Declining Case: Inflectional Loss in Progress

Project Overview


Declining Case: Inflectional Loss in Progress

Project members:

Dr Matthew Baerman
Dr Alexander Krasovitsky
Prof. Greville G. Corbett
Dr Maria Kyuseva

Prof. Sofija Miloradović (Belgrade, Institute for the Serbian Language SANU)
Prof. Vladimir Zhobov (Sofia, University St. Kliment Ohridski)
Dr Alexander Stewart (statistical modelling)
Nick Harff, MSc., CGeog, FRGS (GIS consultant)

Period of award

March 2021 - February 2024


The Leverhulme Trust

The rich case systems that set older languages such as Latin or Old English apart from their descendants were lost over the course of centuries, dramatically changing the linguistic landscape of Europe. The Old English passage se engel cydde cristes acennednyss-e hyrdemann-um 'the angel announced Christ's birth to the shepherds' expresses grammatical relations with case endings (accusative -e, dative -um) while its modern English equivalent resorts to prepositions and word order. Much the same has happened with other Germanic languages, and with the Romance languages. But in spite of the broad sweep of this change we know surprisingly little about how it occurred, and contradictory theories continue to be debated. This is largely because we are constrained to using the imperfect historic record, which cannot tell us how speakers handle variation in their everyday language use and how they promote innovations leading to structural change. Ideally, we would observe language change in progress and with real speakers.

And in fact, we can. The two closely related South Slavonic languages, Serbian and Bulgarian, form two ends of a dialect continuum where this change is still taking place. Standard Serbian represents a conservative variety with six cases, while Standard Bulgarian represents an innovative variety, where nouns do not inflect for case at all. This transition involves both the loss both of inflection of semantic distinctions.




idu na




na Kipâr

'They go to Cyprus'





na Kipâr

'They help Cyprus'





na Kipâr

'The population of Cyprus'

žive u




na Kipâr

‘They live in Cyprus’

In between, there is a transitional zone with varying degrees of the loss of case, ranging from declining six-case systems, where four of the historical cases (genitive, dative, instrumental and locative) are being gradually ousted by one general oblique form (historically accusative), to severely reduced three- and two-case systems. These changes over space reflect changes over time and provide us with ‘snapshots’ of consecutive historical stages of case decline and loss, reflected in currently spoken language varieties.

We will develop a historical model of case loss based on this rich dialectal variation and test three hypotheses, applying a variety of analytical techniques to annotated and geographically referenced datasets derived from our fieldwork.

Hypothesis 1. The process of case loss varies according to morphological properties of the lexicon. In Slavonic, the form and distribution of case morphology differs according to noun class. For instance, the nominative and accusative plural of ‘bus’ have distinct endings (autobus-i vs autobus-e), while they share a single ending with ‘woman’ (žen-e). Thus, the frequency, functional load and perceptual salience of case endings differ from noun to noun. Such circumstances may foster or hinder the process of case loss in ways which vary across the lexicon.

 Hypothesis 2. There is cause-and-effect relationship between the loss of case and syntactic change. While there is a well-founded tradition to relate the two types of grammatical change, there is still a lack of empirical data that would clarify the underlying mechanisms. We will investigate such crucial syntactic phenomena as the spread of prepositional constructions, the rise of restrictions on word order, and clitic doubling.

 Hypothesis 3. Covert changes in case use lead to the impoverishment and loss of grammatical case. Dramatic changes affecting case systems may proceed through restricting functions of individual cases, weakening the overall case system. The analysis of transitional dialects will reveal how speakers manage these restrictions and how lexical, morphological and syntactic factors condition them.        

The project brings together large-scale language data which we will obtain through extensive fieldwork in the regions representing three major case-marking types, fine-grained linguistic analysis, advanced statistical modelling and visualisation techniques. The results of the project will be significant in the following respects. First, the project aims to explain the mechanisms one of the major historical developments in European languages from a Slavonic perspective and shed new light on typological and historical research in this area.  Second, we will develop and test a novel framework for the research into grammatical change using rich dialectological data. Third, the online database will make available language data from an understudied area, which will be freely available for a variety of linguistic and cultural research.