Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.


This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.


1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

It’s all Greek to me!


Or, How No Language is Any More (or Less) Difficult than Any Other

Lessons I learned from Latin

How did Latin speakers remember which case a word goes in, and its form, as they spoke? We probably all wondered about this question at some time or another. I remember studying Latin in middle school (it’s mandatory in Italy) and being absolutely baffled at the thought that such a byzantine language could have been spoken fluently at some time in the past as I struggled to learn by heart dozens of declension tables as well as lists of environments which required the presence of some case or another (and even longer lists of exceptions to those lists!). The Romans must have been geniuses with prodigious memories who would probably find Italian a ridiculously simple and unsophisticated language to learn.

Then one day, in high school, I stumbled upon a textbook which used a different method to teach Latin from the one I was used to: it taught it as a living language. No more declension tables, no more long lists of baroque rules, no more grand examples of complicated rhetorical stylings; instead, it had everyday dialogues, going from simpler to more complex, and bite-sized grammar sections. Suddenly, Latin became easy: with the help of a dictionary, I could read and write in it with a reasonable degree of proficiency (which, alas, I’ve largely lost).

Had I become a genius? Did I start seeing my native Italian as a boorish, simplified version of the language of Rome? Absolutely not. All that changed was the way the language had been taught to me. That was the day I learned that no language is any more difficult than any other. Also, everything’s easier when you learn it as a baby, and the Romans spoke Latin since they were born, no declension tables necessary.

Latin is by no means the only language to be considered particularly difficult: we’ve all heard how difficult it is to learn Chinese, with all those ideographs[1] to learn, and with words being so ambiguous and whatnot; or Finnish, which has 15 cases and innumerable verbal inflections. Also, it’s a national pastime for everyone[2] to regard their language as the most complex to learn for foreigners, because that makes you feel oh-so-intelligent.

The idea that some languages are inherently more complex than others is, unsurprisingly, another legacy of the dastardly Victorians and their colonialist obsession with ethnocentric nationalism.

It was, of course, in the interest of Eurocentric racists to paint foreign languages as being either primitively simple and unsophisticated, or bizarrely and unnecessarily complicated (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read our post on phonaesthetics a few weeks ago, where we found out that the same reasoning was applied to how a language sounds.

Those Victorians… never happy until they’ve enslaved, massacred or culturally neutered someone different from them. Bless their little hearts.

Scientists estimate that a greater-than-average amount of moustache-twirling went into the making of this linguistic prejudice

My task today is showing you how this is not really true at all, and how your failure to realise your dream of learning Ahkwesásne Mohawk is more due to a lack of proper learning materials rather than any difficulty inherent in the language itself.

It all depends on your point of view

So, am I saying that all languages are equally simple in all their aspects? Well, no. While all languages are more or less equally complex, how that complexity is distributed changes from language to language. For example, while it is undeniably true that Finnish is far more morphologically complex than English, phonologically speaking English makes it look like toddler babbling.

Amazingly, although complexity might be distributed differently from language to language, overall the different parts balance out to make languages more or less as complex as each other. We don’t really know how this happens: various mechanisms have been proposed, but they all have fatal flaws. It is one of the great mysteries of linguistics.[3]

“But why do I find French so difficult, Riccardo?” you scream through a haze of tears as you once again fail to understand how the past subjunctive is of any use in any language ever. Well, the answer is that how difficult a language is to learn for you depends on your first language. Specifically, the more similar two languages are in their distribution of complexity, the easier it is for speakers of each to learn the other. If the languages are related, then it becomes even easier.[4] So, Mandarin Chinese might well be very difficult to learn for an English speaker, due to its very simple morphology, rigid syntactic structure and tonal phonology; but, say, a Tibetan speaker would find it much easier to learn than English, because the two languages are distantly related, and therefore have similar structure.

The moral of the story

And so, once again, we come to the end of a post having dispelled another widespread linguistic misconception.

Even though these myths might seem rather innocuous, they have real and sometimes very serious consequences. The idea that some languages are more or less complex or difficult to learn than others has, over the centuries, been used to justify nationalist, racist, and xenophobic sentiments which have ultimately resulted in suffering and sometimes even genocide.

What we need to do with languages is learn them, share them, preserve them, and speak them, not pitting them against each other in a competition over which is the best, most “logical”, most difficult or better-sounding one.

So enjoy the amazing diversity of human languages, people!

Stay tuned for next week, when Sabina will answer the old question: is English really three languages stacked upon each other wearing a trenchcoat?

  1. They’re not actually ideographs, they’re logographs, but that’s a topic for another post.
  2. Except for English speakers, who, for various reasons, have convinced themselves that their language is stupid, unsophisticated, illogical and boring. More on this in a future post.
  3. It is important to note that this rule does not apply to pidgins and (young) creoles, due to the way they were formed, as pointed out by John McWhorter (2011). These languages truly are simpler than all others. This, however, does NOT make them any more “primitive” or “less expressive”.
  4. Paradoxically, if two languages are TOO closely related, it becomes slightly more difficult for their speakers to learn the other, because they tend to over-rely on the similarities and end up tripping up on the differences.

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

Today, I’m going to talk about language families! When I say this, I believe that most of you will have, on some level, an intuitive hunch about what I mean. If we were to compare a couple of common words found in, for example, Spanish and Italian, we would find that they are often very similar or, in some cases, even identical. Take a look:

Spanish Italian English translation
vivir vivere live
boca bocca mouth
tu you

Similarly, if we were to look at Swedish, Danish and Norwegian:

Swedish Danish Norwegian English translation
leva leve leve live
mun mund munn mouth
du du du you

You see the similarities? Now, why is that, you might wonder. Well, because they are related!

In the linguistic world, related languages are languages that have so much in common that we cannot claim that it is merely due to extensive contact and/or borrowing. These languages, we say, are so similar that there can be no other reasonable explanation than that they descend from a common source: a mother language, as it were. In the case of Spanish and Italian, the mother is Latin, while in the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, the language is Old Norse.

Now, it would be convenient if it stopped there, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it doesn’t. Like any family, the mother also has a mother and other relatives, like siblings and cousins. Old Norse, for example, has its own sisters: Old High German, Old Frisian, Old English, etc., which all share the same mother: Proto-Germanic. This is the Germanic language family.

Spanish and Italian also have sisters: French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., and their common mother is Latin. This is the Romance language family, deriving from Vulgar Latin. But, of course, Latin has its own sisters, for example Umbrian and Oscan, and together with its sisters, Latin forms the Italic language family.

Does it feel a bit confusing? Well, that’s understandable and I’m going to kick it up a notch by adding that the Italic language family, with languages like Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic language family, with languages like Swedish and Danish, actually have the same mother: Proto-Indo-European (or just Indo-European).

The mother in this case is veeeery old, and we actually don’t have any kind of evidence of how it looked! Indo-European is a reconstructed language, more commonly known as a proto-language (as you may have noticed, we call the mother of the Germanic family Proto-Germanic, meaning that it is also a reconstructed language). It has never been heard, never been recorded and no one speaks it. Then how the heck do we know anything about it, right? Well, that has to do with something called the comparative method, which we’ll explain in another post.  

Like human families, language families can be represented in the form of a family tree:*

Clear? Well, hate to tell you this, but this is an extremely simplified version using only examples from these two subfamilies. The “real” Indo-European language family tree looks somewhat more like this:1

You’re kinda hating me right now, aren’t you?

As you can see by the tree above, some languages that you might never expect are actually related. Let’s take as an example Standardised Hindi and German. Here are some common words in both languages:

German Hindi English translation
Mädchen लड़की (ladakee) girl
Hallo नमस्ते (namaste) hello
Hunger भूख (bhookh) hunger

Looking at these words, it is unlikely that you would draw the conclusion that the two languages are related. Looking at the language tree, however, you can see that linguists have concluded they are. Now, you’re probably staring at your screen going “whaaaat?” but, indeed, they are both descendants of Indo-European and are therefore related.

While Indo-European is clearly a large group of languages, it is not the only one (or even the largest). Looking a bit closer at the Indo-European language family, you will notice that languages such as Mandarin and Finnish are not included. These belong to other families, in this case the Sino-Tibetan and Finno-Ugric (or Uralic, depending on your definition) language families respectively.

All in all, there are approximately 130 language families in the world today. Some are related, some are not, just like we are. The largest family is the Niger-Congo language family, having (as recorded in 2009) 1,532 languages belonging to it. (Indo-European comes in a poor 4th place with approximately 439 languages.)2

So, looking at languages is kinda like looking at your own family tree: every mother will have a mother (or father, if you want, but traditionally, linguists call them mothers and daughters). Some branches will have siblings, cousins, second cousins and so on. Some will look nothing like their relatives (or, well, little anyway) and some will be strikingly similar. That’s just the way families work, right?

So, now, we’ve reached a point where I can answer the question in the title: Is English a Romance language?

While this is a much-debated question (do a google search and see for yourself), the simple answer is: no, it’s not. At least, not to a linguist. Now, you might be sitting at home, getting more and more confused because a lot of English vocabulary can be traced back to Latin (the word ‘vocabulary’ being one of those words, actually).

But when linguists say that a language is a Romance language, we are referring to the relationship illustrated in the tree structure, i.e. the language has Latin as its mother. English, then, despite having borrowed a substantial part of its vocabulary from Latin (and later from the Latin language French), it is not in itself a daughter of Latin. English is a daughter of Proto-Germanic, thus, it is a Germanic language.

However, Latin and Proto-Germanic are both daughters of Indo-European. Latin and English are therefore clearly related, but the relationship is more like that of a beloved aunt rather than a mother (if, you know, the beloved aunt refused to recognise you as a person unless you imitated her).

At the end of the day, languages are like any other family: some relationships are strong, some are weak, some are close, some are not.

Tune in next week when Riccardo will delve into another branch of language families: constructed languages.

Notes and sources

*The structure employed here, showing languages as families in family trees, has long been criticized for simply not showing a lot of information like contact-situations, dialect continuums and when the languages were spoken. It has, however, been used to show the beginning student that some languages are related to each other and how they are related in a way that is easy and comprehensible. The Historical Linguist Channel does, however, recognise this criticism and would be happy to discuss it in a separate post or through personal communication.  

1Provided by Ancient History Encyclopedia (Published on 19th of January, 2013).

2Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: (Family index is reached through