Research article
Issue: № 1 (1), 2015


The article considers the problems of the category of case. According to the author’s interpretation, the general meaning of grammatical case is based on primitive spatial images (IN – OUT) and connected with diatheses and the category of transitivity.

The structural approach to the language semantics is very difficult because the scholars haven’t managed so far to find universal semantic differential features. The attempts to elicit the features belonging exclusively to the plane of content have been made by L. Hjelmslev and R. Jacobson in their well-known works on case. Although Hjelmslev’s and Jacobson’s studies were rather subjective because the authors’conclusions were based on their intuition, we cannot entirely exclude intuition from linguistic research.

Ju. N. Кaraulov made an attempt to construct the objective technique in order to find the invariant cases meanings on the material of the Estonian language. He was guided by his intuition to unite several normative meanings into one common state. It was A. N. Kolmogorov’s hypothesis (“the case is a class of absolutely equivalent semantic states in relation to the object”) which aroused the fundamental supposition. If the state of two objects is equal, their lexical meanings don’t matter. Кaraulov supposes that the concept ‘state’ in the adequate linguistic interpretation includes three semantic features: the direction of the action, the border of the object and interrelation of the object and the action. They form “the basis of the space of logical possibilities” [3].

Let us look at the relevance of these semantic features in regard to the content of case.

1. The feature of the action (‘direction’): to or from the object (is expressed explicitly or implicitly), no direction (is not expressed explicitly).

Objection. We should not include ‘the direction of the action’ in case semantics, however, many scholars do it. They usually name the following spatial relations which are present as shades of case-form meanings in actant functions: the direction of the action from the object; the direction of the action to the object; the action (implementation of the action) is within the object (localization). However, the locative and directional meanings, according to Ch. Fillmore [5, 407], do not oppose each other, but they have surface differences which are conditioned by either the phrase structure or the type of the verb governing the noun. We should by all means take into consideration I. М. Tronskiy’s opinion [4, 75] about the accusative meaning: the feature ‘direction’ (→ ‘arrow, vector’) is expressed not by an accusative case form itself (the accusative indicates ‘immobility’), but a verbal predicate or a context. The action dwells in the object and is revealed in it. In contrast to the subject, the source of the action, which is separated from the action by two-part construction in the sentence structure, the object in the Indo-European languages is integral with the action and constitutes inalienable, but inactive possession of the action. Nearby the verb of motion the nominative means ‘the source of motion’, the accusative – not its direction, but ‘something immobile’, ‘the final point of movement’, or ‘the measure of its extent in space and time’ (the accusative of extent of space).

That is why there are no reasons to include the feature ‘direction’ in case semantics, especially if we mean the semantic state of the object. The direction of the action is not expressed by case forms, but explicitly – by verbal prefixes, by prepositions (after the verbs of motion), by voice constructions – or implicitly – the seme ‘the direction of the action from the subject to the object’ is a semantic component of the transitive verb.

2. The feature of the object (‘border’): the object is divided into parts or it participates as a whole (the border is expressed explicitly or implicitly), the feature is absent (the border is not expressed explicitly).

Objection. Aristotle noted correctly: “If something exists or in the possibility or reality as such, it is characterized by [affected] not so that one part was influenced, and the other does not, as a whole, because it is like that; [he is peculiar to test the effect] to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether it is, as such, to a greater or lesser extent” [1, 412]. Thus the action is either transferred from the subject to the object or not – tertium non datur. However, the border of the object is important in another respect (see below).

3. The feature of interrelation of the object and the action (‘connection’): the object is connected with or separated from the action (the connection is expressed explicitly or implicitly), the connection is absent (the connection is not expressed explicitly).

Correction. In semantic analyses it is necessary and sufficient for defining the state of actants to take into account interrelation of the object and the action. Let us try to show what ‘connection’ and ‘disconnection’ of the object (always conceivable as a whole) with the action (which can be directed to or from the object) means from the viewpoint of spatial relations. As is well known, these are spatial images that belong to the oldest oppositions of the structure of human psyche and make up the nucleus of grammatical categories. For the adequate analyses of the category of case it is essential to separately examine the cases relating to the different levels of the sentence semantic structure [2] – internal syntax (“basis”) and external syntax (“superstructure”) because the mathematical (not linguistic!) concept ‘state’ is represented in different ways in these two levels.

The nucleus of the proposition, its sense centre, is a subject-predicate-object structure. This integral semantic-syntactic complex (we should describe the technique of uniting its structure components as a syntactic fusion) has its own spatial correlations and forms the internal space. In this paper we have to be restricted by consideration of internal syntax semantic structure.

According to localism, abstract (syntactic) cases represent the development of spatial (semantic) cases by means of metaphoric transfer, the so-called “secondary functions” (Е. Kurilovich). А. Shakhmatov (under the influence of B. Delbrück’s ideas) defined the “original” cases meanings according to the position that abverbal cases reveal the nature of active feature modifying this dependent substance. Indeed, the term “verb”, according to А.Potebnya, correlates to ‘energy’ as a property of a thing (a subject) knowable by reflection on other things (objects). Now we can reformulate it in the following way: in the internal space the case is an indicator of the position of the  object regarding the action. Therefore, the border of the object is important in spatial respect: the action can be identified within the object (IN) and beyond (OUT). These two primitive states seem to be corresponding to Kolmogorov’s interpretation of case because the strict mathematic term “state” implies “the location of the point of the system within the corresponding element of space” [3].

The notion of spatial localization of the action based on the concept ‘border’ is reflected by diatheses [1]. The diatheses as a category of deep (semantic) level shows the spreading of the process which is expressed in the verbal stem in space. Space, according to Aristotle, consists of places (loci). Actants are loci within the internal syntax space. The ancient Indo-European diatheses (‘the position of the subject in regard to the process’) as a deep (semantic) category was complicated by the category of transitivity / intransitivity (‘the position of the object in regard to the process’). Transitivity is an “inverted” ancient diatheses appeared when the reversible perspective changed into the direct one and the former subject turned into the modern object. However, as distinct from “internal / external” (E. Benvenist) diatheses which had its marker in the verb, transitivity – in view of the fact that the verb has already been used by the subject  – develops the category of object in order to receive its own marker. As the notions of ‘case’ (of the noun) and ‘diatheses’ (of the verb) are entirely symmetrical, it would be logical, on the contrary, to define the diatheses as a case of the verb. It is significant that antique linguists actually referred the definition πτοσϊς (ptõsis) ‘case’ not only to the noun but also to the verb.

We can find the embryo of diatheses (cases and voices) development in the verbs of exocentric semantics ‘motion in relation to place (locus)’ (Aristotle), i.е. movement.

The formation of the cases’ oppositions is related to transformation of the former opposition centrifugal / centripetal into new gradually forming morphological opposition transitivity / intransitivity in the verbal system. The understanding of the deep semantics of transitivity is the key for the understanding of the nature of grammatical cases. Transitivity / intransitivity as a metaphor of spatial relations conceptualizes transferring and localization of the activity (energy) of an animate being putting in an action (‘do’), and the purpose of the action is creating of an object or changing of its location, attitude, quality or quantity [2].

To sum up, the primitive spatial meanings (“IN” “OUT”) play a role of “embryo”, out of which the different configurations of the noun–verb system  develop gradually becoming overgrown with new, more differential shades of meaning. And the concept ‘BORDER’ is a criterion of differentiation of the meanings.


  • Aristotel`. Soch. v 3 t. / Aristotel`. – T. 3. – M.: Mysl`, 1981. – 613 s.

  • Ilchenko, O.S. Odushevlennost` / neodushevlennost` v structure predlozhenija / O.S.Ilchenko. – SPb.: Nestor-Istoria, 2011. – 148 s.

  • Karaulov, Ju. N. K voprosu o padezhnikh universalijakh / Ju.N.Karaulov // Vestnik Moskovskogo universiteta. – 1966. – № 6. – S. 48-60.

  • Tronskij, I.M. Obshcheindoevropejskoe jazykovoe sostojanie. Voprosy rekonstructsii / I.M.Tronskij. – 2-e izd., stereotip. – M.: Editorial URSS, 2004. – 104 s.

  • Fillmore, Ch. Delo o padezhe / Ch.Fillmore // NZL. – 1981. – Vyp. X. – S. 369–495. [Fillmore Ch. The Case for Case, 1968]