Peter opened Paul the door

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

English-speakers who have not had the good fortune to be exposed early to Greek or Latin, or even to their own language as it existed before the Norman Conquest, tend to find the notion of grammatical case baffling despite the survival in English of a genitive case (renamed possessive) and the distinction between subject and object pronouns in the first and third persons. Evidently, the alleged Irish saying that when it comes to politics the English are born three whiskeys down applies no less to grammar. Others, made of sterner stuff, having learned to distinguish between in urbem and in urbe, in die Stadt and in der Stadt, will find that this is only the beginning. Some languages, such as Finnish, not only have cases of destination, position and departure, but distinguish interior from exterior: ‘into’, ‘in’, ‘out of’ demand a different set of cases from ‘to’, ‘on/at’, ‘off/from’ (at least, that is the theory; actual usage is far more complex). There are also languages in which nouns may take more than one case-ending, as when in Old Georgian a noun in the genitive further adds the same case-ending as the noun it qualifies; but even English can contribute the double genitives hers and theirs, and shares with Danish the phrasal genitive the king of Spain’s daughter.

The nature and the manifestations of case are the subject of the new Oxford Handbook; anyone who wishes to understand the phenomenon of case from any point of view will find something of interest in its 57 chapters (not counting the introduction) by 62 authors or co-authors. The breadth of treatment will be apparent even from the titles of the seven parts into which the book is divided: ‘Theoretical Approaches to Case’; ‘Morphology of Case’; ‘Syntax of Case’; ‘Case in (Psycho)linguistic Disciplines’; ‘Areal and Diachronic Issues’; ‘Individual Cases: Cross-Linguistic Overviews’; ‘Sketches of Case Systems’. To make sense of the whole, readers would have to be familiar with a plethora of technical terms, not all of which are explained, and abbreviations, not all of which are expanded; what f-structures and c-structures are the profane must find out for themselves. It is not evident why some languages are the focus of whole chapters and others merely furnish examples, even if, like Finnish and Hindi/Urdu, they are cited by several contributors. But such things are inevitable in multi-author volumes not written to a formula.

Even a reviewer competent in the 500 or so languages mentioned, and in all the branches of linguistics considered, could hardly produce a readable account of the book by working through it methodically from beginning to end. But in the first chapter Barry Blake sets out the basic facts and problems with admirable clarity, noting the origin of the term ‘case’ in the Greek notion of a falling away (ptōsis; in Latin, casus; in German, Fall) from the ‘upright’ or nominative form, and the Sanskrit grammarians’ still useful distinction between morphological case and semantic function. They recognised six semantic functions: the patient, the implement, the agent, the recipient, the source and the place. In the active voice of transitive verbs, the agent is in the nominative and the patient in the accusative (‘I hit him’); in the passive, the patient is in the nominative and the agent in the instrumental (‘he was hit by me’); we may add that in the participial past the nominative expresses the agent of an intransitive verb but the patient of a transitive, the agent appearing in the instrumental, an alignment known as ergative. Thus gatā gopī means ‘the milkmaid went,’ but hatā gopī sainikena means ‘the milkmaid was killed by the soldier’ or, with a different emphasis, sainikena gopī hattā ‘the soldier killed the milkmaid.’

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