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Category: Case

History on the Ground

History on the Ground

Linguists spend most of the year stuck to the computer monitor: analyzing data, reading, or writing papers. But the time comes when we have to roll up our sleeves and find our sense of adventure. Personally, this is my favorite time of the year! Going on a linguistic field trip often involves living in a local community and immersing yourself in a completely different culture. You learn so much about the customs, traditions, beliefs… And, of course, you learn a lot about the language.

A sunny day, with a number of houses amongst trees on a hillside.
South-Eastern Serbia, one of our fieldwork destinations

Linguistic field trips are essential for researchers who work with poorly documented languages. We prepare questionnaires, design experiments, and go to the local community to collect data that we need for our research. Here, at SMG, we do fieldwork a lot. You can get a glimpse of this fascinating part of a linguist’s life in some of the previous posts. Check out, for example, this beautiful piece on Archi, this account of cultural and language diversity in the South Pacific, and the most recent post about intricate ways to express respect in  Vanuatu.

However, there seems to be a limitation. What should you do if you study the history of some phenomenon? If you are not only interested in how the system is now, but also in how it was before? We cannot jump into a time machine and reemerge in the 15th-century world to run our questionnaires there. So surely historical texts and comparative grammars are the only way to go, and fieldwork is not useful here… Or is it? Well, it turns out that a field trip can be very helpful for extrapolating historical data, but only if you are lucky with the location. Fortunately, I am!

A low-lying pile of stones on a roadside with a line of hills in the background
My lucky place

In the project “Declining case: Inflectional loss in progress”, my colleagues and I study dialects of Serbian and Bulgarian. These two languages have been posing linguists a headache for more than a century already. Although they are quite closely related and are spoken side by side, they have a lot of significant differences in the grammatical structure. To name some, (1) Bulgarian has articles (like English a and the), while Serbian does not, (2) Serbian uses infinitives, while Bulgarian does not, and (3) Serbian nouns have a fully-fledged morphological case system, while Bulgarian nouns do not inflect for case at all. People still argue about the exact reasons for this, but there is a general consensus that Bulgarian has undergone certain changes because it is located in the so-called Balkan linguistic area. A cool thing is that there is no sharp border between the innovative grammatical system of Bulgarian and the conservative system of Serbian. Rather, in the geographical zone on both sides of the Serbian-Bulgarian border, we see a variety of intermediate systems.

A map of eastern Serbia and Western Bulgaria, with an area of hatching straddling the border between the two countries

Let us see how it works on the example of the case inflection, which we study in our project. Cases are used in some languages to mark grammatical relations, such as subject or object. Serbian does it in this way, while Bulgarian uses prepositions instead. Take a look at this table, where the word ‘Cyprus’ appears in different contexts. See how in Serbian this word changes the ending depending on the context and in Bulgarian it keeps the same form? Just like in English!

Serbian Bulgarian Translation
vole Kipar xaresvat Kipâr ‘They like Cyprus’
stanovništvo Kipra naselenieto na Kipâr ‘The population of Cyprus’
pomažu Kipru pomagat na Kipâr ‘They help Cyprus’
upravljaju Kiprom upravljat Kipâr ‘They govern in Cyprus’

Overall, Serbian has six cases, while Bulgarian uses one general case form. So, what do we see in the transitional zone? Well, depending on where exactly we look, we find different systems. For example, in a more western part of the transitional area, we can meet a system where they use three cases, while in a more eastern part we can find a two-case system.

Serbian Transitional system 1 Transitional system 2 Bulgarian
Case 1 Case 1 Case 1 No case
Case 2 Case 2 Case 2
Case 3 Case 3
Case 4
Case 5
Case 6

What does it mean? It looks like standard Bulgarian at some point in its development lost its case marking on nouns completely, while the dialects in the transitional zone underwent this change to a smaller degree. The further west we move, the less this change affected the dialect. This situation created an unprecedented opportunity for us. We can go to different places in the transitional zone, compare their systems to each other, and use this comparison to create a historical model of the loss of case. We do not need a time machine, we have the different stages of this process living side by side today!

This summer, for example, I went to the municipality of Brus, which is located in Southern Serbia. There I witnessed the initial stages of case decline. People in Brus still use all six cases, but sometimes replace one with another, or insert a preposition in phrases where standard Serbian would not have it. While interviewing people, I learned about some fascinating traditions in this area. For example, one of the oldest customs at the wedding is to put an apple at the highest point in the backyard, and the groom has to hit the apple with a gun.  If he fails to do so, he is not going to get his bride!

An apple hanging by a thread from the bough of a tree.

Apparently, in earlier times, a wedding would last for several days and involve all sorts of rituals. Unfortunately, most of them are lost now. It would be so nice to see how a wedding was celebrated then! But for this, I am afraid, we do need a time machine.

What happened to whom (and why)?

What happened to whom (and why)?

Wh- words like which, whom and why get a lot of knickers in a twist, as attested by this oatmeal comic on when to use who vs whom, or the age-old debate about the correct use of which vs that (on which see this blog post by Geoffrey Pullum). But in Old English the wh- words formed a complete and regular system which would have been easy to get the hang of. They were used strictly as interrogative pronouns – words that we use for asking questions like who ate all the pies? – rather than relative pronouns, which give extra information about an item in the sentence (Jane, who ate all the pies, is a prolific blogger) or narrow down the reference of a noun (women who eat pies are prolific bloggers). They developed their modern relative use in Middle English, via reinterpretation of indirect questions – in other words, sentences like she asked who ate all the pies, containing the question who ate all the pies?, served as the template for new sentences like she knew who ate all the pies, where who functions as a relative.

Who ate all the pies? They did.

Originally, the new relative pronoun whom (in its Middle English form hwām) functioned as the dative case form of who, used when the person in question is the indirect object of a verb or after prepositions like for. For direct objects, the accusative form hwone was used instead. So to early Middle English ears, the man for whom I baked a pie would be fine, while the man whom I baked in a pie would be objectionable (on grammatical as well as ethical grounds). Because nouns also had distinct nominative, dative and accusative forms, the wh- words would have posed no special difficulty for speakers. But as English lost distinct case forms for nouns, the pronoun system was also simplified, and the originally dative forms started to replace accusative forms, just as who is now replacing whom. This created a two-way opposition between subject and non-subject which is best preserved in our system of personal pronouns: we say he/she/they baked a pie, but I baked him/her/them (in) a pie.

Thus hwone disappeared the way of hine, the old accusative form of he. Without the support of a fully-functioning case system in the nouns, other case forms of pronouns were reinterpreted. Genitive pronouns like my and his were transformed into possessive adjectives (his pie is equivalent to the pie of him, but you can no longer say things like I thought his to mean ‘I thought of him’). The wh- words also used to have an instrumental case form, hwȳ, meaning ‘by/through what?’, which became an autonomous word why.

Although him and them are still going strong, whom has been experiencing a steady decline. Defenders of ‘whom’ will tell you that the rule for deciding whether to use who or whom is exactly the same as that for he and him, but outside the most formal English, whom is now mainly confined to fixed phrases like ‘to whom it may concern’. For many speakers, though, it has swapped its syntactic function for a sociolinguistic one by becoming merely a ‘posh’ variant of who: in the words of James Harding, creator of the ‘Whom’ Appreciation Society, “those who abandon ‘whom’ too soon will regret it when they next find themselves in need of sounding like a butler.”