Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Cainntear » Sun Feb 25, 2018 9:37 am

tarvos wrote:
Cainntear wrote:
tarvos wrote:
1) English has mandatory gendered pronouns in singular, so it is not neutral for transgender.

Just apart from that, many trans people (see also: yours truly) fit the binary, so you would still refer to me as she. That's gendered, and I am perfectly fine with that.

Fair enough, but I don't think it's neutral as long as you have to ask. Pre-op trans men have to wear women's swimming gear in most swimming pools and will be presumed to be "she".


Well, yeah, but that's a practical issue (and a reason I avoid the pool like I avoid hot lava.)

If we were speaking Quechua, it wouldn't be an issue at all, as there's no he or she.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby tarvos » Sun Feb 25, 2018 9:42 am

Yeah, or Hungarian. But you'd still have a problem at the pool in Peru.

About non-binary gender pronouns: if you want to know more, my Polyglot Gathering presentation was on gender neutral pronouns in 2017.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Serpent » Sun Feb 25, 2018 11:24 am

Regardless of language many people still feel the need to divide everyone into men and women, and they're also very confused if the answer is "other".
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Chung » Sun Feb 25, 2018 9:56 pm

Chung wrote:
Josquin wrote:You should try your luck with Finnish or Hungarian. Despite having numerous cases, the case systems themselves are supposed to be comparably straightforward and logical. As the Finno-Ugric languages are agglutinating rather than synthetic, the case markers consist of suffixes rather than endings and have probably evolved from postpositions (as Chung has pointed out, an example of case systems emerging from analytical structures).

The point is, each case has only one ending that may have different forms because of sound laws, but there are no declension classes with different endings as in the Indo-European languages, so there is no overlap between endings either. I'm not saying those languages are easier than Russian or Icelandic though.

Maybe Chung can offer some more information on this.


I could, but to be honest, it'd be an even longer-ass post, and with the way things have gone so far, I wouldn't be surprised if s_allard would do some articulate hand-waving and excuse himself thus leaving his FIGS-based POV intact.


Upon a bit more thought, I'll add a few qualifying points to the above about Finnish declension as it's not quite as straightforward as one might think when comparing it to declension in Latin or other Indo-European languages of central and eastern Europe. I do feel (this is very subjective, mind you) that it is less burdensome to learn than in those languages because of how little syncretism raises its head (see my comments below about Finnish "accusative") not to mention that Finnish doesn't draw on (or recycle) sets of case endings to signal gender or "humanness"/animacy (see some Slavonic languages for the latter).

It is true that the case endings themselves are unambiguous as seen here (ignoring the questionable inclusion of "accusative" as discussed here). Whenever you see -lle, for example, you know that you're dealing only with allative (~ "for/to(ward) sb/sg") regardless of whether the noun is in singular or plural. The plural marker in case-marking is usually -i- or -j- (e.g. kaverille ~ "for a buddy" - allative singular, kavereille ~ "for buddies" - allative plural) but in the nominative plural is -t (e.g. kaverit ~ "(the) buddies") and in genitive plural can sometimes be -(i)d- or -(i)tt- in addition to "regular" -i- ~ -j-. The -(i)d- and -(i)tt- in -iden, and -itten are related to the -t- ending of nominative plural and thanks to Finnish standardization are deemed grammatical for some nouns as exemplified by kavereiden and kavereitten "of buddies" coexisting with "regular" kaverien. Note how the -n ending is the same one used for genitive singular. When put another way, the plural genitive ending (in line with case markers of any Finnish nominal in plural) is thus a compound of a number/plural marker and the case marker. That's not surprising, is it?

It is however possible to reclassify nouns (and verbs for that matter) into inflectional classes a bit like what you see in Latin. It's not that each class takes different case endings* but rather what happens to the stem during inflection (e.g. consonant gradation, change to the stem's first vowel) that justifies the subdivision into inflectional classes. Sometimes these subdivisions can be guessed when you look at the endings in their nominative singular forms (cf. the divisions in most Slavonic languages whereby a noun's declensional pattern can be gleaned by referring to the form (not just the ending) in nominative singular).

*you could make a certain argument that a word like kaveri "buddy" belongs in its own class since it's declined in genitive plural as kaverien, kavereiden or kavereitten, while ystävä "friend" in genitive plural is only ystävien with *ystäveiden, *ystävitten or similar being ungrammatical. If you count the accusative as a viable case in Finnish outside personal pronouns, then you see recycling of endings since the accusative singular can resemble either the nominative singular or the genitive singular (depending on whether it's an indicative or imperative) while the accusative plural resembles the nominative plural once it's satisfied criteria for telicity.

The Finnish government's research institute for languages, Kotus, classifies nouns 51 ways based mainly on stem changes that occur in declension. It also classifies verbs 27 ways again based on stem changes that occur in conjugation. Finnish entries in Wiktionary make reference to Kotus' classification when identifying the inflectional pattern.

In practice, beginners end up learning in total about half of these classes since building a sufficiently useful stock of vocabulary such that they can start to express themselves grammatically and usefully doesn't require knowing all of the patterns. I estimate that by the time you reach B1, you've been exposed to about 25 models for declension and about a dozen for conjugation. Moreover, inflection draws on a relatively small set of rules for accommodating consonant gradation and changing vowels at the end of stems when declension creates duplicated vowels or strings of three or more vowels. There's also a small consideration for vowel harmony when choosing the correct case suffix, but that's relevant only when the suffix contains vowels other than -e- or -i-.

If someone were to try targeting his/her studies a bit, and assuming that the stock of Finnish entries on Wiktionary is representative of the distribution of inflectional types in Finnish, then he/she should definitely not be overwhelmed by Kotus' inflectional subdivisions. Most nouns or adjectives that someone will end up learning will fall into one of 15 classes. It follows that enough exposure will present mainly words drawn from the same subset of classes over and over again, and so a learner will start to develop native-like intuition of grammatical inflection in a large portion of the vocabulary more quickly than he/she might expect.

As of today, there are 31056 entries for nominals in Finnish Wikisanakirja (distinct from using English Wiktionary to look up Finnish words), and sorting them by membership by declensional class from most entries to fewest, I get:

No. 5 pattern risti "cross": 5414 (17% of entries)
No. 38 pattern nainen "woman": 4870 (16% of entries)
No. 1 pattern valo "light": 3363 (11% of entries)
No. 40 pattern kalleus "expensiveness": 2930 (9% of entries)
No. 10 pattern koira "dog": 2270 (7% of entries)
No. 39 pattern vastaus "answer": 2093 (7% of entries)
No. 9 pattern kala "fish": 1626 (5% of entries)
No. 6 pattern paperi "paper": 1563 (5% of entries)
No. 12 pattern kulkija "traveller": 949 (3% of entries)
No. 34 pattern onneton "unhappy" 857 (3% of entries)
No. 48 pattern hame "skirt" 702 (2% of entries)
No. 18 pattern maa "country" 695 (2% of entries)
No. 3 pattern valtio "state" 493 (2% of entries)
No. 2 pattern palvelu "service" 433 (1% of entries)
No. 41 pattern vieras "stranger" 379 (1% of entries)

The remaining 36 classes/patterns comprise 8% or 2419 of the 31056 entries. If I've got the declension down cold for the preceding 15 nouns, then I know (or can quickly figure out) the declension of 92% of the Finnish nominals of Wikisanakirja.

This kind of distribution reflects to a good degree my experience with learning Finnish, and so a decently designed course will make it pointless to worry about this seemingly impenetrable or mind-boggling setup for declension. You'll basically learn enough nominals such that you'll have a good chance to decline unfamiliar ones as you encounter them later since their patterns will often be the same as that used in words that you've already used/learned/seen. As for myself, I guess that I have in my mind the patterns of about a couple of dozen nouns and adjectives, and can usually decline these words and any unfamiliar ones correctly on the first try about two-thirds of the time. However, I do get fouled up with partitive plural more than I'd like, and if I have the partitive plural wrong, then I'll probably foul up the remaining declensions of the plural, since they're based on a stem used in that case.

In the first half of Finnish for Foreigners I, these are the noun classes that I encountered (and this is with a lot of basic vocabulary - bolded numbers in red mean that they're not in the top 15 of Wikisanakirja by number of entries):

No. 1 valo and similar (2- and 3-syllable nouns ending in -o/-ö or -u/-y that use consonant gradation where applicable)
No. 2 palvelu and similar (Nouns with 3 or more syllables that end in -o/-ö or -u/-y that don't show consonant gradation)
No. 3 valtio and similar (Nouns ending in -ao, -eo, -io/-iö, -oe)
No. 5 risti and similar (2-syllable nouns ending in -i which are often seen in loanwords such as bussi "bus", tuoli "table" etc. - Cf. pattern of paperi at no. 6)
No. 6 paperi and similar (nouns with at least 3 syllables ending in -i which are often seen in loanwords such as hotelli "hotel" and turisti "tourist" - Cf. pattern of risti at no. 5)
No. 7 ovi and similar (2-syllable nouns ending in -i but whose stem ends in -e. This doesn't make the top 15, but these nouns often turn up in words for natural phenomena or "ancient" items such as ovi "door", kivi "rock", pilvi "cloud" etc.)
No. 9 kala and similar (2-syllable nouns ending in -a which have -a-/-ä-, -e- or -i- in the first syllable)
No. 10 koira and similar (2-syllable nouns ending in -a/-ä that have -o-/-ö- or -u-/-y- in the first syllable)
No. 12 kulkija and similar (3-syllable nouns or longer with ending -a/-ä)
No. 15 vaikea and similar (Nouns ending in -ea/-eä or -oa - This isn't a large class of nouns (and doesn't make the top 15) but includes vaikea "difficult", and nopea "fast")
No. 16 vanhempi and similar (all forms which end in -mpi, which marks a comparative adjective. This class doesn't make the top 15 on Wikisanakirja but it's useful to know considering the utility of comparative adjectives in general)
No. 18 maa and similar (noun ending in duplicated vowels)
No. 19 suo and similar (1-syllable noun ending in -ie, -uo/-yö. This isn't a large class of nouns (and doesn't make the top 15) but includes the basic words tie "road", työ "work" and "night")
No. 27 käsi and similar (2-syllable nouns ending in -si but whose (weak) stem ends in -de. This isn't a large class of nouns (and doesn't make the top 15) but includes basic concepts or terms such as vesi "water", uusi "new", käsi "hand", vuosi "year" etc.)
No. 33 kytkin and similar (nouns ending in -in, whose stem instead ends in -me. This class doesn't make the top 15 on Wikisanakirja but turns up often in nouns for machinery such as puhelin "telephone")
No. 38 nainen and similar (nouns ending in -nen, whose stem ends in -se)
No. 39 vastaus and similar (nominals containing at least 3 syllables ending in -us/-ys but whose stem ends in -kse)
No. 41 vieras and similar (nominals containing at least 2 syllables and end in -as)
No. 43 ohut and similar (nominals ending in -ut/-yt. This class doesn't make the top 15 on Wikisanakirja but turns up in lyhyt "short" and olut "beer")
No. 48 hame and similar (nouns ending in -e, and contain at least 2 syllables.)

In other words, the first half of Finnish for Foreigners I (i.e. something like clearing A1) introduces vocabulary from 13 of the top 15 classes of nominals sorted by frequency on Wikisanakirja. Moreover, it also introduces nominals from 7 other classes that each comprises less than 1% of the entries on Wikisanakirja. While these 7 other classes comprise a very small share of the lexicon, they contain items that usually occur at a greater frequency than their puny class-size might suggest.

After doing a similar comparison with verbs (3755 on Wikisanakirja) and getting a sense for their distribution sorted by stem, you'd come to a similar conclusion by realizing that mastering about half of the 27 verb classes covers the patterns of the majority of the verbs you'll need to learn. Verbs such as juostaa "run" or saada "to get" belong to such small classes that one can pretty much learn them rather like exceptions. Because of their fairly high frequency, repeated exposure to them would ingrain their patterns anyway.

In brief:

27% of verbs conjugate like muistaa "to remember" (infinitive ends in -aa/-ää excluding -taa/-tää, and has at least 2 syllables)
18% conjugate like sanoa "to say" (infinitive ends in -oa/-öä or -ua/-yä)
15% conjugate like salata "to steal" (infinitive ends in -ata/-ätä)
11% conjugate like tulla "to come" (infinitive ends in -lla/-llä, -nna/-nnä or -rra/-rrä)
6% conjugate like voida "to be able to" (infinitive ends in -da/-dä and is preceded by a diphthong with -i. See also tupakoida below)
5% conjugate like sallia "to permit" (infinitive ends in -ia/-iä with stem open to consonant gradation)
4% conjugate like huutaa "to shout" (infinitive ends in -taa/-tää - different from the large class of verbs that conjugates like muistaa)
3% conjugate like rohkaista "to encourage" (infinitive ends in -sta/-stä)
3% conjugate like katketa "to snap" (infinitive ends in -eta/-etä, -ota/-ötä or -uta/-ytä but stem adds -n- in potential mood only - this one's model can be confused with that used by verbs like vanheta. See below)
2% conjugate like tupakoida "to smoke" (infinitive ends in -oida/-öidä, but can use stem ending with -tse in addition to a stem identical to the model of voida. See above)
1% conjugates like vanheta "to grow old" (infinitive ends in -eta/-etä but stem adds -n- in present and past tenses, and conditional and potential moods - this one's model can be confused with that used by verbs like katketa. See above)
1% conjugates like valita "to choose" (infinitive ends in -ita/-itä)

The remaining classes of Finnish verbs on Wikisanakirja each make up less than 1% of the total.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Random Review » Mon Feb 26, 2018 3:17 pm

Cavesa wrote:I wholeheartedly agree with Josquin.

Gender and cases are two separate things. Cases would work fine even if German or Czech went through a huge reform removing grammatical genders. Such a change would create trouble in the use of language and would require some compensatory changes, sure, but the cases would work. The opposite: Let's imagine we removed the cases and introduced a crazy rigid syntax way to compensate for it. But the gender would still stay. The German verbs don't reflect it, unless I am mistaken. But in Czech, there would still be a difference without the cases: stůl stál, židle stála, détě stálo (the table stood, the chair stood, the child stood). That was the grammar gender.

Are we really trying to mix this with the sociological issue of whether or not a culture accepts non-binary people in general or non-cis-men in traditionaly masculine roles, and reflects it in the language? That is a separate issue. It is something worth a discussion per se, not something that should be used to create weird arguments here, when the logical ones are missing.

And the argument "English is the easiest language to learn, because it doesn't have cases" is simply wrong and not founded on anything at all. I find it especially arrogant and ignorant, when an English native feels qualified to judge this. And it is very sad and unsettling, when they are a language teacher. Unfortunately, there are many natives and teachers with the same opinion.

I loved Reineke's post quoting a research on difficulty and making mistakes in various languages. It supported the obvious: the difference lies in what features are considered difficult, not in the amount of difficulties.

Also, there is one issue that hasn't been discussed at all. Difficulty of achieving what level?
I am convinced the whole "this language is easy/hard" idea is based on just a narrow and vague idea of learning it. We all know this from the Spanish learning example. People say how easy it is. And sure, the Spanish beginners don't need to deal with a lot of stuff the French ones (for example) have to face. But at some point, Spanish becomes very challenging, and there are not that many advanced learners to support the "Spanish is easy" theory (and the overall level people achieve in English despite being pushed so hard to, that doesn't look like "English is easy" either). So, isn't it possible, that the cases are a similar example? Something, that might actually create a hurdle at the beginning, but streamline the later learning phases?


FWIW I think Spanish is "easy" in the sense that people will understand English speakers who speak bad Spanish with typical Anglo errors with bad (Anglo) pronunciation. This isn't always the case with French or Chinese (to take two examples).
I think with Spanish it is quite hard not to overestimate your level because of this. I have seen many people absolutely butcher the Spanish language and speak with the thickest Anglo accents and yet Spanish speakers are nearly always able to piece the message together.

However I agree that speaking reasonable Spanish is very difficult (as I can attest, because it took me bloody ages); speaking good Spanish I imagine must be even harder.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby tarvos » Mon Feb 26, 2018 8:43 pm

Might just be because they are used to anglophone tourists...
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby reineke » Mon Feb 26, 2018 9:05 pm

B is for Bad language learner

"As a second language user myself, and as a language teacher, teacher trainer and methodology writer, it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own (whether they be mayor, football coach, actor, ex-pat, or student) is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?

I tweeted to this effect – that I didn’t find it particularly funny, and that this seemed to be a case of ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’. However, a fellow tweeter in Brazil, Higor Cavalcante, went so far as to blog his disagreement, arguing that, as mayor of a city with a large Hispanic population “Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish”. (Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose).

Excellent Spanish. Not just good, or passable, but excellent.

...maybe Mayor Bloomberg is not a good language learner. I’m sure he would love to be able to speak excellent Spanish, but maybe for him excellence comes at a cost – a cost that even his billions can’t meet. Yet should he be penalised for trying?

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to classes, I’ve done conversation exchanges, I’ve studied the grammar, I’ve memorised lists of words, and I read five to ten thousand words of Spanish daily. Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent.

But I get by. I’ll always sound like a guiri (or gringo) but I can live with that, despite the scorn heaped on me by other, more proficient Spanish speakers. (Once a Californian woman, on hearing me speak, held up her arms in the shape of a cross, as if to ward off evil spirits). As I said, good language learners seem to think that anyone can learn a language to C2 level in a matter of months – and that the failure to do so betrays some moral weakness. But for us drones, it will take years and years, and we may still never get beyond B2 (or even A2 for that matter). "

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/20 ... e-learner/
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Seneca » Tue Feb 27, 2018 5:48 pm

BalancingAct wrote:
Seneca wrote:
BalancingAct wrote:
Very true. In fact German cases are not difficult to learn (even for self-study), if you pick the right teaching material that gently and thoughtfully introduces concepts/cases. It also helps to jump onto uni-language (all German) textbooks as soon as possible.

To me it is never a good idea to experiment with using only free material online. It just slows you down in the long run and induces invisible cost. Expedient is not the synonym of efficient.

To declare logical and meaningful stuff meaningless just shows you are a beginner. To insist on your limited view based on your limited knowledge is amateurish.

Which teaching materials for German would those be? I was going to go poke around your log, but didn't see German listed under your username, so I wasn't sure if your German experience predated your time on this site and if that meant, in turn, no resources for it on your log.


This is surreal. You need new reading reading glasses or what?
While the opposite is true - under Your username nothing but your mother tongue is indicated, why should I bother to deliver what you want?!

I was on mobile and didn't see you listed German as high intermediate because this website doesn't render well on my phone's browser.

My native language doesn't answer the question of which materials you used for German. Whether you used something based in English or Mandarin or something else entirely is not effected by my native language or anything else.

I am not learning a language actively at the moment, thus nothing is listed. I ask questions to help clarify so others who come to threads later and may be curious can get what they need out of them.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Cainntear » Wed Feb 28, 2018 12:06 pm

Cavesa wrote:Also, there is one issue that hasn't been discussed at all. Difficulty of achieving what level?
I am convinced the whole "this language is easy/hard" idea is based on just a narrow and vague idea of learning it. We all know this from the Spanish learning example. People say how easy it is. And sure, the Spanish beginners don't need to deal with a lot of stuff the French ones (for example) have to face. But at some point, Spanish becomes very challenging, and there are not that many advanced learners to support the "Spanish is easy" theory (and the overall level people achieve in English despite being pushed so hard to, that doesn't look like "English is easy" either). So, isn't it possible, that the cases are a similar example? Something, that might actually create a hurdle at the beginning, but streamline the later learning phases?

Someone once said that English is easy for the first year, then really hard after that, whereas French is really hard for the first year, then really easy after that.

It's an exaggeration, of course, but once you've nailed down the grammar stuff, there isn't much to surprise you. English is riddled with near synonyms and unpredictable collocations (e.g. phrasal verbs).

I don't believe there's anything uniquely challenging about Spanish, but the biggest difficulty I had was that no-one had explained the difference between verb framed and satellite framed languages to me, and I got stuck at a point where I couldn't work out how to talk about walking out etc. Once that obstacle was removed, I was fine.

Random Review wrote:FWIW I think Spanish is "easy" in the sense that people will understand English speakers who speak bad Spanish with typical Anglo errors with bad (Anglo) pronunciation. This isn't always the case with French or Chinese (to take two examples).

That's an interesting point that I was thinking about earlier when talking about English declensions. It's rare that a missing S/'S will make a sentence impossible to understand, so you don't have to learn it.... but...
I think there's an important difference between a language being easy to use and easy to learn. If you can survive without learning it properly, it might actually make the language harder to learn....

EDIT: Fix BBCode
Last edited by Cainntear on Wed Feb 28, 2018 3:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Grammatical Cases: Why are they considered so hard?

Postby Henkkles » Wed Feb 28, 2018 1:58 pm

As I read these topics this starts to become more of a running theme, so I figured I'd chip in. I think that the question is wrong, or rather doesn't capture the underlying phenomenon.

Some things must be overtly coded in some languages, but not in others. Grammatical cases mean that syntactic information must be overtly coded in the speech stream. It's always hard to learn to code for something you're not used to. When speaking Finnish you not only have to code the object, but its coding depends on the polarity, finiteness and completeness of the action. This is quite hard because most languages are quite agnostic regarding these things when it comes to what is overtly coded.
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