6 Cases Survival Guide

Introducing Cases

This post will introduce you to grammatical cases. English has 2 cases (the subject case and the object case). However, their forms are different only for pronouns ("we" vs. "us").

Cases are forms of words when used in various places in a sentence (subject, object, indirect object, etc.)

If the sentence "Ivan is writing a letter to Ana." is translated into Croatian, all three nouns (Ivan, letter, Ana) must be put in cases corresponding to their roles. In English one uses just word order and preposition "to".

Case changes apply to nouns, adjectives and pronouns. For instance, the phrase moja sestra "my sister" (adjective + noun) and the pronoun ona "she" change like this:

Moja sestra je ovdje. "My sister is here" Ona je ovdje. "She is here."
Vidiš moju sestru. "You (can) see my sister"     Vidiš je. "You (can) see her."

We see that the adjective moja and the name change only a bit (only the ending), but the pronoun changes completely (this is actually similar to English, where "she" changes to "her" — a complete change). This example illustrates only two cases, but that's the principle.

So, a noun has different forms in various cases, an adjective has them too, but generally they don't follow the same pattern (although they are similar). Even worse, the pattern for an adjective depends on the gender of the noun! (That's actually the definition of gender I'm using here: it tells you which form of an adjective you should use).

As we've seen from the example, pronouns have yet another pattern... This is a hard thing to learn, and there's no other way but to memorize it. Therefore, it's worth learning the often used cases first. This chapter will introduce you to the cases, and the next two chapters will introduce forms for adjectives and nouns for the two most often used cases, and we will leave pronouns out for now.

Cases are roles of words in sentences.

Nouns ("cat"), including names ("Ivan"), adjectives ("big", "my") and pronouns ("I", "you") have different forms in various cases according to specific patterns.

I don't want to oversimplify things. Cases are a hard-to-learn concept, and which case is used where even harder. So I want to introduce basic cases as soon as possible. Don't be impatient and jump into conclusions, you must learn gradually where each case is needed and how to put a word into that case!

Some languages have more than 10 cases, like Hungarian. Georgian, Latin, Old Greek, Sanskrit, Old English, and most Slavic languages have 5-8 cases. Most textbooks say that Croatian has 7 cases.

Cases are woven together with singular/plural, so every Croatian noun has 7 forms for cases in singular, and additional 7 for plural = 14 all together. Adjectives have even more forms — one for each gender and case combination! Hopeless? Not completely.

A Quick Survey

First, one case (the nominative, or 'subject case') is the 'default' case — you have to know the dictionary form of a noun if nothing else, and there are rules how to make a plural. So, 6x2 left.

Second, two of the remaining 6 cases are always exactly the same in both singular and plural (except for a small difference in accent; also they are not equal in some dialects); they are called locative and dative — I'll call them both 'dative'. We are down to 5x2.

Next, there is a case (the vocative) used only when calling someone, or yelling at someone (like in "John, come down!" or "You, idiot!"); we can live without it for a while, and yell in nominative. Besides, a vocative plural is always the same as the nominative plural (there's again a small difference in accent for some words). Did you know that in fact, many languages have special forms for yelling and giving orders? This leaves us with 4x2.

We can postpone learning of two more cases — the before mentioned genitive (which is in many aspects the most difficult case!) and instrumental — because they are not used in simplest sentences; they are however used in some constructions, and we will have to learn them a bit later (otherwise we would not be able to say "two apples" in Croatian).

(The genitive case is introduced in 13 Genitive Case, and the instrumental case is introduced in 21 Instrumental Case. The vocative case is explained in 41 Imperatives, Permissions and Vocative Case.)

This leaves us with just 2x2 cases — precisely one for objects (the accusative), and another for indirect objects ('to-case', before mentioned dative). And, of course, there's the default case found in every language — the nominative. Sorry, I cannot make it simpler than that!

And you don't need to remember all 6 forms for every noun — there are rules how to make all of them.

Cases are usually abbreviated to three letters (e.g. acc. = accusative) or to one letter (N = nominative, A = accusative, etc.), and singular and plural to sg. and pl.

If you are worried about the locative case and how it got lost and absorbed into the dative case, you are free to call that case dative/locative. In practice, in colloquial conversation they are always identical. Let's keep things simple.

How They Work

Let's take a look how the noun Ana (a personal name) looks in various cases. I will indicate cases with superscribed letters N (nominative), A (accusative) and D (dative):

Ana(N) jede. "Ana is eating."
Hranim Anu(A). "I am feeding Ana."
Pišem Ani(D). "I am writing to Ana."

This doesn't look too complex! Don't forget, the nominative is the 'normal', unchanged form. From standpoint of Croatian, you could say that English nouns are always in the nominative case.

Now, some fun: every noun must be squeezed into this scheme! So, if one is writing to somebody else, let's say, to George Bush, it will be:

George(N) Bush(N) piše Ani. "George Bush is writing to Ana."
Pišem Georgeu(D) Bushu(D). "I am writing to George Bush."

You may also note two things: first, we changed every word in his name (that's normal); second, we added -u and not -i as we did to Ana (that's because Ana ends on -a, and we really changed that -a to -i).

Warning: most verbs use accusative, and some can use dative (like "write", "give"). But not all. That's not important at this time, but just remember that use of cases ultimately depends on the verb. The verb is the boss.

There's another use for acc. and dat. They are used with prepositions (words that correspond to English "in", "on", etc.). Croatian has a system of prepositions that is not too different from English (there are languages without prepositions!), and quite similar to German. The main point is that after a preposition a noun must be put in appropriate case. However, for some prepositions we can use more than one case, and that affects the meaning:

u + D = "in something"       u + A = "to something"
na + D = "on, at something"       na + A = "onto something"

In short, with these two prepositions (u, na), the accusative is used with directions (u grad "to the city"), and dative with static locations (u gradu "in the city"). German speakers will recognize a lot of similarities.

Summary and Final Remarks

Let's summarize:

Nominative is the default, "dictionary" case, and is used as a subject of sentence ("she is writing").

Accusative case is used as an object ("feed her"), and with prepositions u, na meaning motion to somewhere ("to", "onto").

Dative case is used as an indirect object ("write to her"), and with prepositions u, na meaning static location ("in", "on", "at").

Please, bear in mind these are only some uses of those cases. There are of course more. Much more :)

Don't ever think that acc. itself means 'direction'. It gets such meaning only with several prepositions. And there are other prepositions that require accusative but don't mean directions! That's why it's a complex thing to learn. (Again, exactly the same complexity exists in German).

Many people in Croatia always list cases in the 'standard' order (nom., gen., dat., etc.) That's a very bad choice since it makes cases much harder to learn (you'll see later why). I decided to completely disregard the so-called standard order. If hear from anyone that there's 'the standard order of cases', please ask that person to explain reasons for it, and they will not be able to say anything (except that it's a tradition).

Finally, you will maybe read somewhere that cases 'answer to questions'. That's the way Croatian children are taught cases in school. However, such approach is useful only if already you know Croatian — as children do — but you don't know the names of cases. For instance, the page learn-croatian.com gives a completely useless introduction to cases, and even tells that the word školu is in the locative case, while it's of course in the accusative case (I'll show you case patterns soon, so you'll be able to figure it out yourself). If you find any resource for learning Croatian mentioning 'cases answering to questions', you can safely conclude that their author didn't understand what cases really are, and you can safely disregard it...

Updated 2013-11-06 (v. 0.4)


Bingus said...

Hi - just wanted to say I found this site really helpful. There's just not enough free Croatian language stuff around!

One comment though; you did have a couple of spelling errors (in English).

"Vowels" is a one example :)

Anonymous said...

Ajaj, fulao si dativ od "George". Treba zadržati onaj završni "e" u pisanju (ali ga se, naravno, ne izgovara, kao ni u nominativu). Dakle: "Georgeu", a ne "Georgu".

Anonymous said...

to be precise, one should say that static locations are used with locative and not dative (even though these cases are pretty similar), aren't they?

Anonymous said...

At least in english your example "Jedem bez moje sestre. Jedem bez nje. "I'm eating without my sister. I'm eating without her." (gen.)" is not genitive but accusative. I'm eating my sister's food would be an example for genitive

Anonymous said...

or does it stem from something like "without my sister's presence", and this part has been skipped? I think in english there is something like eating "at my sister's", coming from eating "at my sister's place/home/..." ?

Anonymous said...

You know... I was trying to "lead" myself in Croatian cases using Latin cases as basis. But Genitive in Latin is used with possessions... So if it's not with Croatian... omg! I'm mixing up everything in my head! =P
And now you said Locative and Dative are quite the same... This confirmed the "suspicious" I had that Locative and Dative would "derive from the same Latin Dative"! =D
Language interrelations are very interesting, aren't they?? =D

Daniele Jackson.

Anonymous said...

Well, Daniel... I have to say it pleased my eyes to read that Croatian would be simpler than Latin! =)
What I've read on your blog is clear so far.
The issue is when one tries to learn a language without any grammatical background of that target language. For me to learn a language is necessary not only to learn new vocabulary and how sentences are structured, but to learn simultaneously the grammar related to the topic is being acquired as well. So... I was doing one without another. The result? A mess on my mind! =P
I'll see if I "put everything in order" now. And for sure I'll bother you with every single doubt I have!
Daniele Jackson.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Your blog is really helping me much. It gives other viewpoints compared to other materials and guides of croatian. Thanks for using that much of your time and creating a document with over 100 pages in total!

I also want to notice a small mistake...
[Vidim moju sestru. Vidim je. "I (can) hear my sister. I (can) see her."] hear / see... I think it's supposed to mean "I (can) SEE my sister."

Greetings from austria!

Unknown said...

I agree, because you can separate the lokativ, genitive, akuzativ and dativ out quite easily

Place: Mjesto, Gdje
Lokativ: X je u školi Genitiv: X je kod kuće.
Direction: Smjer, Mako
Akuzativ: X ide u školu Dativ: X ide kući. (Can also be for ide k ...)

The uses are quite different and at least for me, it is much easier to separate them out to be able to decide which one as if you have as movement separates them, and then prepositions continues to separate them.

Anja said...

Vidiš svoju sestru, btw :) "svoj" se tu koristi.
Inače, pohvale za blog!

Daniel N. said...

Znam, ali to bi sve kompliciralo. Želim jednostavnu ilustraciju. Prepravit ću to u "vidim tvoju sestru" :)

Hvala lp

narukio2000 said...

In your example; Pišem Georgeu Bushu. (dat. sg.) "I am writing to George Bush.", wouldnt you use acc because george bush is the object or the person you are writing to? How can you tell which verbs use acc or dat?

Daniel N. said...

No, you are writting a LETTER or whatever TO someone. Usually, when in English you have TO+something, it's dative and if not, it's accusative.

But it actually depends on the verb. Most verbs use accusative, but if they have two objects (like give something to someone, write, etc.) then one is in acc and another in dat. But there are many, many exceptions. I introduce them gradually because I later discuss most often used verbs, verb group by verb group.

There are even some verbs that use nominative! br Daniel

Anonymous said...

yeeeeeeah, croatian has 7 cases.

Daniel N. said...

But two of them are the same :) Just accented differently for a few words.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post.

Daniel N. said...

Please, check also http://easy-croatian.blogspot.com as some things are explained perhaps better and slower there

Marina said...

Your website is wonderful! I am a Brazilian Portuguese teacher and student of other languages and I think the way you explain everything is very good! Congratulations!

Daniel N. said...

Obrigado! Marina, please check also my other site, easy-croatian.blogspot.com, which is better organized, less formal and perhaps simpler for a novice learner.
lp Daniel

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