context which implies "зовут", but in my experience beginning speakers do not understand grammar sufficently to understand that this is possible.

EDIT to address points raised by @dainichi

@dainichi comments served to further illuminate the differences between how English and Russian speakers perceive case.

@dainichi objected to my description of "It's me" as "wrong" according to the rules of formal literary English. Whether we approve or disapprove of the prescriptive approach, the question that was asked is whether ordinary Russians and Germans use cases and conjugate verbs as the prescriptive rules in grammars require or are these rules an affectation of over-educated snobs.

As an example I referred to the well known prescriptive rule for English and Russian which states that the predicate nominative must be in the nominative case. I then cited a well-accepted expression ("It's me") which violates this rule.

My point was that for English it is reasonable to discuss whether and when we should follow this conservative prescriptive rule seeing as it is based on arbitrary or outdated concepts of case. But if we suggested to even the most uneducated Russian that in informal speech "Это меня" (It's me) is an acceptable substitute for "Это я" (It's I), he would think we were either joking or very confused. It is not that he knows and loves prescriptive rules. It is because he is acutely aware of the message about the role of the noun in the sentence which each case conveys.

If we English speakers were to ascribed this level of meaning to case, we would not be able to say "It's me." or "Me and my friend went to the park." because these utterances would appear to be nonsensical. Why “It's me.” is acceptable is an interesting question. Maybe as @dainichi suggests we now perceive “me” as nominative or we have adopted French or Danish practice. Or maybe we just got confused. But no matter what the reason saying "It's me." would have been practically impossible had we perceived cases as Russians do. This is why even uneducated Russians use the full case system.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 449

2Well, 'Это меня' may have sense. Russian is very permissive to omissions. One can shorten, for example, 'Это меня зовут' ('It's me who's being called', literally, 'It's me [they] call') to 'Это меня' in situations where the verb 'зовут' ('[they] call') can be derived from the context.ach 2014-12-09T20:01:33.113

12I would say it simplier, omitting cases in Russian is like omitting prepositions in English. Do uneducated people in English omit "of"? I doubt.Anixx 2014-12-09T21:37:06.053

2Just out of curiosity, how is "Me Tarzan!" translated into Russian, to convey the message without losing the simplified way Tarzan speaks? – None – 2014-12-09T22:53:56.593

3@SixthOfFour this depends. If to understand "Me Tarzan" as a variant of "I Tarzan" then this is exactly the way Russians speak: "Я Тарзан!". If to translate "me" literally as an accusative, then "Меня Тарзан" would be understood as a shortening of a larger phrase: "[They call] me Tarzan". This even can be used colloquivally when people introduce themselves, because the standard phrase to introduce oneself is "They call me XXX" rather than "My name is XXX" used in English. If one wants to create an impression of totally wrong grammar, he can use arbitrary case, like, say, dative: "Мне Тарзан!"Anixx 2014-12-10T00:53:30.463

1@Anixx Linguistics is a newly found interest of mine, and the concept of case is something I'm still trying to wrap my head around. I do understand genitive, but I tend to agree with those who argue that that is no longer a case in either of the two languages I speak. I couldn't tell the difference between accusative and dative if my life depended on it. Not to mention the more "exotic" cases of say Finnish or Hungarian. The closest thing I understand is the oblique case of personal pronouns. In short, I do not fully understand your explanation, but what I do understand of it is interesting. – None – 2014-12-10T01:13:28.340

1On the other way, it's very unintuitive to people learning English that the word order is so important, that, for example, even uneducated woult say "some Russians may use dialect case forms" and not "some case forms Russians dialects use may".Danubian Sailor 2014-12-10T08:20:08.550

+1 for the borderline incomprehensible baby talkHarald 2014-12-10T12:58:30.237

+1 for good use of analogies to clarify an unintuitive concept for a native English speaker.Mike 2014-12-11T04:49:41.653

@SixthOfFour, Dative answers the question "to whom?", so it would liook like "[to] me Tarzan" in English (without comma so Tarzan cannot be parsed as an address), totally incomprehensible construct.Anixx 2014-12-15T05:37:53.273

"In the conversational example we use the wrong case." It's not wrong, it's correct for the conversational register. "the meaning it conveys contradicts the intended meaning of the sentence", that's misguided. When I say "It's me", it conveys exactly the meaning I intend it to. It seems you expect the morphological cases to exactly fit some grammatical categories, and then when they don't, you call that "wrong".dainichi 2015-10-27T05:15:18.077

@dainichi When I said it is the wrong case, I did not mean that it is wrong to use this expression in conversation. I do it myself. It does mean "It is I." My point is that the information which the choice of that particular morphological case theoretically conveys is at odds with the meaning of the sentence. That is OK in spoken English because the case system is almost dead. But it is not OK to do that in Russian, spoken or written because it still has a vibrant case system. In Russian it is not 'wrong' in a narrow theoretical sense, it is wrong to the point of being uninteligible.DavidC 2015-10-28T14:45:01.447

@dainichi Have edited to clarify that "It's me." is 'wrong' only from the standpoint of case logic, not from the standpoint of modern English usage. Please feel free to suggest furthur edits to clarify this furthur while preserving the point being made.DavidC 2015-10-28T14:54:15.077

1"the information which the choice of that particular morphological case theoretically conveys is at odds with the meaning of the sentence". That's because your theory is trying to fit "me" in English into a bucket called "accusative" and expecting it to work in the same way as accusatives in other languages, but that simply doesn't work. That theory is inadequate.dainichi 2015-10-29T00:17:31.380

1"That is OK in spoken English because the case system is almost dead", hm... I cannot deny that there could be some cause-effect relationship between the case system collapsing, and "me" being correct in the example sentence, but your formulation gives the wrong impression that "because the case system is collapsing, anything goes". English might allow both "I" and "me" there (for different registers), but there are other languages, like Danish "det er mig" and French "c'est moi" where these are the only options and what is usually called nominative is wrong.dainichi 2015-10-29T00:18:20.287

I would love to point out that German Tarzan says ‘Ich Tarzan, du Jane’, i.e. correctly using the nominative case, since it would be so badly wrong to hear or read ‘*mich Tarzan’. German seems to be like Russian in that respect, the subject can come anywhere because it is clearly marked by case.Jan 2016-05-02T15:34:53.173


Morphological complexity as such as is not related to the level of schooling. Some of the most morphologically complex languages are spoken by people without any education. So, all Russian and German speakers (including those with no formal schooling) use the morphological cases in their respective languages. So did speakers of Vulgar Latin which was really just a vernacular counterpart of Standard Latin.

What you're referring to is the difference between standard and non-standard dialects which will differ in the use of cases, morphology, etc. This may be identified by speakers of the standard as a 'lack of cases'.

In short, what is related to schooling is the ability to speak the standard dialect not the ability to use complex morphology as such.

Dominik Lukes

Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 9 070


All people use cases in Russian. Uneducated people may make some typical mistakes however, so use cases and other things wrongly, but the number of such possible characteristic mistakes is limited.

For instance.

  • Standard speech requires use of indeclinable possessive pronoun "их" "their". But uneducated people may decline it, adding the ending "ихний", "ихнего", "ихних", "ихнему" etc. This is considered incorrect.

  • In general I would say, uneducated people tend to decline nouns that are usually indeclinable, such as some loanwords, like "пальто". Uneducated person may say "у меня нет пальта", "укрылся пальтом". Also they tend to decline indeclinable surnames. As such, use of cases seems to be more widespread among the uneducated. They just use foreign words the way as they would use native Russian words.

  • There some other possible mistakes. Standard speech requires dative when citing a law or rule "согласно закону" "according to the law". But the judges and other lawyers often use genitive: "согласно закона" "according of the law". This is considered wrong and manifestation of "bureaucracy slang" "канцелярит", but uneducated people also tend to use this form.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 3 628

13This is a prescriptive slant on affairs (though I'm quite ready to believe that this is how it is generally described in Russia). A descriptive account would say that there are certain differences between the use of cases in standard Russian and other varieties.Colin Fine 2014-12-09T11:00:59.560

4@Colin Fine I am not referring to varieties of Russian. There are no different dialects of Russian one can hear in a city. I am referring to typical mistakes/colloquialisms. One person will pronounce a word wrongly, the other person will pronounce wrongly a different unfamiliar word. Very uneducated people and sometimes educated when speaking relaxed way may pronounce all words the most easy for them way, that is as if they were all native ones.Anixx 2014-12-09T11:09:59.353

27If a significant number of people decline "их", then they are speaking a variety in which that is grammatical. Calling this variety "wrong" or "uneducated" is a value judgment (I would say, a political judgment). Descriptive linguistics (which is the approach taken by almost all academic linguists) observes such different varieties but avoids judging them.Colin Fine 2014-12-09T11:10:41.477

3@Very far from political, it does not belong to any dialect, it belongs to colloquial style, it is listed in dictionaries as colloquialism. There is no variety of Russian that uses this word (unless u consider difference in one word as making a new language variety which I suppose u dont).Anixx 2014-12-09T11:13:25.270


Dostoyevsky uses "ихний" very often. Apart from the speech of uneducated characters in his fiction books, in his "Дневник писателя, 1877 год" ("Writer's Diary") where he discusses socio-political issues, "ихний" is used 10 times, e.g. "Поражение русских милее им собственных ихних побед, веселит их, льстит им." Here's a searchable text:

Yellow Sky 2014-12-09T13:12:55.970

2@Yellow Sky now it is told to be wrong at scool so educated people avoid the word.Anixx 2014-12-09T13:18:42.753

2If it is that 'wrong' as you say, why don't they correct that in Dostoyevsky books? They corrected the -аго/-яго, why not correct that? Maybe, it's simply not wrong?Yellow Sky 2014-12-09T13:23:28.080

4@Yellow Sky I do not say it is wrong, I say it is taught in the school to be wrong, so in modern times it distinguishes educated people from uneducated.Anixx 2014-12-09T13:35:04.753

7@Anixx That last statement sounds accurate – but an arbitrary value judgment set up to set apart the educated from the uneducated is different from people "not being able to speak their native language correctly".John Peyton 2014-12-09T19:13:42.403

1@Anixx that isn't wrong, but is slightly out of tune to current language rules.Малъ Скрылевъ 2014-12-10T17:39:13.737

4@JohnPeyton Please just stop. "Descriptive linguistics (which is the approach taken by almost all academic linguists) observes such different varieties but avoids judging them." Absolutely true and also absolutely irrelevant.Miles Rout 2014-12-10T20:49:03.783


@MilesRout: This is "a question and answer site for professional linguists and others with an interest in linguistic research and theory" [link]. In everyday life, we all get brainwashed to believe that certain language varieties are "correct" and others are "wrong", but answers on this site should be better than that. When an answer is prescriptive instead of, y'know, right, it is absolutely relevant to point that out. (By the way, you're confusing Colin Fine with John Peyton.)

ruakh 2014-12-11T06:37:41.070

2@ruakh there are no "language varieties" of Russian. At least no concerning the case system. If someone use4s wrongly unfamiliar, foreign word, it is not a "language variety". And of course some varieties CAN be incorrect given certain norm.Anixx 2014-12-11T07:19:45.960

@Anixx: You can't possibly be saying that их is an "unfamiliar, foreign word"? Or that согласно or закон is?ruakh 2014-12-11T08:50:40.590

2@ruakh this is a single word which does not make its users speaking "another language variety". Anyway, it is a matter of style, any not a language variant.Anixx 2014-12-11T09:36:10.100


@Anixx: You seem to have an overly narrow view of what "language variety" means. See for a definition.

ruakh 2014-12-11T16:55:23.727

2@ColinFine Does it matter? Or do you deny that declination of "officially indeclinable" words in Russian is statistically related to being uneducated? It may be irrelevant for linguistic, but it may be interesting nonetheless. And it's surely relevant for this question.maaartinus 2014-12-13T18:39:52.637

2@maartinus: it is indeed interesting, as a part of sociolinguistics. "Correct" and "wrong" have no place in a forum about linguistics, except when they are identified as social judgments.Colin Fine 2014-12-15T14:17:55.290

1From the examples given I see that illiterate people in Russia are not aware of some exceptions. They merely follow the grammar rules. Being consistent isn't that bad and wrong.Anders D 2014-12-17T13:49:33.540

3@ColinFirth, the question asks whether uneducated Russians use case or if only those who have been taught prescriptive language rules do. In the first two examples Annix shows that uneducated Russians use case more than they would if they followed the prescriptive rules. In the third he shows that some use a different case. These are observations, not judgements.DavidC 2014-12-22T17:17:57.993

1@DavidC They are judgments because they are categorised as 'mistakes'. The OP talks about people doing things 'wrongly'.Araucaria 2016-06-17T10:41:17.413


Cases are properly used by pre-school children

Any kid who can speak the language can use the cases properly. There may be edge cases where "the prescribed way to say this is X, don't use Y" - which refers to prescriptive vs descriptive language principles, and perhaps has some parallels to things like British 'acquired pronounciation'.

The full case system is used as soon as kids start speaking in full sentences, only the formalization of cases (e.g. what each case is called) is taught at school. For some issues, there tends to be a 'gap' for small kids at one point kids speak correctly for a limited vocabulary, then start to use some general patterns and make mistakes where those patterns fail, and then learn the exceptions as well. An english example would be a kid using "ate", switching to "eated" after some months, and then using "ate" again.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 331


I live in Poland, and my first language is Polish, a slavic language somewhat related to Russian, with a quite complicated case system. From my experience, I can confirm what others have written: Every one who normally learned Polish in his or her childhood is able to use the case system with only occasional minor mistakes, usually involving one of several words that do not follow standard declension patterns. However, you may find interesting that poorly (or even moderately) educated people are often unable to tell what case they are using, or may even not know the case system at all (we all learn it at school, but who doesn't care, forgets it quickly). Seems that the ability to use cases has little to do with theoretical knowledge of grammar.

This is not very surprising in fact. Cases, as any other grammar construct, were not invented by educated individuals. They occurred naturally in the course of language evolution driven by ordinary people hundreds or thousands of years ago. They already had been successfully used, possibly for a long time, when language scientists called them cases and made them established, organized knowledge that could subsequently be taught.

Tomasz Żuk

Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 261


People who natively speak a language that has grammatical cases do generally use them commonly and consistently.

Like all language features, case systems do also evolve, and it's quite common for there to be variation in case use between different dialects of a language, or e.g. between literary and colloquial language, but (at least from a descriptive viewpoint) this is not so much incorrect as simply different usage. In any case (pun not intended), there does not appear to be any clear tendency for case loss in colloquial or "uneducated" language; sometimes colloquial speech does lose case distinctions that are preserved in literary usage, but sometimes it also innovates new case patterns, or new uses for existing cases.

For example, as noted by Anixx, colloquial Russian sometimes applies case markers to words that are indeclinable according to traditional literary grammar. Similarly, from personal experience, I can attest that the case system in casual spoken Finnish is not significantly simpler or less expressive than in formal literary usage, despite the significant morphological and even grammatical differences between the two.1

The Vulgar Latin that you mentioned, and the Romance languages that evolved from it, are something of an interesting special case. While it's true that there's a strong tendency among these languages to simplify the noun gender and case system they inherited from Latin (while, at the same time, innovating several new grammatical features not found in classical Latin, such as definite articles), this process is best understood in the context of the significant linguistic mixing of spoken Latin with the indigenous (e.g. Celtic) languages of the local population during the expansion of the Roman empire, and later with the Germanic languages spoken by invaders during its decline. It's not so much that uneducated Latin-speakers just spontaneously started simplifying the language, but that the simplified Vulgar language evolved from the speech of people speaking Latin as a second language (and, often, learning it from people already speaking a vernacular version of it, with strong external influences), in a process not entirely unlike creolization.

In fact, as DavidC notes, inconsistent and/or radically simplified case usage tends to be characteristic not so much of uneducated speakers, but of non-native speakers whose first language has a weak (or significantly different) case system compared to the language they are trying to speak. This is because such speakers are unaccustomed to paying attention to case as a grammatical feature (or to the specific case structure of the language in question), and thus have trouble fitting it into their mental framework.

For instance, English uses prepositions and word order to mark many of the grammatical distinctions that several other languages mark using noun cases. As an instructive experiment, one might try to invert the situation, and consider the difficulties encountered by a native speaker of some language with a loose word order and few prepositions, when they attempt to learn English. For example, where a fluent English-speaker would say "Did you go to the theater?", such a person might come up with, for example, "Went you theater?" This is not a mistake any native speaker (past the age where they're capable of formulating coherent sentences at all, anyway) would make, but for a person just learning English as a second language, it could be quite plausible.

Similarly, where a fluent English-speaker would speak of going in a hurry by car to the show at the theater in the town by the lake, a non-native speaker unused to English prepositions might say they were going e.g. at a hurry in a car at the show in the theater at the town off the lake. Again, most native speakers would immediately see that something was wrong with that sentence, even though it's mostly understandable, but a non-native speaker unfamiliar with English grammar could easily have trouble picking the correct prepositions for phrases like that, just as an English-speaker unfamiliar with noun cases might have trouble picking the correct cases when speaking e.g. German or Russian or Finnish.

1) In fact, while colloquial Finnish has all but lost several grammatical features of the literary language, such as the possessive suffixes, the noun cases — of which Finnish has 15 or so — remain relatively unchanged (except for some morphological variation). The rare instrumental cases (abessive, comitative and instructive) do tend to get replaced by adpositions or other alternative constructions in casual speech, except in certain fixed expressions, but they're not very common in literary usage, either. On the other hand, modern spoken Finnish may be in the process of innovating a new comitative case ending: in casual speech (as well as in some traditional dialects), the postposition kanssa ("with") commonly contracts to kaa, and, especially when unstressed, often merges into the preceding noun as a clitic -kaa (e.g. colloq. tuu munkaa = "come with me"). When used so, it could be loosely analyzed as a novel case marker, even though it lacks several grammatical features of the "true" Finnish noun cases, such as case agreement between nouns and adjectives. Notably, the closely related Estonian language appears to have gone through essentially the same process several hundred years ago to acquire its current comitative case marker -ga.

Ilmari Karonen

Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 253

1"tuu munkaa = "come with me" - this is very similar to the -que clitic of PIE! A similar clitic -ke is reconstructed for proto-Eurasiatic, I wonder could not the Finnish clitic develop from it (so that kanssa is just a compound). I think in Eurasiatic "with me" would be "men-ke" or the like.Anixx 2014-12-10T00:08:12.670

1Just to make your example better, a non-native speaker could say 'theater went you?' because the concept of the fixed word order is so unfamiliar to them. Why it should matter which noun is before the verb anyway?Danubian Sailor 2014-12-10T08:22:58.760

3What you said about Vulgar Latin and linguistic mixing also applies to Slavic languages: the only ones that have (almost) lost cases are Bulgarian and Macedonian, and that certainly has to do with the mixing of Slavs with the migrating Volga Bulgars (with whom the name originates, and who'd originally spoken a Turkic language whose living relative is Chuvash). Curiosly though, Bulgarian and Macedonian have preserved the original Slavic verb tense system — radically simplified, in its turn, by all other Slavic languages.Nikolay Ershov 2014-12-10T15:08:28.617


People don't simplify something they only know implicitly. Like you don't only use 4 of your fingers because the 5th one is too complicated to involve.

You suggest that case was invented by someone, imposed on speakers and now aquired by speakers. For the latter to be true, case is a far too complicated morphologic-syntactic phenomenon.


Der Hund fängt die Katz
the.N dog catches the cat


Den Hund fängt die Katz
the.A dog catches the cat

Only in one, the cat dies.

No speakers simplify this (Akkusativ and Nominativ) (also see this, in German). Genetiv, however, is a syntactically-not-so-important thing that has always been used in the subpart of language that people consider formal, i.e. for written documents and so on. People prefer 'of' + Dative (so they have Akk, Nom, Dat, and ditch Gen)

cat's paw (A): paw the.G cat
          (B): paw of the.D cat

You are correct that, when learned as a foreign language (ie not acquired as your native one), people have a hard time getting Case-caused morphology right. I always say, there's no chance I'd get this right if it weren't my native language.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 151


This is just a tiny bit of anecdotal evidence and a remainder that being competent at something doesn't require comprehension (as Daniel Dannet put it).

While it is true, that native speakers (my mother tongue is Russian) have very good command of this aspect of the language, the kind of knowledge is often not well-understood by the speakers. The notoriously difficult question to ask a less-educated Russian speaker is to ask them to decline the word "кочерги" (plural of "poker", a kind of tool one would use to stir firewood in the oven). In particular, the problem arises with producing the genitive case. Typically, a less educated native speaker would produce a form which implies masculine gender: "кочергов" - which is incorrect, the correct one would be "кочерег". Even though the word may sound like it is archaic, it's not what causing the problem (and in fact the word is still in use today - it is used to name any object of an appropriate shape), the problem is in grammatically incorrect, but phonetically more appealing form.

Another aspect, that seems not to be covered here is that those who learn Russian as their second language (typically the second generation of immigrants) usually aren't very good with declination, especially if their first language doesn't have cases (such as, for example, Hebrew).


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 141


 German (it seems quite analytic so not too dependent on case for expressing meaning?

This is true only to a certain extent: it is quite frequently possible to choose between alternative constructions which use different cases and/or prepositions also, articles can be used to mark the case. So you can often avoid a case you don't like (like in English: use genitive 's or a construction with of). Also, there is some ambiguity due to cases looking the same (long example below). In practice, word order is a fall-back for guesstimating the meaning in situations where there is ambiguity with the cases.

As a native German speaker (but no linguist) I'd also say that correct use of cases does not have too much to do with education. Kindergarden children will use e.g. the accusative correctly when asking for a toy. In fact, in a sentence like "Gib mir den Ball." incorrect use of cases would sound like a foreigner learning German but decidedly not like a child.

But there is a (perceived) link between use of cases and education. But I think it is spurious (perceived only) in the sense that correlation is not causation.

The first crucial point is: what defines correct use of a language? Language evolves, and the German language is possibly evolving towards fewer cases (English is ahead in that respect: currently only 1 1/2 or 2 cases left). German may also arrive at retaining only nominative and accusative*. The accusative example with the small child was not accidental in the sense that the "mistakes" with cases in everyday spoken German are typically avoidig genitive e.g. by a dative construction and accusative instead of dative.

I put the mistake into quotation marks: is it a mistake if a large and growing proportion of the speakers use a new construction (or the relative frequencies of two constructions shift) or is it a very normal sign of an evolving language? Not to speak of dialects which may have used the "wrong" construction for hundreds of years.

Here's an example where current and historic evolution of the language stands out quite prominently (and which is all about cases and extracting meaning and ambiguity):

One point where the evolution to drop declination is mostly done are proper names which are not declinated any more:

Alice schreibt Bob einen Brief.

Strictly speaking, it is not clear who writes to whom: either Bob writes to Alice (and it is emphasized that the letter is to Alice as opposed to Dave), or Alice writes a letter to Bob. The latter will be the default assumption as word order is considered to resolve the ambiguity. The alternative is to put the preposition to make it unambiguous:

 An Alice schreibt Bob einen Brief. | Alice schreibt einen Brief an Bob.

Goethe wouldn't have had the problem: in his time, also normal names were flexed:

Alicen schreibt Bob einen Brief. | (What is the dative of Bob? Roberten?)

and it is clear that Alice is the recipient. But nowadays that would sound super old-fashioned. Another possibility is to use an article to mark the case:

 Der Alice schreibt Bob einen Brief. | Alice schreibt dem Bob einen Brief.

(Artice with name sounds decidedy southern)

Nevertheless, there are still some remainders in every day language of the cases for names: it still feels really weird not to flex an adjective that is part of the name. E.g. I'd send my complaint der Deutschen Bahn (dative). But when I had a scholarship of the Telekom foundation, they insisted I should thank der Deutsche [no n] Telekom Stiftung as it is their proper name and should therefore stay nominative. They are ahead of me (and most other German native speakers) in dropping the cases.

And that's the point where I think literary education comes in: classics of literature are usually slightly dated and therefore written in a language that is now perceived as old-fashioned. And even if we don't go back as far as Goethe, between concurrent constructions the fashion (= which is considered correct) can shift considerably within, say, a hundred years. Written texts will lag behind the developments of spoken language. Because a large body of read texts is actually older and also because this slightly dated body of text defines what is considered correct written language which also makes written language evolve slower than spoken language. I think at least for German, many constructions whichare considered appropriate for (educated) written texts would be perceived as old-fashioned in spoken langusage.

Taking these two points together, my guess is: The perception of educated = using cases more correctly may just come from education = knowing classic texts, which are written in an old-fashioned way (seen from nowadays spoken language). If this happens while the language drops or changes cases, the natural lag between written texts and spoken language may be responsible for the perception

This essay (Nübling 2012) cites a book that says in the 18th century, accussative and dative versions of names started to be considered vulgar and the upper classes dropped this flexion. So here we have a (historic) counter-example: less use of cases being considered more educated. It also cites Goethes "Leiden des jungen Werthers" (1774) loosing the genitive to "Leiden des jungen Werther" for the 2nd edition (1887). Or, actually: not loosing the genitive but switching from a doubly marked version (genitive article + genitive name) to the modern version where marking the case once (genitive article) is enough.

Here's another really fancy example: Many of my well-educated friends would cite "trotz dem (Dativ)" as one of those examples how the dative construction is killing the genitive, and say it should be "trotz des (Genitiv)" (so would I have said before googling about this questoin...). But this blog talks about the opposite shift from dative to genitive just occurring in the 20th century.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 141


In Germany, every child learns grammar (including cases) by age 10/11. I doubt it makes a big impact on how they speak, and I would say incorrect case use has nothing to do with being "unschooled".

Using dialect or slang might be correlated to education, but educated parents are as well. While "schooled" people might speak more "conscious" and some may actively try to speak "proper", I feel the determining factors are more 1) parenting and 2) environment. Both are related to schooling, but more as correlation than causation, I would say.

For reference, see the book "Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod" to see how (even educated people) slaughter the language and misuse cases regularly. I read parts of it and I must say, the "problems" described are present among a majority of people.


Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 146

3I think German children learn cases much earlier. A kindergarden child will say "Gib mir den Ball.", not "Gib mir der Ball.". The latter doesn't even sound like what a small child may say but plain wrong (or like a foreign native speaker learning German).cbeleites 2014-12-13T23:04:56.800


Native German and Russian speakers have no problem with cases for the same reason that native English speakers have no problem with choosing between definite article, indefinite article and no article at all (this is hard for native Russian speakers), or between prepositions: They pick up the rules naturally because everybody around them uses them correctly.

In fact, today's case endings were originally postpositions (like prepositions except that they come after the word they refer to) that eventually fused with the preceding words, whereas English and French have developed a new rudimentary case system with the prepositions to and of (in French à and de) after losing the original Indoeuropean one completely.

However, a phenomenon in German is that the inevitable loss of case distinctions is happening faster in most dialects than in the standard language. As a result, children who grow up as dialect speakers and don't hear much Standard German may not learn naturally about the distinction between the two object cases dative and accusative, or may not be exposed to the genitive at all. They will then learn these distinctions in a natural, unsystematic way (i.e. not taught explicitly) along with reading and writing and all other aspects of Standard German.

Hans Adler

Posted 2014-12-09T04:45:46.763

Reputation: 959