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Latin 112/113: The Cases
For further discussion see the relevant entries in the "Glossary of English-Latin Grammar" on pp. xvii-xxiii of the Reading Latin grammar.
In Latin, word order is not nearly so central to meaning as it is in English: the grammatical function of an individual noun or pronoun in Latin is indicated by its form rather than by its position within the sentence. (Contrast English, where "The man bit the dog" is quite a different thing from "The dog bit the man." On the other hand, modern English still retains some elements of such a system: that is why one must say, "I go to the store" rather than "Me go to the store.")
Each of the various functions performed by nouns or pronouns in a Latin sentence is associated with one of six cases (the nominative case, the accusative case, the genitive case, the dative case, the ablative case, and the vocative case) and, according to the nature of the particular noun or pronoun, each case takes a particular form (as in the difference between English "I" and "me").
The case of the noun or pronoun, as indicated by its particular form, will tell you whether the noun is the subject of the sentence (the person or thing performing the action or, in more general terms, the subject under discussion: e.g., in the example above, whether the dog or the man is doing the biting), the direct object (the person or thing receiving the action: in the example above, just who is being bitten), the indirect object, etc.
Below is a brief outline of the basic grammatical functions associated with each case. Over the course of the year, you will need to develop a more nuanced sense of how each of the cases functions, but this outline should provide you with an initial general guide to how they tend to be used and the contexts in which they tend to appear. [FN 1]
- The Nominative Case (Nom.)
- Names the subject of the sentence — i.e., the person or thing performing the action or under discussion. Tends to answer the question, "Who/what did it?"
- In English, the subject of the sentence tends to come first: the main exception are questions, where the interrogative word tends to be placed first for emphasis.
- The lions killed the gazelle.
- The crowd went wild.
- The girls were frightened.
- Jim has been sent to Paris.
- Whom did he kill?
- The nominative case is also used when another noun, pronoun, or adjective refers back to the subject of the sentence. A good example of this is the complement after the verb "to be."
- Jim is president of our club. (Both "Jim" and "president" refer to the subject of the sentence, so both would be in the nominative case.)
- As a rule of thumb, the nominative will be used whenever you are referring to the subject of the sentence.
- The Accusative Case (Acc.)
- The accusative case in Latin is associated with three main functions:
- Names the direct object — the person or thing towards which the action of a transitive verb is directed.
- The lions killed the gazelle.
- Jim assigned homework to the class.
- This is the most common use of the accusative. Note that, generally speaking, leaving out the direct object will leave you without a complete thought: in the second example above, the statement, "Jim assigned," doesn't mean very much.
- Names the goal of motion — the person or thing towards which one is moving.
- Jim went to the store.
- She ran toward the house.
- We approached the girls.
- It is perhaps useful to imagine the accusative in this sense as a wall toward which one is heading.
- In a sense, this use is very like the use of the accusative to indicate the direct object: in each instance the accusative names that person or thing toward which the action is aimed.
- Indicates the extent to which an action endures, in either temporal or geographical terms.
- He slept for three days.
- We ran six miles.
- In each instance, the accusative indicates that the action endured without a break: i.e., for three whole days and for six continuous miles.
- It is perhaps useful to imagine the accusative in this sense as a line, indicating the space — geographical or chronological — throughout which the action endures.
- The Genitive Case (Gen.)
- The genitive is best thought of as the "adjectival" case: it is used when one wishes to employ one noun to specify something about another. There are many different specific uses of the genitive, but most of them will be translated into English through the use of the preposition "of."
- Dorothy and the Scarecrow found a man of tin. (The genitive of material. Notice how "of tin" uses the noun "tin" to describe the man in more detail: one could just as easily have employed "tin" as an adjective instead ["a tin man"].)
- A person of great intelligence (i.e., "an intelligent person": the genitive of quality or descriptive genitive)
- The house of Euclio [= "Euclio's house"] (the possessive genitive: a very common use)
- Three of us (the partitive genitive)
- The love of God is not earned but is granted freely. (A subjective genitive: it implies the notion that "God loves," where "God" is the subject of the verb implied by the abstract verbal noun "love.")
- The love of fine wines killed him. (An objective genitive: it implies the notion that "he loved fine wines," where "fine wines" is the object of the verb implied by the abstract verbal noun "love.")
- He accuses me of theft. (the genitive of the charge)
- The Dative Case (Dat.)
- The dative case is in some ways the most abstract of the cases and one of the hardest for English speakers to conceptualize. In general, the dative indicates a person or thing who is somehow interested in or affected by the action in some immediate way.
- Consistently, the dative will be translated via the English "to" or "for."
- The most concrete (and most common) use of the dative is to indicate the indirect object.
- He gave the pot to Euclio. (Here, "he" is the subject and "pot" is the direct object; "to Euclio" indicates the person in whose interest the action was conducted.)
- Warning: English speakers, hearing the word "to," will immediately make an association with the idea of motion. But motion toward something, as we have seen, is the province of the accusative case: the dative is never used to indicate the goal of motion except in poetic texts (and even there it doesn't literally indicate motion but rather implies it). In Latin, the sentence in the above example indicates that the action was undertaken in Euclio's interest or to his advantage or in some way that affected him. The best way to illustrate this is to consider some other examples:
- He took the pot from Euclio. (Here, "from Euclio" would again be in the dative in Latin, indicating that the action immediately concerned Euclio, this time to his disadvantage. As we will see below, if the Roman speaker wanted to say literally that the person removed the pot from Euclio's vicinity, he/she would employ the ablative case.)
- This is difficult for me (i.e., so far as I am concerned).
- He seemed to me to be a fool.
- The most abstract use of the dative is the so-called ethical dative, which indicates that the statement is offered for someone's consideration (often, but not always, with an implication of irony or indignation) or as something that concerns him/her. Modern English readers would perhaps be most likely to run into this dative in the works of Shakespeare or other Elizabethan authors.
- I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, 'Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.' (I Henry IV II.iv.113-15)
- at tibi repente venit ad me Caninius. ["But — I tell you!/Can you believe it?! — Caninius suddenly came to me!"]
- The Ablative Case (Abl.)
- The ablative case in Latin is associated with three main functions:
- The "true" ablative, indicating separation (as the name implies)
- She departed from the station.
- They got out of town.
- Note that, as in the second example, the idea of separation is often associated with the genitive in English: hence the use of the word "of." Latin consistently employs the ablative in contexts where the idea of separation is implied. (For an apparent exception, see above on the so-called "dative of disadvantage.")
- The ablative used to indicate location in a specific spot or a rigorously defined area
- They are in the house.
- We sat on the chair.
- He slept under the bench.
- It is perhaps useful to imagine the ablative in this sense as a specific point or as a point within a well-defined region.
- The ablative indicating instrument (or means) or accompaniment
- They hit me with a stick. (instrument/means)
- I do not write well with a pencil. (instrument/means)
- We went to the store with our friends. (accompaniment)
- He sang with great gusto. (accompaniment: the ablative of manner)
- We will find that, where English employs "with" in each of the above sentences, the Latin involves quite distinct constructions.
- The Vocative Case (Voc.)
- The vocative case is used to address someone or something directly.
- Such addresses stand outside of the construction of the sentence and are really a type of interjection.
- The vocative is easily recognized: it generally looks exactly like the nominative (the main exception: the vocative singular of second-declension nouns in -us) and is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
- Get over here, Jim!
- Jim, you have got to be the laziest person on the planet.
- Jim, they're over here! (Here "Jim" is quite clearly a cry to get Jim's attention, since "Jim" plays no role in the sentence proper.)
- Have you seen the neighbor's cat, Jim? (where it is assumed that the neighbor's cat is not named Jim)
- Note on Prepositions
- A number of the above case usages involve the use of prepositional phrases in English — that is, the English translation employs a combination of a preposition and a noun ("to the store," "of tin," "for me," "in the house," "with a stick," etc.).
- Latin also uses prepositions, but not as extensively as does English. Often the use of a noun in a specific case all by itself will indicate a notion that in modern English requires a prepositional phrase. That is, the case of the noun all by itself, in accordance with the principles set out above, conveys the sense of the modern English prepositional phrase.
English once had such usages but dropped them for the most part. Consider the following expressions:
- here (= "at this place")
- hither (= "to this place")
- hence (= "from this place")
- there (= "at that place")
- thither (= "to that place")
- thence (= "from that place")
- where (= "at what place")
- whither (= "to what place")
- whence (= "from what place")
- When Latin does employ a prepositional phrase, the preposition in effect merely reinforces the sense that is already inherent, in some fashion, in the form of the noun itself.
[FN 1] The word case comes from the Latin word for a falling (casus), since each of the cases after the nominative tended to be written in an indented column underneath the nominative case and so seemed to be "falling" or cascading down from it. By the same logic, the non-nominative cases (accusative, genitive, dative, ablative) are often referred to as the oblique cases. [Return to text]
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