The importance of “tuning in” to the endings of nouns
Of those of you who are (or have been) learning Croatian, who else has found that learning about the cases is a pain in the b##?
Who else found that they were drowning in all this stuff about cases, without realising why?
Who else one day had the “Aha!” moment? [Thanks to Mateja at SpeakCro!]
Or are you is still waiting for the “Aha!” moment? I’ve been there.
Let me think aloud ….
The case (padež) of a noun depends on its role in a sentence – that is, whether it is the subject, or the object, or the instrument of action, etc. Simply that.
When a noun is the subject of a sentence, we say that it is in the nominative case. When it is the object, we call that the accusative case. And when it indicates location, we say that it is in the locative case, and so on.
Before I began to understand cases in the Croatian language, I had to clarify their use in English.
Learning English 101: Test question:
A sentence begins “I gave the dog …….…..”. In what case is “the dog”?
You have probably realised that there is more than one answer: the sentence can be completed in either of two ways:
1. I gave the dog to my sister. “The dog” is the object of the action (giving), so it is in the accusative case.
2. I gave the dog a bone. “The dog” is the recipient/indirect object of the action, and so is in the dative case.
Notice that in sentence 1 it is clear that “my sister is in the dative case. How can we easily tell? Because it uses the preposition “to” .. “to my sister”
In sentence 2, “bone” is in the accusative case, and “the dog” is in the dative case. This would have been more obvious if the sentence had been “I gave a bone to the dog”.
Yes, in English we indicate cases by using prepositions: “to” indicates dative case, “in” or “on” indicate locative case, “with” indicates instrumental and “of” indicates genitive case.
But that is not how it is done in Croatian.
Learning Croatian 101: Indicating case by word endings
When Croatian people are communicating (by voice, or in writing, or however) they tell each other about the role of each noun (its case) by putting different endings on the nouns.
This is particularly important in Croatian for two reasons:
First, Croatian uses less prepositions than English. For example, Croatians don't use the prepositions “of” or “to” in their equivalents of following sentences:
“This is the son of my sister”. Ovo je sin moje sestre. [moje sestre is the genitive form of moja sestra, and means “of my sister”]
“He said that to Ivan”. On je to rekao Ivanu …….. [Ivanu is the dative form of Ivan and means “to Ivan”]
The second important reason is that Croatians are quite flexible about the word order in a sentence. In fact I reckon that they put all the words of a sentence in a metaphorical hat and then put them in the order that they happen to pull them out.
Croatians might say the sentence “Ivan gives the ball to Marija” in any of the following ways (same words, different order):
Ivan daje loptu Mariji
Mariji Ivan daje loptu.
Loptu Ivan daje Mariji.
If we don’t know our cases, …... Is Ivan giving the ball to Marija? Is Marija giving the ball to Ivan? Is the ball giving Ivan to Marija?
We can only realise that these three sentences mean the same thing if we know that Ivan is the nominative form of Ivan (and so is the subject of the sentence), loptu is the accusative form of lopta (and so is the object of the action to give), and Mariji is the dative case of Marija (and so is the recipient of the action, and means “to Marija”) – regardless of the order of the words.
If this example has not convinced you of the importance of noun endings to indicate cases, consider this one. Imagine that Ivan has given a ball to Marija. Ana knows that he has given a ball to someone, but is not sure who.
She asks her sister Kata “Komu je dao loptu?” (To whom did he give the ball?).
Kata replies: Mariji je dao loptu (Literally, “To Marija he gave the ball”)
Since English speakers are attuned to word order for sense-making, my first reaction would be to think that Marija is the subject of the sentence (the giver). But Croatians ears are attuned to the endings of words - then the meaning is obvious.
[Of course I should have known that Marija is not the giver, because the past participle of the verb would have been the feminine dala (and not dao).]
How do you think that Kata would have answered if Ivan had given the ball to Nenad?
Lesson for me: Don’t be critical of the Croatian language, Bob. There’s no point saying that it should be like this, or not like that. It is what it is, and has developed in its way to allow functional communication among Croatian people. Accept that and try to understand how it works.
For a start, Bob, train yourself to listen to the endings of the words – not just of the nouns, but of the pronouns and adjectives as well.
Here’s a challenge … Who gave the ball to whom?
Ivani je dao loptu Ivan, i onda je Ivana dala Ivanu loptu.
And another, going back to the beginning of this post:
Dao sam psu kost, i onda sam dao psa sestri.
The key to understanding is in the endings. Imagine if Martians found a stone tablet with Croatian inscriptions and were searching for the code to understanding. I reckon that they would give up.
I will be posting about word endings to indicate case again and again and again. Yes it is that important to the task of learning Croatian! For example, there is more about word endings at the following posts:
Endings of adjectives and pronouns
Challenge: Translate the following sentences.
1. Ivani je dao loptu Ivan, i onda je Ivana dala Ivanu loptu.
2. Dao sam psu kost, i onda sam dao psa sestri.
1. Ivan gave the ball to Ivana, and then Ivana gave the ball to Ivan.
2. I gave a bone to the dog, and then I gave the dog to (my) sister.
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