Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In any case

Recently I discovered a new 'case' in the Ik language. 'Case' in linguistics refers to how some languages mark the relationship of nouns to the verb and other words in a sentence. Not all languages have case, for example, English. English usually uses word order to mark relationships, rather than case. Consider the following:

John saw Bill.
Bill saw John.

In these two sentences, the order of the words tells us who is seeing and who is being seen. Though English mostly uses word order, it still has the remnants of a once stronger case system, and these remnants are found in the pronouns:


When using a pronoun, English speakers must choose which of the two forms to use, depending on whether it is a subject or object. We can even mix up the word order and still know what is being meant (though we might start sounding like Yoda...):

I saw him.
Him I saw.
Saw I him.

He saw me.
Me he saw.
Saw he me.

Classic European languages like Greek and Latin had well-developed case systems, as do modern ones like German, Hungarian, and Russian. Case languages are actually quite rare in Africa, but Ik is one of them. Until recently Ik was thought to have seven cases, but a few weeks ago a growing suspicion was confirmed that an eighth case was lurking around! The original seven cases include:

Oblique: the basic, unmarked case
Nominative: the subject case
Accusative: the object case
Genitive: the 'of' case
Dative: the indirect object case
Ablative: the 'from' case
Copulative: the 'it is' case

And...drum roll please...the new case: the Instrumental, the 'with' case!

Okay, so to give you a visual of what case looks like, let's take the example of the words 'tree' and 'trees' in Ik (the small vowels are whispered):

CASE Singular Plural Translation

OBL dakᵘ dakwítín TREE(S)
NOM dakwᵃ dakwítínᵃ tree(s)
ACC dakúkᵃ dakwítíníkᵃ tree(s)
GEN dakwí dakwítíní of the tree(s)
DAT dakúkᵉ dakwítíníkᵉ to the tree(s)
ABL dakúu dakwítínu from the tree(s)
INS daku dakwítínᵘ with the tree(s)
COP dakúkᴼ dakwítíníkᴼ it's the tree(s)

Up to now, linguists had thought that the 'instrumental' and 'ablative' cases were one and the same. It was only in hearing Ik spoken that I began to hear the difference. The thing that really tipped me off was hearing the difference between these two:

Atsá bee deikᵒ 'He came on foot (i.e. 'with feet')
Áts'á bee deikaᴼ 'It bit (me) on the feet (i.e. 'from the feet')

Hearing the different pronunciations of the word 'feet/legs', I knew they couldn't be the same case!

Enough linguistics for now...


The Reeds said...

Wow that is really interesting. You have to have a special brain to figure all of this out. Learning Czech was enough "cases" to last me a life time and frustrated me every day until at last I gave up and just spoke "caseless". I was a rebel like that and just reveled in getting things right "most" of the time.
Happy 4th you two!

Notinthewild said...

What a discovery! It just blows my mind. There's not many "first persons" to discover an ENTIRE CASE in a language anymore. The fact that you are in a place where you could do that AND have the mind/ear that could do that . . . just mind-blowing.

Side note--there is a "copulative" case? funny.

ChadandRachel said...

Yes, do THEY call it copulative? Do they know what they are using???

Really, that is pretty cool. What do they use the oblique case for, I wonder. Looks like the other cases cover most of the functions.

Larry said...

Basically, I'm just amazed..... Awesome Terrill! Nicely done! So excited for you and the translation process.