How did the first case-endings develop?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by sethmachine, Jun 7, 2008.

  1. sethmachine Banned

    How on earth did case-endings develop, as in, how did humans who developed synthetic languages determine what their case endings would that responded to a particular (as in what were the declension patterns of nouns, etc.) grammatical function of a word in a sentence? Did they associate certain sounds with certain cases? Were the very first languages synthetic?
  2. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    The case endings most likely once were particles of any kind (articles, pronouns, etc.) agglutinated to the stem.

    For Indoeuropean language there is (as far as I know) no proof yet that the case endings indeed were developped from particles which once had a meaning of their own, but it is highly likely.
  3. sethmachine Banned

    My question is not from what structures case-endings/particles came from. My question is HOW did early humans choose what SOUNDS to associate with a participle/case endings/etc.
  4. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    What makes you think there was any conscious choice involved?
    It seems also that you're assuming that the sounds in case endings are not arbitrary. If so, why do you assume that?
  5. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Why would they?

    We have no idea at all about when 'the very first languages' were spoken. Estimates range between 2.000.000 and 40.000 years ago. The first inscriptions date from (roughly) 3.500 BC. In either case, that's an awful lot of time about which we don't know anything what language is concerned.

    What do you mean by 'early humans'?
    And why would they choose sounds to associate with particles/case endings?


  6. J.F. de TROYES Senior Member

    The arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign is at the present time recognized by all linguists. The association between the sounds of a word and its meaning is arbitrary and changes from a language to another, but this is true for grammatical marks as well and I think there was never a conscious choice of a sound prefered to another to note a case or anything else related to the grammar.
  7. sethmachine Banned

    Then explain for example how a language such as Latin or Russian has its sounds corresponding to their many declensions? Where do the declensions originally trace from (in a language such as Latin)?
  8. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)

    What do you mean by this: "has its sounds corresponding to their many declensions"?
    Proto-Indo-European... Where the speakers of (P)IE got it from? No idea.

    The idea of a correspondence between a sound and a case ending (let's say the accusative) is a bit underminded by the fact that Latin (and other languages) has several different accusative endings, no?


  9. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    "How on earth did case-endings develop?"

    I share sethmachine's astonishment at the fact that older (dead?) languages seem to be more complicated than newer (living) ones. It seems to me that there must have been a time—at the origin of language—when language must have been much simpler. Since then, it seems to have followed (roughly) a bell curve, first toward complexity, now on the downslope toward simplicity.
    Your thoughts?
  10. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Perhaps you can helps us to define complexity. We've been trying to in this other thread. :)
  11. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    "Perhaps you can helps us to define complexity."

    While acknowledging that, ultimately, complexity is in the ear of the listener, I would categorize the following languages with which I am familiar, based on the number of their verb-forms, from most "complex" to least:
    Homeric Greek (3 moods, several aspects, endings for 3 persons + dual & plural, and more)
    Classical Latin (only 2 moods, no dual, somewhat less complex)
    Russian (personal endings in present, very simple past tense, I've forgotten the rest)
    French (perhaps equally as complex as Russian, but with differences)
    Spanish (verbs so highly inflected that pronouns are not necessary, but highly consistent)
    English (verbs hardly inflected at all)

    But one can argue that the existence of the phrasal verb in English (and in none of the others) might turn this list on its head.

    Perhaps the simplicity-complexity dichotomy is a dog that don't hunt.
  12. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The case of the lost dual is interesting because if happened not only in IE languages. In Semitic languages the dual is not completely but almost lost (e.g. Hebrew uses it only for some usually pair-wise occurring objects, like legs or eyes).

    One might conjecture (there is no proof, of course) that for early humans it was perfectly sufficient to distinguish only 3 numbers in communication, 1, 2 and many. And as the complexity of what people wanted to express with language increased, it became useful to distinguish different numbers by dedicated words (one, two, three, ...) rather than by inventing new inflections. Similar mechanisms might be surmised to have played a role in the reduction of cases and the substitution of case distinctions by prepositions (e.g. de/of/von to replace the possessive genitive) in many IE languages.
  13. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    Either the most dominant members or those with the most communicative body language made up the sounds they found fitted what they wanted to say and the rest began imitating them. How do you make up sounds for something, when you don't even know it is going to be a language, because you don't know what a language is?

    Intuition ... simple as that, I'd say. Most basic words in a language - eat, drink, man, woman, domestic huntable animals are more often than not very short words. Most prepositions are too. Short little sounds, that somebody made up and that were imitated by others become parts of other words, and there you have your endings. I don't think there is any scientific proof that it happened this way, but other animals that do not have a real language (yet) seem to develop their sometimes relatively communicative sounds that way too. Remember, within the same species, the sounds they make in a given situation can differ considerably in different regions.
  14. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Here is an interesting historical example. Proto-Indo-European had eight noun cases, which have been reduced in number or even completely lost in most of the modern IE languages. However, the now extinct Tocharian languages presented an interesting counterexample to this trend. They first reduced the PIE case system to only three cases (nominative, genitive, and a generic oblique case). However, they later developed no less than six additional cases by fusing various postpositions onto the oblique case of the noun, and ended up increasing the number of cases to nine, greater than even the original PIE.

    These new cases still had regular structure from which it's plainly obvious how they developed. However, if the language had continued to be spoken for a while longer, sound changes and contractions would have doubtlessly made them more irregular and less transparent, just like the original PIE cases or, say, the Latin or Slavic ones.
  15. keizers New Member

    English - US
    The first answer was actually the best. No one and sat down and decided the series of case and verb endings for Russian, Latin, or German.

    Case endings are in most cases the unrecognizable remnants of postpositions or words placed after the nouns. For the endings in Latin or Russian, we don't have information about the original words that were there that were contracted.

    Check "The Unfolding of Language" by Guy Deutscher. Excellent book explaining this in laymen's terms.

    We can see this in action in Japanese, where a postposition "o" follows the noun to indicate accusative case. All that is needed is that this "o" is included as part of the noun, for it to be considered an accusative case ending.

    In informal Dutch, possession is indicated with the word "z'n" (pronounced "suh") after a male - or "d'r" after a female. "Peter z'n boek" - Peter's book. "Petra d'r boek - Petra's book. All that is needed is for "zn" or "dr" to be part of the nominative noun (Peterzn or Petradr) , and voila! you have a case ending.

    But you could make the comparison with verb conjugation. In Latin we know teh future tense endings of verbs in Spanish, French, etc. are forms of the Latin verb "habeo", which means "must". These forms of habeo ("Dicere habeo", I must/will say) have been condensed down to a few letters in Spanish ("diré").

    In American English something similar is happening today, albeit at the front of the verb. The future tense of "to take" is "I will take", but in parallel we have the form "I'm going to take", which in everyday speech is "I'm gonna take" and now in urban slang "Ima take". (Check the Black Eyed Peas song "Imma be"). It's not hard to imagine a hundred years from now, the official future tense in American English could be "Ima" + the verb stem. ("imatake", "yougawn take", "hegawntake", "wegawntake", "daygawntake").

    "The only static language is a dead one"
  16. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Something similar also happened in Austrian German dialects where, by rights, we could and should speak of inflected conjunctions "in the making":

    - German "wenn" = "when" = Austrian (dialectal) "waun", used as a temporal conjunction, is used like that:

    "Tell me when you've got time" (re-formulated below in a way to give all tenses and persons; written for the most part "non-phonetical", in a way that German native speakers should be able to actually understand the sentences even when never exposed to Austrian dialects - as the pronunciation doesn't matter in this case; the agglutinated word is given after the sentence; the "short" version given of the PP is a version of it in unstressed position used in those dialects):

    - I sog da, waun-ɪ Zeit hob. - personal pronoun: /i/ "I", short /ɪ/
    - Sog ma, waun-st Zeit host. - personal pronoun: /du/ "you (sg.)" (obviously in analogy to the verbal ending for 2nd person "-st")
    - Sie sogt da, waun-s Zeit hot. - personal pronoun: /sie/ "she" (the same form would be used for neuter - "it" - but a sentence with neuter PP wouldn't make sense with this particular sentence)
    - Er sogt da, waun-a Zeit hot. - personal pronoun: /ea/ "he", short /a/
    - Mia sogn da, waum-ma Zeit haum. - personal pronoun: /mia/ "we", short /ma/ (here with regressive assimilation)
    - Es sogts uns, waun-s Zeit hobts. - personal pronoun: /es/ "you (pl.)", short /s/
    - Se sogn(d) uns, waun-s Zeit haum(d)*). - personal pronoun: /se/ "they"

    *) On a side note: this final "d" is the ending of older, more original dialect, but is dropped by many speakers of the younger generation.

    So in all cases except for 2nd person singular /-st/ the "short" version of the personal pronoun is agglutinated to the stem of the word; however, the fact that for 2nd person singular an analogy was made to conjugation endings of the verb very clearly indicates that native speakers do not see a word boundary there - so thus the analysis of "inflection in the making", or should we already say "inflected conjunctions"?! :)

    This feature is very common and still very much alive - it is even used by many who speak a colloquial variety of Austrian German which, phonetically, is closer to (Austrian) standard language but morphologically and grammatically contains still a vast set of features taken from the dialects - those "inflected conjunctions" being one of them.

    Another one like that - "ob" ("if"):

    "Tell me if you've got time":
    - I sog da, ob-ɪ Zeit hob.
    - Sog man, ob-st Zeit host.
    etc. etc.

    (The "endings" are very regular for all conjunctions. :))
  17. keizers New Member

    English - US
    Sokol, I love it! Conjugating conjunctions!

    BTW I forgot to mention that in my Dutch example, there's actually an excellent example of destruction of forms and construction of forms simultaneously:

    Older, still correct but formal style: Peters boek
    Most common standard style: Het boek van Peter
    Informal: Peter z'n boek (pronounced "Peter s' boek")

    The older style shows the classic Germanic case ending s
    The middle style is like Romance languages using a prepositional phrase
    The style is building back up the case ending again!

    Incidentally Afrikaans uses "Peter se boek"!
  18. clevermizo Moderator

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    This is the most satisfying answer to the OP's very...erm... unanswerable question. However, as time travel may not contradict the laws of physics, we may yet find out.

    Language learning is part imitation and part construction/generalization on the part of the learner. The question as to "how on earth did humans decide on what sounds to associate with cases" is basically the same question as "how on earth did humans decide on how to say anything". Considering not all languages in the world either in modern times or in antiquity are case-inflected language - basically what the OP is asking is how did language develop.

    Good question. Again, see my snide comment about time travel above.

    Also, I would like to say that wondering how "primitive" or "ancient" people's spoke more complicated languages, despite inferior technology or knowledge or what have, is fruitless. Firstly, there is no evidence that they categorically spoke languages any more "complicated" than anything found today because complexity is undefined, and secondly, when it comes to the hardware and software of being human (such as the capacity for language, thinking, etc.) - this is all at least 150,000 or so years old. I could (with time travel, of course), kidnap a human baby from 50,000 years ago and raise it in the modern age, and they would be fluent in English and have a PhD in Quantum Physics. At least if what genetics and paleontology tell us is true.

    I always find things like this fascinating.:D Out of curiosity, what does the z'n derive from?
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2010
  19. keizers New Member

    English - US
    From unstressed "zijn"= "his"
  20. keizers New Member

    English - US
    Hmmm and if I er, um, may be so bold as to interpret the original poster's question I read from it the assumption that for synthetic languages, people "sat down" and invented the complex endings for declensions and conjugations. Linguistics now more or less knows that these are the results of postpositions and words which are squeezed together at the ends of words. I am not a linguist, so to read Deutscher's book and finally see this answer, was like seeing the light after 35 years of learning languages, including most recently Russian. Where you just keep wondering, how could someone invent something SO complex!?!
  21. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    This is an interesting phenomenon. The "his genitive", as it is called, developed several times independently in West Germanic. In English it came up around 1500 and disappeared about 200 years later. Some people thought that the Saxon genitive developed out of it (i.e. Peter his book > Peter 's book > Peter's book); this can easily be disproved (the -es > -s genitive has always existed in English) but is a plausible story and it could have developed this way. Most High German dialects know this form (Peter sein Buch and many dialectal variants). In Low German (Peter sin bok) it is even the regular genitive since the original genitive as in existed in Middle Low German died out.
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2010
  22. keizers New Member

    English - US
    Fascinating. On Wikipedia (forgive me!) I see that the "his genitive" was extremely common around 1680 and almost forgotten twenty years later. I not only learned something new about the history of English, but also learned that English was changing very rapidly at that time. I'm assuming that without the "straightjacket" of standardized spelling and dictionaries, the written language was more dynamic. If we were in the same situation today, no doubt phrases like "I'm going to go the store" would be considered almost archaic and in Time magazine we'd see "I'm gonna go to the store" and the youth of today would, without any hint of shame, write, "Imanago d'tha store".
  23. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It is indeed astonishing that the form died out in less than a generation after being around for 200 year. And it has not sub-standard. On the cover pages of some Shakespeare first quartos and first folios you find the "as it has sundry times been performed by the Lord Chamberlain his servants" (quoted from memory). These were not Shakespeare's words but those of the printer... but nevertheless....

    English spelling was already quite standardized at the time. The standardization happened mainly in that 15th century (Chancery English).

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