Does English really have case?

Old English had a complex inflection system, distinguishing various morphological cases in nouns, pronouns and adjectives. Complex cases systems also existed in Latin and still exist in, for example, German and Russian. Over time, most case distinctions have vanished from English. In a 1995 paper Does English Really Have Case? in the Journal of Linguistics, Richard Hudson examined common claims that 3 features of English are the last remaining vestiges of the case system. The claims are that:

  • English distinguishes nominative case (sometimes called subjective) from accusative case (sometimes called objective or oblique), even though that distinction is visible only in nouns, not in pronouns.
  • The forms my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, their/theirs and whose are genitive case forms of the personal pronouns I, you, he, her, it, we and they, and the form whose is the genitive case form of the interrogative /relative pronoun who.
  • The form noun + ’s (eg the king’s) is a genitive case form of the noun (eg king). This form is sometimes known as the Saxon genitive.

Nominative and accusative

Many grammarians have analysed English nouns and pronouns as having one case form for the subject of a verb (nominative case or perhaps subjective case) and a different form for all other uses (accusative case or perhaps objective or oblique case.)

Hudson disagrees with that analysis. In English, the distinction is visible on the surface in only 5 personal pronouns (I vs me; he vs him; she vs her; we vs us; they vs them) and (for some speakers, but mainly in formal language) in the pronoun who vs whom. It is not visible in any nouns. Hudson sees no justification for saying that all nouns have two morphologically different case forms (that happen to be identical in all instances) solely because a distinction does exist for some pronouns.

Hudson concedes that the forms I; he; she; we; us; they and who are distinct from their counterparts (me; him; her; us; them and (for some speakers) whom. But he disagrees that this distinction reflects a difference in cases. He states that the distribution of ‘nominative’ (or ‘subjective’) forms differs greatly from what we see in languages that do clearly have what Hudson calls ‘proper’ morphological case.

For example, some speakers consistently use only the form I as the only subject of a tensed verb, as in sentence (1) below but in all other cases (for instance, in (1) below) use only the form me.
(1) ‘Well, what have I said about you then?’
(2) ‘Yeah but me and Catherine really don’t talk about you know.’

In contrast, in languages with ‘proper’ morphological case, people use the ‘nominative’ form for all subjects, even in a co-ordination structure. In sentence (2), they would say the the equivalent of Catherine and I, not me and Catherine. (In this post, I won’t discuss the difference in word order between I and Catherine and Catherine and I. I suspect the latter form results from explicit formal instruction in norms of politeness and humility.)

Are my/mine genitive case forms?

Many grammarians have analysed my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, their/theirs and whose as genitive case forms of the personal pronouns (I, you, he, her, it, we and they) or of the interrogative /relative pronoun (who). Hudson provides the following arguments against that analysis:

  1. The forms such as my / mine behave like determiners, not like forms of the related personal pronoun. For example:
    • Any singular common count noun must be preceded by a determiner. For instance, sentence (3) is acceptable, but only because it contains an item such as a, the or every (which are all determiners).
      (3) I bought a / the / every cheap book
      My, your, his, her, its, your can appear in the same position as determiners, but pronouns such as I/me, you, he/him, she/her, they/them cannot appear there. This suggests that my, your etc are determiners (and I, you etc are not determiners).
    • Only one determiner may precede any noun phrase (a phrase headed by a noun). Sentence (4) is unacceptable because it places 2 determiners before the noun:
      (4) *the my house
    • My and mine are variants of a single form (as are each of her/hers, our/ours and your/yours). In each case, the first form precedes an overt noun but the second form is used when no such noun follows. The forms my and mine alternate in the same way, and under the same conditions, as no and none, as in sentences (5) and (6). This suggests that my and no belong to the same class of words. No is a determiner, not a personal pronoun.
      (5) I have no books / I have my book
      (6) I have none / I have mine
    • For some languages, it would be hard to argue that items such as my are genitive forms of personal pronouns referring to the possessor. For example, consider German sentence (7).
      (7) Er liebt seinen Sohn.
      (He loves his son.)  
      The suffix -en on the form seinen is accusative, agreeing with the case (accusative) of the possessed item (the son), not with the case (nominative) of the possessor (the father). So seinen is clearly not a genitive form of the pronoun er referring to the possessor.

Pronouns and determiners

Hudson goes on to make a broader point, though one that he views as not crucial to his argument that my / mine are not inflected forms of I / me. He contends that:

  • the items often called determiners are in fact a sub-class of pronouns: pronouns that precede an overt noun
  • the items often called pronouns are in fact a different sub-class of pronouns: pronouns not preceding an overt noun

In another post, I summarised a somewhat similar argument by Paul Postal. Postal analysed the items generally called pronouns as a definite article followed by a silent noun. (the definite article is one type of what is sometimes called determiners.) https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/11/so-called-pronouns-in-english/

Is the Saxon genitive a case form?

Many grammarians have analysed the ‘Saxon genitive’ form ending in -’s as the genitive case of the related noun. Hudson argues that this analysis is untenable. The form attaches not to a noun but to the last word in a noun phrase. In example (8), the noun phrase consists of just a single noun, and –’s attaches to that. In example (9) –’s attaches to the noun England at the end of the noun phrase. And in example (10) –’s  attaches to the word there at the end of the phrase and this word isn’t even a noun.
(8) the king’s wife
(9) the King of England’s wife
(10) the man over there’s wife

Hudson analyses the form –’s as a possessive pronoun that must, unusually, follow the related noun phase (eg King of England in example (9)). That pronoun is a clitic. A clitic is: a word that, although separate, is phonologically dependent on another word—in this case, the last word in the attached noun phrase.  

Later analysis of possessive pronouns

In later analysis, Hudson (2019) argues that all possessive pronouns (such as my, your, its, whose) are a combination of two pronouns: one ordinary personal pronoun and the possessive pronoun +’s. Thus my = *me + ’s; your = *you + ’s; its = it + ’s and whose = who + ’s. This possessive pronoun combines freely with those ordinary pronouns just as it does with full noun phrases (the king of England +s). That analysis appears in Arguments against the universality of D and determiners, Richard Hudson. This is a chapter written (apparently in 2018) for inclusion in: The Oxford Handbook of Determiners, edited by Solveiga Armoskaite & Martina Wiltschko (not yet published). Downloaded from Papers | Richard (‘Dick’) Hudson (dickhudson.com) on 16 November 2021.

Conclusion

Hudson concludes that modern English does not have morphological case.

One comment

  1. When I lived in Newfoundland, it was noteworthy for being probably the last place in the anglophone world to observe the distinction between “ye” and “you”. “Ye” is nominative, while “you” is accusative or dative, as in “ye have the poor with you always” (Matthew 18:20).

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