Lesson 3: Grammatical Case
English for the most part communicates grammatical relations by way of syntax (word order) and prepositions.
- For example, in the sentence, “Man bites dog,” we know that ‘man’ is the Subject and ‘dog’ is the Object simply because they come before and after the verb, respectively. Word order alone communicates the grammatical relations of Subject and Object here. If we reverse the order, we have a different sentence with a different meaning: dog bites man. Because of English’s particular word order, it is often referred to as an SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) language.
- Other relations are communicated in English by prepositions: accompaniment (“with” x), instrumentality (“by” x), agency (“by” x), causality (“because of” x), etc.
Although Sanskrit does have a syntactic norm (its word order is generally SOV: Subject-Object-Verb) and does possess an array of prepositions and postpositions, its grammatical relations are instead marked by cases (endings added onto nouns).
- For example, the visarga (ः) is an ending that marks a noun as Subject (sg.) and the म् is an ending that marks a noun as Object (sg.). If we add them to नृप (‘man’) and दास (‘servant’) in the sentence, नृपः दासम् वदति ।, नृपः will be the Subject and दासम् will be the Object, regardless of word order. The translation will be: “The king is speaking to a servant,” whether the word order is as above or is दासम् नृपः वदति or दासम् वदति नृपः, etc.
Although this idea may seem strange if you haven’t learned a case language (German, Latin, etc.) before, it actually shouldn’t! English itself still has a few cases of its own (remnants of Old English):
- In particular, our pronouns still have cases: “he,” for example is the Subject case (e.g., “He goes”) whereas “him” is the Object case (“I see him”) and “his” is the case of possession (“his book”).
- Another place we see a case in English is the apostrophe-s (’s), which also marks possessive case (genitive): e.g., “John’s” = “of John, belonging to John.” Note that this is the same case-ending as in “his”: i.e., “s” was the case-ending marking possession in Old English.