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I am a native English speaker that wanted to make a conlang.... recipe for disaster, I know. My language has Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive. I was having difficulty internalizing how to use the Dative case and went looking for guides to help familiarize myself with it. I found that languages differ in exactly how they use it and what can count as a Dative. I had previously tried to translate the phrase "the son of god is given," and realized that I didn't know weather "god" should be in the dative or not. The language treats "of god" in this case as an adjective. Since it's a noun shouldn't it have nominative marking, which is the "default" or should/could anything that's not nominative or accusative get shoehorned into dative marking?

So in summery: -Does anyone have recommendations for resources that provide a better perspective on what datives can be like in different languages?

-What do languages tend to do when a word doesn't fit into any of their cases-- what does it default to?

-What if anything should inform my decision on how the dative is used?

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    Out of curiosity, what is your genitive for, if not for "of god"?
    – Draconis
    Nov 11, 2022 at 22:42

6 Answers 6

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The names of cases are pretty arbitrary -- there is no law that a language has to have any particular cases.

Many inflected languages express functions through particular endings; for example, the actor of a given action, the thing/object the action affects, or the target of the action. As these are similar across languages, philologists are using the same names for these paradigms of endings, and call them cases, using the names from Latin grammar.

So the nominative indicates who executes an action, the accusative expresses the object or thing, and the dative the target. The genitive expresses possesion.

Now in English we don't really have cases (apart from pronouns), as function is expressed by word order or through prepositions.

The girl gives the dog a bone

The nominative is the default first noun group, and because give takes two objects, the dog is the 'dative' and 'a bone' is the accusative. But they're not marked. If you swap them around, you need to use a preposition:

The girl gives a bone to the dog

(You can also insert a preposition into the first example for emphasis: The girl gives to the dog a bone (and to the cat a piece of string))

So when designing your own language, you don't need to start off with cases a priori. Think about the functions you need to express, and then think of a way how to express them using morphology (word endings) or syntax (word order, prepositions/particles).

In your example, the son of god is given, one would call of god a genitive; German: "der Sohn Gottes", Latin: "filius dei" (note that English uses of, whereas German and Latin use endings). The son is nominative; as the whole example is in the passive voice and it is the subject. (It would be in the accusative if it was X gives the son of god).

So my advice is: if you're unclear about grammar, simply think of the functional relationships between the words. This is usually what cases express, and they are realised in different ways in different languages. If your conlang is not inflected, you use prepositions, otherwise endings. Whatever floats your boat... But don't get fixated on linguistic terminology from a specific language. Esperanto, for example, does not have a dative, but uses prepositions instead to express an indirect object (the dog in the example above), but the accusative for the direct object (la knabino donas al hundo oston, or la knabino donas oston al hundo)

As an example: give (as a conceptual act) has the following 'slots'

  1. actor
  2. object
  3. recipient

When you use a word expressing the concept of giving, these are the slots you need to fill (some are optional sometimes). How do you distinguish the slot fillers from each other? This is where your word endings or prepositions as markers come in.

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  • English absolutely has a genitive for (singular) nouns. The apple's seeds, the tree's fruit, the King of England's crown. It's just marked with an enclitic instead of a suffix.
    – A. R.
    Jan 23, 2023 at 19:40
  • @AndrewRay Yes, sloppy formulation on my part. What I really meant was cases marked through word endings. Jan 24, 2023 at 9:41
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Ask a Native Speaker

Seriously.

You can look in grammars and check out WALS and CALS, but really I'd suggest introspection. Let your inner native speaking guide show you how her language works.

For example, you've told us that "of God" (and presumably other similar phrases like "of wood" and "of England") is 'treated as an adjective'. What this tells me is that, leaving aside theological considerations and matters of scriptural exegesis & translation, properties like origin and constitution the like can't be nominal.

So, "of England" is always going to be "English"; "of wood" is always going to be "wooden". I'd suspect that "of God" is thus always going to be "divine" or "godly".

As you talk with her about her language, your understanding of how it works will improve.

This is but one way to create a language. There are other ways, too.

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  • Perfectly good to use any case for this, but I will submit that if a particular case happens to fill this role, "dative" is probably not a great name for it.
    – A. R.
    Jan 23, 2023 at 19:43
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Well, first of all, every language uses its cases differently. Even though both Latin and German have a "nominative" case, they're not used in exactly the same way. This means there's not really a resource describing what the "dative" means in different languages, because the name is really just a label; more often you'll find a resource describing what all the cases are like in one specific language.

The name "dative" comes from the Latin word for "give", because that's one of its most obvious uses: when you have a verb like "give" that takes three nouns, the third one usually goes in the dative. For the same reason, it's sometimes called the "indirect object case": conventionally, the first noun attached to a verb is called the subject, the second one is called the direct object, and the third one is called the indirect object.

But in Latin, that wasn't its main purpose. The real purpose of the dative case in Latin is to indicate who benefits from an action. The person who benefits from giving is the recipient, for example. But it's also used with verbs that take less than three nouns. The person experiencing an emotion is given in the dative (mihi placet "this pleases me"), as is the person making use of a thing (mihi nomen "my name"), and the person whose perspective is being referenced (mihi vidētur "it seems to me").

In Greek, on the other hand, the dative tended to indicate the circumstances of something. In Greek you can use the dative to indicate someone who was nearby during an event, even if they weren't directly involved, or the time or place where it happened. In Latin, other cases or prepositions are used for this.

To answer your explicit question, it is common for languages to have a "default" case when nothing else applies. In Latin this is the nominative; in English, the accusative. (Think about which form you use when there's no verb in the sentence: "who's there?" "me", not *"I".) But it's generally used when nothing in the sentence assigns the noun a different case. It sounds like "of god" here has a specific role it's been assigned—a modifier to "son"—and that role would normally give it a case. I don't know how the cases work in your particular conlang, but Latin and English would both use the genitive here (filius deī, "the god's son").

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I'd like to focus on the second title question:

Do languages ever have a "miscellaneous" case?

Yes. Hindi's oblique case comes to mind. Subject and direct objects are very common, not very remarkable. They take the normal noun form/case. Hindi (re)marks miscellaneous nouns with the oblique, "Non-Subject-Non-Direct-Object" case. Hindi goes SOV:

  • I donations want.
  • I boxes want.
  • I donations boxes want.

Wait, what do you want, donations or boxes? What's the other one doing?

  • Do you want donations in boxes?

  • Donations of boxes?

  • Boxes of donations?

  • Boxes for donations...?

Whichever of these non-direct-object-nouns it is, Hindi marks it with the oblique (not-subject-not-direct-object) case AND then specifies what it's doing with a postposition (rain Spain in). Sometimes the postposition is implied (I 8:00 ate), but you can tell it from the direct object because it is still marked oblique.

Similarly, it shows up (that I know of) two other times nouns are doing something miscellaneous.

  • Mark a noun an adverb: I contentment watched. -> I watched contentedly.

  • It makes numbers not-literally: It's millions and millions [read: a lot] worth.

In conclusion, in this topic, you're used to English preposition and you're trying to tell when to mark nouns with specific cases. Hindi uses oblique case to split the difference.

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The dative is indeed a very diverse case, reading some teaching grammars of languages with a dative (e.g., Latin, Classical Greek, and German) or a preposition close to the dative case (Italian and French) can inform you about possible usages of the Dative.

An interesting thing are dative external possessors (as Haspelmath calls it), one of the common features of the Standard Average European sprachbund, see this question on Esperanto here and this question on esperanto.se, but absent from English.

For your question: God could be an external possessor in the sentence A son was given but this would not mean the same as in Christian theology where mankind is the external possessor of the Son of God.

At the end of the day, it is your conlang, and the dative will mean what you want it to mean. Test what sounds right to you.

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First of all, I apologize for my English. My native language is Czech. This language contains seven cases: 1. nominative, 2. genitive, 3. dative, 4. accuzative, 5. vocative, 6. locative, 7. instrumental. In the Czech language, the dative often expresses "the addressee of a verb with two objects". That's the definition.

To an English speaker, I would explain it like this: if I have a verb that expresses the "movement" of something to something, "to something" will be in the dative form. By the verb that expresses "movement" I mean, for example, to go, to run, to give, to lend, to send, to tell, to write...

Examples:

He gave the dog a bone. Dog is dative, because he is the addressee of the bone.

He explained it to me. "Me" is dative, because I am the adresser of the explanation.

I'll go to that tree over there. The tree is dative because it is the addressee of my future presence.

For inspiration, you can read something about Old Norse, it also uses four cases.

P.S. "the son of god is given", "god" is genitive.

P.P.S. A Word always fit into some case but the default case is nominative.

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