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date: 13 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

The notion of ‘case’ has played an important role in thinking about grammar since the days of Pāṇini and Aristotle. Nonetheless, the concept of case and its relation to grammatical relations, meaning, and morphological form remains elusive and controversial. This book brings together in synopsis form, recent work on the problems of case, focusing on as many relevant aspects as possible. It features contributions by scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and theoretical persuasions to summarise the way that the notion of case figures in current grammatical theory, and how it relates to other aspects of morphology, syntax, and semantics. The book also contains articles on the types of case systems that languages exhibit and the way that case paradigms are structured, the way case systems develop and decay over time, and the kinds of functions and meanings that are expressed by case systems. In addition, it offers the reader a variety of articles relating the notion of case to other grammatical phenomena such as transitivity, the alignment of grammatical relations, and so on.

Keywords: case, syntax, grammatical relations, meaning, morphology, semantics, grammar, languages, transitivity

The notion of ‘case’ has played an important role in thinking about grammar since the days of Pāņini and Aristotle. Nonetheless, the concept of case and its relation to grammatical relations, meaning, and morphological form remains elusive and controversial. In modern times whole grammatical frameworks have been developed taking some concept of ‘case’ as a central core, and at the same time, other types of theoretical approach have taken on the challenge of assimilating and explicating the notion, whilst typological studies have been exploring the variety of the phenomena commonly considered under the rubric of ‘case’. At the same time some researchers have sought to bridge the gap between typological or descriptive studies and theoretical studies (the work of authors such as Comrie and Mel'čuk comes to mind; see e.g. Comrie 1986; Melčuk 1986). More recently, monographs and extensive research projects have been devoted to the problem, such as the books by Blake (whose first edition appeared in 1994) and more recently Butt 2006. At the same time two major European research projects have been devoted to case in recent years: ‘Case and thematic relations’ at the Leuven University (see e.g. Davidse and Lamiroy 2002), and the PIONIER project ‘Case cross-linguistically’ (supervised by Helen de Hoop) at the Radboud university Nijmegen. The problems and challenges of case systems in the languages of the world continue, therefore, to exert a fascination on linguists and other specialists from a variety of backgrounds, and this is reflected in the rise in the number of monographs and general introductions to the subject.

However, this rise in interest in case brings with it difficulties for anyone wanting to keep abreast of latest findings and ideas, since there is currently no single (p. 2) extended source of information about case that scholars can turn to. It was this consideration that gave rise to the idea for this Handbook, while Andrew Spencer was a guest of the PIONIER project in the autumn of 2005. We felt that there was a need for a single volume which would bring together in synopsis form recent work on the problems of case, focusing on as many relevant aspects as possible. We have invited scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and theoretical persuasions to summarize the way that the notion of case figures in current grammatical theory, and how it relates to other aspects of morphology, syntax, and semantics. The Handbook also contains articles on the types of case systems that languages exhibit and the way that case paradigms are structured, the way case systems develop and decay over time, and the kinds of functions and meanings that are expressed by case systems. In addition, the Handbook offers the reader a variety of articles relating the notion of case to other grammatical phenomena such as transitivity, the alignment of grammatical relations, and so on. In recent years psycholinguistic studies have focused on the way that case systems are acquired by language learners, or lost in language disorders, and the way that case systems are processed on-line by adult language users, and so these topics are also included. We hope, therefore, to have provided a convenient starting point for any student or researcher who wishes to gain an entrée into the world of case as well as providing detailed summaries of specific phenomena which are otherwise only discussed in relatively inaccessible places.

The phenomenon of grammatical case has been a central feature of the Western grammatical tradition for some two millennia because of the importance of case in Latin and Greek. Equally, the Paninian tradition of Sanskrit grammar writing has laid great stress on the notion of kāraka, a notion which is related to, but not identical to the Graeco-Latin conception of case. In a sense there are two notions associated with ‘case’ which, whilst closely related, sometimes have to be distinguished. One is the formal notion of case as an inflected form of a nominal word and the other is the ‘semantic’ notion of case as a function of a nominal phrase in another phrase or in a clause. One can perfectly well talk about ‘case functions’ at an abstract level without necessarily relating this to any particular kind of morphology. As a result, we often see studies of case which discuss the grammatical behaviour of words or phrases that are marked with prepositions or postpositions rather than purely inflectional case markers, or indeed phrases that are not marked at all, but are distinguished solely in terms of, say, word order. Some specialists in case would argue that this extension is not warranted, but we have decided to be as inclusive as possible in allowing authors to decide what is or isn't an example of ‘a case’. In this way we hope we have not excluded phenomena which are important for current theoretical models or which might shed light on the typology of case.

The first set of substantive articles, Part I of the Handbook, is devoted to the way that case phenomena (broadly construed!) are treated in a variety of frameworks. It is appropriate that this part should start with an introductory chapter on the history (p. 3) of research of case by Barry Blake, whose groundbreaking Cambridge book on case stimulated a new upsurge of interest in case, semantic roles, and grammatical relations. Blake's chapter is complemented by Miriam Butt's overview of modern approaches to case, summarizing some of the findings of her recent monograph on the theories of case (Butt 2006). John Anderson's chapter has two objectives. First, it introduces the localist case theory that he has been developing over the past thirty-odd years (see also Anderson 2006), and second it provides an invaluable historical perspective on the evolution of case theories in the European tradition, thus bridging the gap between Blake's historical overview and Butt's chapter on current approaches.

In some instances the notion of case has played a substantial role in the development of the theoretical framework itself. This is particularly true of Anderson's localist case grammar, but case has also played a significant role in the development of Wierzbicka's Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach, and to some extent the related approaches within Cognitive Grammar summarized by Luraghi. Similarly, although optimality theoretic syntax has dealt with a whole host of issues, there is a significant subdomain which has applied Optimality Theory to a wide range of case-related problems, as discussed in de Hoop's chapter. The ‘case-in-tiers’ model discussed by Maling is exclusively a model of case marking, and hence is not really an example of a ‘theoretical model’, but its importance for the Handbook should be obvious.

The problems of case and related questions of alignment of nominal phrases with grammatical functions such as subject and object have played an important role in the development of both Lexical-Functional Grammar, and Role and Reference Grammar, and the place of case in these models is presented by Butt and Van Valin respectively. A more abstract and in some ways more controversial notion of case (‘Abstract Case’) has played a significant role in the development of the various instantiations of the Principles and Parameters model of syntax, summarized in Bobaljik and Wurmbrand's article. The relationship between case functions and meaning is explored to varying extents in a whole host of articles in the Handbook, but the specific question of how case is viewed by formal semanticists is summarized by de Hoop and Zwarts.

Part II of the Handbook examines a variety of issues in the morphology of case. Spencer's article provides an overview of the kinds of complexities that case provides for morphological systems, such as linear ordering of case markers and cumulation with other categories. It argues for a distinction between formal or morphological case and syntactic case, on the basis of well-known mismatches between the two. In a related vein it raises the question of how we identify cases in the grammar of a language, appealing to ‘Beard's Criterion’, modified from Beard 1995. Some of these issues are discussed in more detail in the articles by Blevins and by Baerman. Blevins looks at the way that case systems distribute themselves in paradigms, arguing that we must look to the shape of the whole paradigm to (p. 4) understand this organization. His arguments are complemented by Baerman who examines the specific question of syncretism. This refers to a situation in which a single word form has more than one meaning or function in the paradigm (so that a given word form might be both ‘accusative case’ and ‘genitive case’). These two articles both show how case systems provide important material for those who wish to study paradigm systems generally. Moravcsik's article, by contrast, takes as its starting point the notion of a case marker (or ‘case morpheme’ if you will) and asks how these markers are distributed syntagmatically within word forms or within phrases generally. Her article and that of Spencer deal with related issues surrounding the linear ordering of case markers with respect to other elements, but they do so from complementary perspectives. Part II closes with a discussion of a specific distinction which is very common cross-linguistically. Case systems change over time, sometimes in drastic ways, but the effects on lexical nouns are often different from the effects on pronouns, which are extremely high frequency elements and therefore tend to be more conservative and less prone to change (witness English pronouns, which retain some vestiges of a now completely lost morphological case system). However, as Iggesen shows, pronouns, and other clearly delineated ‘NP-types’ exhibit a whole host of differences from normative paradigms in what he calls ‘case-asymmetric’ systems.

Part II is devoted to the syntactic functions and roles that cases fulfil. Primus' contribution sets the scene by providing an overview of the way that cases express grammatical relations (such as subject and object) and semantic roles (such as agent and patient). She surveys models based on an unanalysed list of semantic (‘thematic’, ‘theta’) roles, and models based on some kind of decomposition of semantic roles, particularly the influential proposals of Dowty (‘proto-roles’) and also the lexical decompositional approach, under which semantic roles are related to semantic primitive predicates such as CAUSE, BECOME, MOVE.

Like Bobaljik and Wurmbrand's chapter, the contribution by Neeleman and Weerman is couched within the generative tradition, with the difference that they focus on the role of morphological case rather than Abstract Case. Their chapter thus illustrates the way in which within a given theoretical framework both broad and narrow definitions of case may be appropriate, offering complementary perspectives. Neeleman and Weerman are principally concerned with word order effects and case, addressing the old, but still unclear, question of how the presence/absence of overt case marking might be related to free/fixed word order (in Dutch, German, Icelandic, and Japanese).

Siewierska and Bakker complement the discussion in Neeleman and Weerman's chapter with a broad typological survey of the relationship between case marking and the two other main encoding strategies, agreement morphology and word order. They examine the discriminating (or distinguishing) functions and the indexing (or ‘characterizing’) functions of each strategy (a distinction taken up in Malchukov and de Swart's chapter). The discriminating/distinguishing function (p. 5) is that of distinguishing core grammatical relations such as subject from object. Indexing functions are those which relate to the semantics of the nominals marked by case, for example, where a case marker marks a subject provided that it is animate or provided it has the semantic role of ‘experiencer’. (These notions are further discussed in Primus' chapter.) Siewierska and Bakker point out that there is much variation in the use and combination of encoding strategies, but they note that there do exist statistical tendencies for certain types of encoding to correlate with certain types of function. For example, case marking tends to be correlated with basic word order type. (This is an issue that is also taken up in Malchukov and de Swart's chapter.)

Bickel and Nichols focus on the way that case marking gets distributed across the principal grammatical roles (‘alignment strategies’). On the basis of a meticulous examination of the available typological evidence the authors cast doubt on a number of widely held beliefs about alignment. For instance, they fail to find support for the existence of so-called ‘stative–active’ alignment languages and they also question the role of the ‘animacy hierarchy’ and similar factors in determining whether a subject or object will be overtly marked. They conclude that what is really important is the complex set of lexical conditions that a language imposes on its case marking principles (‘lexical valency sets’).

Alignment strategies are closely related to the notion of transitivity, and this is a theme running through the last three contributions of Part III. Shibatani discusses the way case marking is reflected in valency alternations such as passives/antipassives (valency decreasing) and applicatives and external possessor constructions (valency increasing). He points out that passive and antipassive alternations are often effected by a combination of verb morphology and case marking, but that on occasions they can be expressed by verb morphology or by case marking alone (the latter possibility being illustrated, for instance, by the Samoan antipassive). Malchukov and de Swart examine the differential marking of subjects and objects, which they attribute to interaction of the two basic functions of case marking, distinguishing (discriminating) and differentiating (‘indexing’, ‘characterizing’). They show how the interaction between the two functions can account for asymmetries between differential object marking and differential subject marking. Kittilä's chapter looks more specifically at the way case alternations interact with transitivity alternations. The chapter takes further a number of the issues addressed by Malchukov and de Swart, and together they can be thought of as explorations of the ‘indexing’ functions of case.

Ever since the pioneering work of Slobin on the acquisition of Russian and Turkish case specialists in first language acquisition have been interested in case, but more recently case has attracted the attention of researchers in other branches of psycholinguistics. Part IV provides an overview of the recent trends.

Eisenbeiss, Narasimhan, and Voeikova argue against strongly nativist approaches to case in child language, under which innate categories such as ‘accusative’ or (p. 6) ‘absolutive’ get mapped to innate conceptual semantic categories such as ‘patient’. They contrast these approaches with usage-based models, which rely exclusively on general abilities to abstract regularities, and with models based on more articulated theories of case (specifically the Kiparsky/Wunderlich model summarized in Primus' chapter), in which case relations can be projected from the semantic relations which hold between participants on a word-by-word basis. They also provide an overview of the Natural Morphology model of W. U. Dressler and colleagues. The authors conclude that the mistakes children make are systematic, these patterns can't be accounted for purely in terms of semantics or of syntax.

Speech production research has tended to focus on English, which provides scant evidence for case marking. Melinger, Pechmann, and Pappert therefore complement the English data with work on German case marking. They review speech error data and on-line processing experiments, arguing that case assignment takes place at Garrett's ‘functional’ level, which is defined in terms of abstract representations of lexemes rather than the later ‘positional’ level, at which word forms are already specified. They also discuss the controversial issue of whether sentences are constructed incrementally or whether the overall structure of a clause is first determined by the choice of verb (even in verb-final clauses).

Bader and Lamers review evidence from reading experiments which investigate the role of case marking in Dutch, German, Korean, and Japanese for sentence comprehension, as well as extrapolating from English data. They focus on two possible functions for case marking: identifying grammatical roles of NPs and identifying clause boundaries (for instance, an unambiguously nominative pronoun in the middle of an English sentence usually marks the beginning of a finite clause). German readers prefer to interpret a NP as accusative rather than dative in neutralization contexts, raising the question of whether markedness effects can be discerned in processing. Finally, the authors summarize recent proposals for incorporating optimality theory into analyses of ERP (‘event-related brain potential’) studies on case processing in Dutch and German.

Lamers and Ruigendijk provide an overview of the way that case has figured in studies of acquired language impairment. Even Broca's aphasics, who are supposed to have a particular impairment in the processing of grammatical information, are sometimes able to make use of case morphology for disambiguation, though in general, processing of case suffers in these patients. Although they lament the comparative lack of studies on case in aphasic comprehension or production, they note that a number of Russian studies (replicated in studies of German and Hungarian) provide interesting insight into the impairment of case usage. Surprisingly, perhaps, the evidence seems to suggest that ‘structural’ case (i.e. nominative/accusative determined by overall clause structure) is less subject to error than ‘lexical’ case (which generally adds some component of meaning).

These three studies note that relatively little work has been devoted to case as such in normal or impaired language processing (as opposed to more general (p. 7) phenomena such as grammatical function assignment, the computation of filler-gap dependencies, or the interpretation of reversible passive constructions). These authors all throw down interesting challenges to psycholinguists and aphasiologists with access to speakers of case-rich languages to investigate some of the phenomena discussed elsewhere in this Handbook, such as the distinguishing vs. indexing functions of case, abstract vs. lexical case, and more generally the issues of case markedness (see Malchukov and Spencer on the Case Hierarchy, Chapter 45), and a variety of other respects in which case might be reflected directly in sentence processing or language breakdown.

The chapters in Part V deal with related issues in the rise and fall of case systems and in the way they are distributed geographically. Kulikov illustrates the way the Indo-European case system was reconfigured in a variety of languages so as to reconstitute a largely lost case system (Indo-Aryan languages). He also outlines the mechanisms by which languages resist case change (e.g. in Armenian). Heine summarizes the grammaticalization paths found in the evolution of cases, for example, from spatial nouns to postpositions to locational cases. He also discusses the extensions of case meanings, often from more concrete to more grammatical meanings of functions. He charts the way case markers acquire non-case functions, such as marking clause subordination, modal meanings, and so on. Barðdal and Kulikov trace the way cases are lost, through phonological attrition (as in Romance languages) but also through other pathways, as when complex patterns of argument structure marking get simplified in the history of Germanic (for example, the loss of non-nominative subject constructions).

Bickel and Nichols address the complex issue of areal distribution, adopting a sophisticated notion of ‘linguistic area’ that is, as far as possible, independent of language. They survey thirty-five case-related variables both morphological and syntactic using as source material various recently developed large databases (‘Autotyp’ and World Atlas of Linguistic Structures [WALS]; Haspelmath, Dryer, Gil, and Comrie 2005). Careful statistical analysis of the data reveals that ‘aspects of position and fusion of case markers, their presence vs. absence, and their alignment are prone to areal spread while aspects of exponence, flexivity, syncretism, and phrasal behavior tend to resist spread’. Finally, Johanson continues the discussion of areal spreads looking at the way case oppositions or actual case markers are borrowed (‘copied’) from one language to another.

The last two parts of the Handbook present essentially descriptive/typological surveys. In Part VI we have summaries of the typical, and not-so-typical behaviour of individual cases (including the typologically unusual situation in which nominative is specially marked). This Part begins with Haspelmath's survey of case terminology (which also serves as a very useful introduction to the world's case systems). In addition to helping the reader navigate the bewildering variety of terms for the same thing and different uses of one and the same term, this chapter offers salutary warnings about the dangers of assuming that a case (p. 8) label in one language denotes the same property as the same label in another language.

König discusses cases systems in which the accusative is morphologically and/or functionally unmarked compared with the nominative. This is largely, but not exclusively, restricted to Africa, where it is the prevalent type of case system (especially where case is marked by tone). She further distinguishes between two types of marked nominative languages, depending on whether functional markedness is matched with the formal markedness in a case system or not.

Malchukov and Narrog show how the technique of ‘semantic maps’, common nowadays in functional-typological approaches, can throw light on case polysemy. This chapter serves also as an introduction to the spirit underlying several of the specific chapters on case in this Part. Several of the chapters of Part VI discuss interesting relationships between inflectional case proper and other coding strategies for case functions (for instance, Lander provides a useful survey of possessive marking generally, Narrog shows how adpositions and applicative verb forms fulfil instrumental functions, and so on). Creissels explores very rich systems of spatial cases, providing a wider typological context for the discussion of the highly elaborated systems of Daghestanian languages discussed in greater detail in Daniel and Ganenkov's chapter (the two chapters should be read in conjunction). He outlines the way such spatial cases develop, and how they develop into purely grammatical cases. He also touches on the special behaviour of nouns denoting places and other such restrictions on case systems. Several of the chapters take up issues addressed in the syntactic part, such as differential object marking (Kittilä and Malchukov's chapter on accusative, and Naess' chapter on the dative), and ergativity and differential subject marking (Palancar's chapter on the ergative). While all the chapters provide typological surveys, several (in particular that on the comitative by Stolz, Stroh, and Urdze, that on the instrumental by Narrog, and that on ergative by Palancar) report on the results of sample-based typological research uncovering areal patterns.

The vocative case is often excluded from typological or theoretical discussion of case systems, and Daniel and Spencer point out that in many languages the form of the vocative is distinctly unusual compared to other cases, and indeed may violate basic morphological or phonotactic principles elsewhere in the language. But they also point out that there are plenty of languages in which the vocative has been fully integrated into the case paradigm, and even triggers case agreement. Part VI concludes with Malchukov's round up of other less common properties of cases or case systems. He looks at cases with an unusual distribution, such as ‘case-stacking’ (see also the chapters by Spencer and by Moravcsik), cases with unusual functions (‘pragmatic cases’), and cases with both unusual functions and distributions, such as the modal cases and verbal cases of Kayardild. He argues, in particular, that cases with unusual properties often result from an incomplete grammaticalization cycle. Importantly, as shown throughout this Part, individual cases display (p. 9) recurrent polysemy patterns with non-random functional overlap, which makes it possible to represent their functions in a single semantic network (see Malchukov and Narrog).

Part VII is largely devoted to descriptive summaries of specific types of case system, to give a flavour of the typological variation found. The scene for this is set by Malchukov and Spencer's overview of case typology, which raises a number of the issues addressed in individual contributions to this Part. Malchukov and Spencer look at case typology both at a ‘macro-level’, in the content of case paradigms across languages, and at a ‘micro-level’, in the relations between the set of morphological cases in a language and the set of syntactic cases. They also summarize the major functions (syntactic vs. semantic vs. pragmatic) that individual cases can subserve. At the ‘macro-level’, Blake has proposed that cases fall into a hierarchy which induces implicational generalizations: what is true of a case lower on the hierarchy, such as locative, should be true of cases higher on the hierarchy, such as dative or accusative. Malchukov and Spencer reassess the role of the case hierarchy in grammar. Drawing extensively on the contributions to the present volume, they show that the hierarchy assumes different guises in different linguistic and psycholinguistic domains. The next contributions contrast extremes: Daniel and Ganenkov survey the remarkably rich sets of cases found in many Daghestan languages, where it's common for languages to express notions such as ‘from the surface of’ or ‘towards the front of’ using case morphology. On the other hand, languages with just two cases are not particularly uncommon and Arkadiev examines the kinds of use to which such a minimal opposition can be put. Minimal two-case systems are often the result of attrition of larger systems (see Barðdal and Kulikov) and this is true of the depleted case systems of Iranian, discussed by Stilo, and of South Slavic languages studied by Sobolev. Sobolev traces the way case functions such as instrumental get marked by prepositions such as ‘with’ in Bulgarian and Macedonian. Stilo examines the way that the two-case systems common in Indo-Iranian languages have developed (or not) over time and examines the compensatory strategies in those languages that lost even the remnant two-term system. He also discusses the remarkably complex possibilities for variation in the alignment of case and grammatical functions in languages that show split ergativity as well as differential object marking. A particularly interesting additional strategy is noted for one of the Central Plateau Dialects, Gazi, in which a ‘floating’ subject agreement marker selectively cliticizes to the right edge of a direct object phrase. The case system of Ik described by König is one of the most unusual we have encountered, in that cases are marked on all parts of speech, though case has a very low discriminatory function with core participants (subjects/objects). Amberber's discussion of Amharic provides an in-depth illustration of the phenomenon of differential case marking discussed in various chapters in Part III, especially the chapter by Malchukov and de Swart. Dench's chapter on case in Nyamal is particularly focused on a phenomenon for which Australian languages are noted (though the (p. 10) phenomenon is far from restricted to Australia), so-called ‘case-stacking’, in which an element with case marking which modifies a case-marked noun receives the case marker of that noun in addition to its own. Donohue's chapter discusses the case system of the Philippine language Tukang Besi, which picks out subject and object participants but in a manner which interacts in very complex ways with word order, agreement, and information structure, as a kind of microcosm of the Philippine case marking system. Nominal participants in Japanese also bear case markers that interact in complex ways with pragmatic/discourse functions, as Ogawa describes. Both Tukang Besi and Japanese provide examples of ‘pragmatic cases’ in the sense of Malchukov and Spencer, revealing a tight integration of semantic and discourse pragmatic information. The same is true of Yukaghir, discussed by Maslova, where (patient) case marking is sensitive to properties of information structure, and probably takes its origin in discourse (focus) markers. Wichmann's chapter describes the way that Tlapanec, an OtoManguean language of Mexico, uses verb affixes to code the sorts of functions normally coded by case markers on nominals in other languages. This language is also unusual in that its Azoyú dialect has a ‘pegative’ case function, indicating an actor in an event which also involves a Dative-like undergoer, in effect a unique distinguisher for the ‘A2’ function defined by Nichols and Bickel. Finally, Enfield shows how case-like functions are expressed in Lao, a language with very little morphology, and certainly no standard case morphology. His paper, like Wichmann's, highlights the similarities and differences between case proper and the alternative strategies of encoding grammatical relations (word order, head-marking) discussed by Siewierska and Bakker.

We hope that the Handbook will be useful as a reference source to general linguists, psycholinguists, computer scientists, and others with an interest in case systems, as well as being a source of inspiration for future research.