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Free «Case Morphology» Essay Sample


Case is a complex linguistic construct. The goal of this paper is to provide a detailed overview of the basic features of case, case marking, and case systems in Australian languages. The paper includes a description of case and its main characteristics. Problems with traditional models of case analysis are discussed. The paper includes a detailed description of the tripartite case marking principles and their relation to other case marking conventions encountered across Australian languages. Implications for future research are provided.

Keywords: case, case marking, Australian, linguistic, case system, relation. 

Case Morphology

Case is a sophisticated linguistic construct. It is also a linguistic category that bears numerous aesthetic properties (Blake, 1994). Traditionally, case has been defined as a system of marking dependent nouns, in accordance with the relationship they have to their heads (Blake, 1994). Yet, time has come when a deeper research into the nature of case, the differences between case marking and case systems, and the hierarchy of case marking in the Australian languages needs to be undertaken. The central thesis of this paper is that, although the exact number, scope, and variability of case marking reflections in Australian languages is difficult to trace, it is still possible to say that many Australian languages have a tripartite system of case marking. Thus, the paper includes the basic description of case, problems with the traditional models of case marking, types of case labels and functions of case morphemes as well as the basics of the tripartite case marking system and its implications for the entire Australian linguistics.

Case: Defining the Construct

Understanding the predominant features of case marking in Australian languages is impossible without defining case and describing its key characteristics. Blake (1994) offers a comprehensive analysis of the case construct: case is defined as a system of marking dependent nouns based on the relationship they have towards their heads. Traditionally, case is interpreted in terms of inflectional marking. In most cases, case marks the noun-verb relationship at the clause level, or the relationship of a noun to a postposition, preposition, or another noun. The latter occurs at the phrase level (Blake, 1994). Numerous examples from Latin and Turkish illustrate the ways in which various elements of a particular case can be related.

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(1) Turkish: Mehmet (NOM) adam-a (DAT) elma-lar-%u0131 (PL-ACC) ver-di (PAST 3SG) – Mehmet gave the apple to the man (Blake, 1994). The noun “apple” (elmalar) is related to the verb “gave” (vermek), both representing the accusative case.

(2) Latin: Ambula per aedes (ACC) or Perambule aedes (ACC) – Walk through the house (Blake, 1999). This is one of the best examples of case, where prepositions also serve as the first element of the compound verb (per aedes versus perambule aedes).

In this sense, Blake (1994) confirms the assumption that case marking is usually multi-level, and case morphemes being the central elements of case marking can operate at various syntactic levels (Dench & Evans, 1988).

Case (grammatical) relations need to be distinguished from cases. Also, later in this paper, an essential difference between case systems and case marking will be discussed. Both have profound implications for understanding the fundamental features of case hierarchies in Australian languages. In terms of the former, cases and case relations do not always display a one-for-one correspondence (Blake, 1994). Theoretically, all case dependents can be interpreted in relation to a particular grammatical relation. In reality, making such categories clear and understandable is virtually impossible (Blake, 1994). These difficulties are rooted in the fact that the very meaning of case and its basic characteristics have developed from Ancient Greek and Latin, where case markings cannot be easily distinguished from grammatical relations (Blake, 1994). This is particularly the case of gender distinctions: Latin has three gender categories (Blake, 1994). All living creatures are marked as either feminine or masculine, whereas inanimate objects can have any of the three gender markings (Blake, 1994). As a result, a fusion of gender, case, and number in Latin is not uncommon (Blake, 1994). Taking the Latin word “bellum” (war) as an example, it is clear that the grammatical form “bellum” also corresponds to the nominative, vocative, or accusative form singular (Blake, 1994). In a similar vein, the grammatical form of “consulibus” (consuls) matches the dative and ablative cases in the Latin language (Blake, 1994). Therefore, it is not always correct to mix the notion of case marking with that of grammar.

Here, the Kalkatungu language provides abundant examples of the way case differs from grammatical relations. Kaltatungu is claimed to have two cases: the ergative and the nominative (Blake, 1994). The phrasing of this sentence and the use of the passive form “is claimed” are intentional since not all modern linguists agree with this traditional vision of case systems in Australian languages. Among others is Goddard (1982), who suggests that many Australian languages have three different case markings. Back to the issue of case and grammar, Blake (1994) offers numerous examples to emphasize the importance of case-grammar distinctions. The sentence “The woman will grind the seed with the grindstone” can be translated into Kalkatungu in two different ways: the first involving a transitive clause with two ergative tokens, and the second based on the antipassive clause:

(1) Marapai-thu (ERG) rumpa-mi (FUT) ithirr (NOM) mayatamirla-thu (ERG)

(2) Marapai (NOM) rumpa-yi-mi (AP-FUT) ithirr-ku (DAT) matyamirla-thu (ERG) (Blake, 1994).

Grammatical meaning of the sentence remains unchanged, whereas the case structure of the first sentence differs from that of the second sentence. The ergative form of the noun in sentence (1) corresponds to its nominative form in sentence (2) without changing its grammatical meaning and syntactic position in the sentence.

Another essential distinction is that between case and case forms/systems. At the heart of this paper is the notion of case marking, which eventually leads to the development of a particular case system. Case system is usually comprised of several substitution classes of morphological forms (Goddard, 1982). The marking system, in turn, involves a degree of homonymy, where certain forms are non-distinct (Goddard, 1982). The examples borrowed from various Indo-European languages are abundant. For example, in Polish, many inanimate and masculine nouns may preserve their form regardless of their actual position and function. Certain nouns in Indo-European languages have homonymous case forms for both accusative and nominative cases (Goddard, 1982). Below is the example from Diyari, which illustrates the homonymy of case forms and, at the same time, the distinction among cases:

Nulu (ERG) nana (ACC) mara (ACC) nanda-na (PART) wara-yi (AUX) – He hit my hand (Goddard, 1982).

In this sentence, the noun “mara” (hand) is used in the accusative case, although its form is homonymous with the nominative one. Likewise, in non-Australian languages, such as Latin, many case forms are homonymous. The word “manus” (hand) can either bear nominative, vocative, or accusative form. Apparently, the meaning of case can also be interpreted as the multitude of nominal forms that are easily substitutable, depending on their semantic and syntactic environments (Goddard, 1982).

When Goddard (1982) says that the marking system can follow the discussion of the case system, it is possible that case marking can precede the analysis of a particular case system. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, the analysis of case marking and its functions in Australian languages will lay the foundation for the discussion of the tripartite case marking system and its possible implications for understanding the history and development of Australian linguistics.

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Why Tripartite Case Systems Matter: Problems with Traditional Approaches to Case

Goddard (1982) suggests that contrary to the earlier beliefs about Australian languages, the latter have three distinct case marking categories. This suggestion may be directly related to the problems facing the traditional approaches to case system analysis in modern languages. It should be noted that traditional models of case system analysis have their roots in western languages, namely Ancient Greek and Latin (Blake, 1994). Both these languages, as well as other Indo-European languages, were characterized by fusional inflections, where number marking could not be distinguished from case marking, and most descriptions of case were based on the entire word, not its stem or suffixes (Blake, 1994). Three distinguishing features of the traditional approach to analyzing case systems include: (1) the presence of the multiple paradigms with various degrees of syncretism; (2) each paradigm fulfilling several functions, (3) with a concord between the noun phrase head and its dependents (Blake, 1994). For instance, the traditional approach to case systems and forms suggests that in the Greek language, accusative is always used to express the meaning of place and time (Blake, 1994).

Blake (1994) may be correct when saying that the traditional model of case analysis and forms is the simplest and has few disadvantages. However, the traditional approach to the analysis of case marking and systems is not always appropriate. The science of linguistics constantly evolves, and no universal approach can meet the demands of all existing case systems. A newer model presents cases as whole systems, each possessing a general meaning, which is not self-sufficient (Blake, 1994). In this context, the notion of the case system can be interpreted as “a set of morphosyntactic categories: inferred from formal differences between nominals in different syntactic or semantic contexts” (Goddard, 1982, p.167). These approaches also have the potential to explicate the most controversial elements of the case marking dynamics in Australian languages.

Case Marking and Case Systems: Benefits and Problems

The concept of case is that of a complex relationship between the case form and its distribution (Goddard, 1982). Case can be described as a set of certain nominal forms, which can be mutually substituted in certain semantic or syntactic situations and be distinguished from another case by means of a nominal subclass (Goddard, 1982). This mutually substitutable character also implies that the concept of case is always associated with more than one morphological pattern (Goddard, 1982). In this sense, case marking can be described as an abstract phenomenon, which covers various types of exponents (Blake, 1994). Unlike grammatical relations, which are ordered hierarchically, case relations and markers are ordered in accordance with their formal properties (Blake, 1994). Nevertheless, the ordering of these formal properties is believed to coincide or at least to have a distinct relation to the hierarchy of grammatical relations and case forms (Blake, 1994).

Generally, case marking is directly related to grammar and the hierarchical position of the noun. However, the basic inventory of case markers also needs cross-linguistic analysis (Goddard, 1982). All grammatical relations have explicit criteria that signify the presence of such relation (e.g. in English, the presence of the –ed suffix in verbs usually signifies the grammatical meaning of the past tense). So do case markers have a definite set of labeling criteria, usually beyond simple morphemes, which confirm or rule out the presence of the target case marker. Goddard (1982) writes that, for example, a genitive case should include an indication of a possessor, while an accusative case should always involve the presence of the patient along with a transitive affirmative sentence. The quality and essence of these criteria vary across languages. For example, in Polish, the accusative case also fulfills the function of duration (Goddard, 1982). Yet, the problem with traditional case marking cannot be ignored.

As mentioned previously, traditional approaches to case analysis and case labeling do not always reflect the realities of case structures encountered in language, including the Australian languages group. One of the main fallacies of the traditional case analysis is that it fails to provide any explicit criteria for the nominative case. On one hand, in many languages the nominative category embraces one single morphological category: “the prevalent terminological tradition seems to be that nominative is the case of citation and of the S.” (Goddard, 1982, p.170). On the other hand, many Australian languages have more than one morphological form associated with the nominative case, including Dhalandji and Pitta-Pitta (Goddard, 1982).  The proposed tripartite interpretation of case marking in Australian languages does have the potential to resolve existing controversies surrounding traditional approaches to case.

Case Marking: Functions, Categories, and Australian Languages

The fundamental function of case marking is to indicate what role the noun phrase plays within a clause (Dench & Evans, 1988). Case marking also has the so-called adnominal function, which defines the position and role of various noun phrases within one NP constituent (Dench & Evans, 1988). At times, case markers fulfill the role of a complementizer, thus uncovering the conflicting relations between two different clauses (Dench & Evans, 1988). For instance, in Anindilyakwa, the complementizer function is fulfilled through the use of case suffix added to the finite verb: nanga-makama alawudawarra na-likarnuma-langwa (GEN) Sydney-langwa (GEN) – “He told the story of how they went to Sydney” (Dench & Evans, 1988). Both elements of the case bear the same case marker, which also implies the presence of the so-called complete concordance. The associative function of case marking is to display the existing relationship between noun phrases and nominalized verbs (Dench & Evans, 1988). The multiplicity of case functions can partially explain the multitude of case marking features and systems in Australian languages. However, the presence of certain case markers in one Australian language does not guarantee the presence of the similar case marker in another Australian language. Australian languages rely on different types of case marking conventions, which actually support the distinction between word-marking languages and phrase-marking languages (Blake, 1994; Dench & Evans, 1988). However, even the presence or absence of these marking conventions cannot deny the relevance of tripartite case marking in these languages. It is possible to suggest that the presence or absence of a given marking convention (e.g. free-marking or head-marking) is successfully balanced with the presence of the ergative, accusative, and nominative morphological categories.

In this sense, Diyari exemplifies one of the major objects of case marking analysis. According to Goddard (1982), Diyari is the Australian language where certain categories of nominals have three distinct case markings: ergative, accusative, and nominative. These nominals mostly include singular 1st and 2nd person pronouns, personal names of women, 3rd person pronouns (singular and plural), and derived dual/plural nouns (Goddard, 1982). Simultaneously, other groups of nominals in Diyari are subject to the influence of tripartite case marking. In the example below, the noun “kintala” (“dog”) in ergative form can take another, accusative form, if replaced with another form, “kintala-wula-na” (“two dogs”):

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Yula yundu kintala / kintala-wula-na nanda-na wara-yi

You two/you (sg) hit the dog/two dogs (Goddard, 1982).

From this sentence, it is also clear that Diyari is characterized by the so-called “final-marking” convention, where the final word of the noun phrase bears the case marker (Dench & Evans, 1988). More specifically, Diyari displays final marking only for continuous noun phrases, whereas complete concordance is used for non-continuous noun phrases. The latter means that all elements of the particular noun phrase constituent bear the same case marker (Dench & Evans, 1988). In the phrase mentioned above, the target noun phrase “two dogs – kintala-wula-na nanda na” imposes the same case marker on all its constituents (-na). Most probably, the change of the case convention in this sentence will cause the subsequent shift in case markers in all constituents making up the target noun phrase. Yet, the exact features of such change will depend on many factors, since in Diyari different classes of nominals have different case markers (Goddard, 1982).

Tripartite Case Marking and Marking Conventions

An interesting observation is that the presence or absence of tripartite case marking is not related to the marking convention characteristic of a particular Australian language. Apart from the final-marking convention discussed above, Dench and Evans (1988) also describe a number of other case marking conventions encountered in Australian languages. These include: head-marking convention, complete concord, and free-marking (Dench & Evans, 1988). Head-marking is one of the rarest forms of case marking in Australian languages (Dench & Evans, 1988). Final marking and free marking are much more common. Still, even if no direct relationship between tripartite case marking and marking conventions can be detected, it is clear that the latter invariably impacts the way in which the former actually manifests.

Unfortunately, the exact patterns of such influences remain unclear simply because the information regarding the tripartite marking and marking conventions in various Australian languages is still incomplete. As of now, and according to Goddard (1982), the following Australian languages use tripartite marking for their nominals: Dyirbal, Yidiny, Warrgamay, Gumgaynggir, Bandjalang, Wagaya, Yandruwandha, and Kala Lagaw Ya. Another difficulty is that the way tripartite marking operates and manifests varies considerably across Australian languages. In Diyari, only female personal names, plural and derived dual common nouns, 1st and 2nd singular person pronouns as well as both singular and plural 3rd person pronouns have all three case markings (Goddard, 1982). In Yidiny, it is definite and interrogative ‘human’ deictics that have all three forms of case marking, depending on the syntactic context in which they appear (Goddard, 1982). In a similar fashion, in Dyirbal some interrogative elements related to human objects work in all three cases (Goddard, 1982). Languages such as Gabi, Arabana, Kaytej, and Warrgamay are also claimed to have tripartite case marking. Warrgamay, for instance, has tripartite case marking only on the singular 1st and 2nd person pronouns and 3rd person pronouns in all numbers (Goddard, 1982). Given these variations, it seems that establishing a common rule of tripartite marking across all Australian languages is virtually impossible.

No less important is the fact that not all Australian languages have three distinct forms of case marking. This, in turn, complicates the analysis of case forms in Australian languages. In Kala Lagaw Ya, the use of tripartite case marking is sometimes confused with a stylistic model: “Na muy senaki ngapa a moeypunatham – She, the fire, went there and burnt her, the mussel” (Goddard, 1982, p.1982). The noun phrase “Na muy” translated as “She, the fire” is actually the apposition involving a personal pronoun and a noun. It is one of the most common ways in which an apposition in Kala Lagaw Ya works. The basic peculiarity is that in this language, the noun and pronoun in the target phrase must be in the same case (Goddard, 1982). At the same time, non-plural nouns in the accusative form and non-plural names in the ergative form are entirely homonymous with the nominative (Goddard, 1982).

Surprisingly, Blake (1994) does not support the assertion that many Australian languages have tripartite case marking: “it is rare for a language to have both across-the-board ergative marking and across-the-board accusative marking” (p.147). Much more uncommon are situations when certain classes of the nominal actually lack either ergative or accusative marking (Blake, 1994). In Nez Perce, ergative marking is not characteristic of the first and second human objects (Blake, 1994). Yet, in reality, the use of tripartite case marking is much more widespread, although many Australian languages either do not have all three distinct case marking forms or use optional case marking, e.g. in Warluwara and Dyirbal. Many Australian languages do not have tripartite marking, including Western Desert, Ngiymbaa, Guugu Yimidhirr, and others (Goddard, 1982). In spite of these variations, the presence of tripartite case marking and the use of the traditional case analysis forms creates a solid foundation for the development of future theories and theoretical principles of case and case systems. Simultaneously, the limitations of the traditional case interpretations that have been mentioned in this paper should not be ignored.

In sum, it is possible to say that Australian languages are rich in case forms and markings (Blake, 1999). The prevailing majority of Australian languages have sophisticated case systems. However, it is incorrect to limit the discussion of case marking and case systems to verbal inflections (Blake, 1999). In many Australian languages, case marking does not gravitate to verbs. As mentioned previously, in Kala Lagaw Ya, case appositions involving a personal pronoun and a noun are rather widespread (Goddard, 1982). Simultaneously, the absence of distinct three case marking forms in certain Australian languages raises the question of their overall validity. When Blake (1994) states that certain languages lack ergative or accusative marking in nominals, and Goddard (1982) writes that in certain languages ergative and accusative marking is homonymous with nominative, the basic question is how exactly the lack of the distinct case forms should be interpreted. Clearly, the results of these studies leave enough room for elaborations and further analysis. At the same time, future researchers will need to focus on the analysis of case marking and its relation to the semantic and grammatical functions as case marking does not always correlate with the case itself (Blake, 1994).


Australian languages are rich in case, case systems, and forms. For many years case has been one of the central objects of linguistic analysis in Australian languages. The results of recent studies suggest that many Australian languages have tripartite case marking. However, the exact features of these case marking models and their implications for Australian linguistics leave sufficient room for further research. One of the most interesting questions is how tripartite case marking is related to the marking conventions characteristic of a particular Australian language? Another question is how the absence of distinct case markings or the presence of homonymous variations is to be interpreted? The claim that many Australian languages have tripartite case marking has generated valid empirical support. Nevertheless, future researchers need to focus on the analysis of case marking and its relation to grammar and semantics as case marking does not always correlate with the case itself (Blake, 1994).


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