English-speakers who have not had the good fortune to be exposed early to Greek or Latin, or even to their own language as it existed before the Norman Conquest, tend to find the notion of grammatical case baffling despite the survival in English of a genitive case (renamed possessive) and the distinction between subject and object pronouns in the first and third persons. Evidently, the alleged Irish saying that when it comes to politics the English are born three whiskeys down applies no less to grammar. Others, made of sterner stuff, having learned to distinguish between in urbem and in urbe, in die Stadt and in der Stadt, will find that this is only the beginning. Some languages, such as Finnish, not only have cases of destination, position and departure, but distinguish interior from exterior: 'into', 'in', 'out of' demand a different set of cases from 'to', 'on/at', 'off/from' (at least, that is the theory; actual usage is far more complex). There are also languages in which nouns may take more than one case-ending, as when in Old Georgian a noun in the genitive further adds the same case-ending as the noun it qualifies; but even English can contribute the double genitives hers and theirs, and shares with Danish the phrasal genitive the king of Spain's daughter.
LRB 9 July 2009 | PDF Download