Noun: Category of case in modern English grammars

March 30th, 20128:01 am


Noun: Category of case in modern English grammars

In Modern English the problem of case is reduced to the dispute whether the case category exists as such. Open to thought and questioning, this prob­lem has always been much debated. The solution of the problem depends mainly on grammarians’ interpretation of the term “case”. As we will see below, some scholars consider it to be possible to speak only of case as a paradigm of a word formed by synthetic markers, i.e. by endings. Other scientists believe that the term “analytical case” is justified: analytical cases are formed by prepositions introducing a noun.

This category is expressed in English by the opposition of the form -‘s, usually called the possessive case, or more traditionally, the genitive case, to the unfeatured form of the noun, usually called the common case. The apostrophized -s serves to distinguish in writing the singular noun in the possessive case from the plural noun in the common case: the man s duty, the President s decision. The possessive of the bulk of plural nouns remains phonetically unexpressed: the few exceptions concern only some of the ir­regular plurals: the actresses ‘dresses, the mates ‘help, the children s room.

Functionally, the forms of the English nouns designated as “case forms” relate to one another in an extremely peculiar way. The peculiarity is that the common form is absolutely indefinite from the semantic point of view, whereas the possessive form is restricted to the functions which have a par­allel expression by prepositional constructions. Thus, the common form, as appears from the presentation, is also capable of rendering the possessive semantics, which makes the whole of the possessive case into a kind of sub­sidiary element in the grammatical system of the English noun. This feature stamps English noun declension as something utterly different from every conceivable declension in principle. In fact, the inflectional oblique case forms as normally and imperatively expressing the immediate functional parts of the ordinary sentence in “noun-declensional” languages do not exist in English at all.

So there is no wonder that in the course of linguistic investigation the category of case in English has become one of the vexed problems of theo­retical discussion.

Four special views advanced at various times by different scholars should be considered as successive stages in the analysis of this problem.

The first view may be called the theory of positional cases”. This the­ory is directly connected with the old grammatical tradition, and its traces can be seen in many contemporary school textbooks in the English-speak­ing countries. Linguistic formulations of this theory may be found in the works of Nesfield, Deutschbein, Bryant and others.

In accord with the theory of positional cases, the unchangeable forms of the noun are differentiated as different cases by virtue of the functional positions occupied by the noun in the sentence. Thus, the English noun, on the analogy of classical Latin grammar, would distinguish, besides the inflectional possessive case, also the non-infiectional, i.e. purely positional cases: nominative, vocative, dative and accusative. The uninflectional cases of the noun are taken to be supported by the parallel inflectional cases of the personal pronouns:

Nominative (subject)              Rainfalls

Vocative (address)                 Will you be there, Ann?

Dative (indirect object)           I gave Anna book.

Accusative (direct object)  They killed a bear.

Or prepositional object           They broke the window with a stone.

The blunder of this theory is that it substitutes the functional character­istics of the part of the sentence for the morphological features of the word class, whereas the case form, by definition, is a variable morphological form of the noun. What this theory does prove is that the functional meanings ren­dered by cases can be expressed in language by other grammatical means, in particular, by word-order.

The second view may be called the “theory of prepositional cases”. It is also connected with the old school grammar teaching, and was advanced as a logical supplement to the positional view of the case.

In accord with the prepositional theory, combinations of nouns with prepositions in certain object and attributive collocations should be under­stood as morphological case forms. To these belong first of all the “dative” case (to + N, for + N) and the possessive case (of + N). These prepositions are inflectional prepositions, i.e. grammatical elements equivalent to case forms. The would-be prepositional cases are generally taken as coexist­ing with positional cases, together with the classical inflectional genitive completing the case system of the English noun. The prepositional theory, though somewhat better grounded than the positional theory, nevertheless can hardly pass a serious linguistic trial. In other languages all preposi­tions do require definite cases of nouns (prepositional case-government). It should follow from this that not only the of, to and fог-phrases but also all other prepositional phrases in English must be regarded as “analytical” cas­es. As a result of this approach, illogical redundancy in terminology would arise: each prepositional phrase would bear then another, additional name of “prepositional case”, the total number of the “said” cases running into dozens upon dozens without any gain either to theory or practice.

Besides, prepositions may have various meanings depending on the con­text, which makes it possible for a preposition to correlate with several cas­es. For example, in English the preposition by, formerly a purely local form (He stood by the window) came to acquire a sense of means or instrument. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this preposition acquired its in­strumental sense via expressions such as She read by candlelight where the йу-phrase, originally a locative (Where did she read?), was reinterpreted as instrumental (How did she read it?). It is not hard to find situations that allow a locative or instrumental interpretation and which could facilitate a loca­tive or instrumental form adopting both functions. Here are some examples: wash the cloth in/with water, cook meat on/in/with fire, come on/by horse.

The third view of the English noun case recognizes a limited inflectional system of two cases in English, one of them featured and the other one un-featured. This view may be called the “limited case theory”. This theory is at present most broadly accepted among linguists both in this country and abroad. It was formulated by such scholars as Sweet, Jespersen, and has since been radically developed by Smirnitsky, Barkhudarov and others.

The limited case theory is based on the explicit oppositional approach to the recognition of grammatical categories. In the system of the English case the functional mark is defined, which differentiates the two case forms: the possessive or genitive form as the strong member of the categorical op­position and the common, or “non-genitive” form as the weak member of the categorical opposition. The opposition is shown as being effected in full with animate nouns, though a restricted use with inanimate nouns is also taken into account.

Noun: Category of case in modern English grammars – Part 2

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