The Case System or What the heck is a vocative?

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Well, I suppose it's our own fault for having asked people to write to us if they had particular questions about something. Someone opened the can of worms by asking how to decline compound nouns. The basics of that topic are covered in every little language course but the details involved, and particularly the difficult issues, are avoided everywhere. If we're wrong, and you know about an excellent article on the Gaelic case system, do let us know! The intriguing questions are about what happens to nouns followed by compound nouns or feminine nouns which form their genitives by slenderising. We're by no means sure we've got all the answers, but we'll try to do our best, anyway.

This presentation of the case system is really in two parts. The first gives you the case system in bits and pieces with explanations. The second, at the end, is a pdf file which contains a table of the case system which you can print out for reference.

To begin, we need to answer questions about what's the point of having masculine and feminine nouns and why we need a case system. Well, there's an easy answer and a more complex answer to those questions. The easy answer is that Gaelic just has these things and you have to put up with learning them, just as much as you'd have to contend with three genders in German, a pictographic writing system in Mandarin, politeness particles in Japanese, and an indefinido, in Castilian.

The more complex answer is that all living languages constantly develop and change. Change, mark you, not "simplify", as many people believe. Meaning? Well, there are different ways in which languages encode meaning once you go beyond simple words. One such method is syntax. This means that the meaning of a sentence arises out of the order of its words, often using small words or particles to give finer shades of meaning. English is such a language. Take two sentences like Jack hit Jill with a club and Jill hit Jack with a club. Using the same words, you paint a very different scenario.

The other way of doing this is to have a loose syntax but a fairly rigid and detailed way of marking, on the words, to express who does what to whom and with what. Basque is such a language. In Basque, the first example, above, turns into Jackek Jill makilaz jo du. The -ek tells you who did something to someone and -az tells you what was used. Because the endings make this clear, you can shift the order around - Makilaz jo du Jill Jackek has the same meaning as the other sentence. That shift of word order would be impossible in a language like English.

You may ask, what does that have to do with Gaelic, since Gaelic has a rather rigid syntax but also a case system. Well, languages are eternally shifting between these two extremes, so most languages you'll encounter will be somewhere in between relying completely on syntax and relying completely on endings.

Vietnamese is one of the few languages which (currently) rely on syntax 100% and Basque is one that relies on endings 99%. English, which is still in the process of exchanging the case system, inherited from Old English, for syntax. It's closing in on the syntax end of the spectrum and has lost two of its three genders. On the other hand, Cantonese has just started to move away from the syntax end. German is lagging behind English, but the genitive case is rapidly losing ground to the dative case. Samoan is half way to the other end, acquiring more grammatical forms and relying less on syntax. However, all these things have reasons for being there and help encode meaning in an efficient way. So, although the whole picture of a language keeps changing, we have to accept a language for what it is - now.

Gaelic is somewhere in there - moving towards the syntax end, but not as far along as English. Now this does NOT mean that we should just make away with the Gaelic case system altogether because that is "inevitable" anyway. For one thing, this is an unconscious process; speakers do not set out to "lose" the dative case. It's something that happens gradually, over time and without much noticing, unless you're a linguist looking for this kind of thing. If you don't believe this, ask an English speaker whether they're aware of English losing the noun/verb distinction ... well, you CAN background a picture these days, can't you?

So, what ARE we saying? The case system in Gaelic is something it has inherited from Common Gaelic and Old Irish. The inheritance goes back even further, ultimately Indo-European. In the light of language history, the case system makes sense and is (relatively) logical. If Gaelic ultimately loses this case system, it won't be a "loss" because Gaelic will gain some structures elsewhere to make up for it. But that's a process that should be left to the language itself. It's not for tampering with either by people who believe archaic-is-good or by people who think that everything has to be simplified-simplified to make it easier to learn. A healthy balance must be struck to reflect a good standard that is neither archaic and mental nor one that reflects every lost vowel of fast casual speech.

For layout reasons, these pages have been split into two, one for masculine and one for feminine nouns, rather than having them side by side. This is simply for layout reasons. On the .pdf file, both genders are shown side by side. Click on the links to go to the respective sections:

There's also printable guides, one for the traditional or conservative pattern and another for the normal or colloquial pattern.

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