Why Latvian has cases

Why does Latvian have noun cases?

It makes everything more complicated!

Why can’t it be like English which doesn’t have cases and is perfectly fine without them?

When designing a language, you can choose it to have a fixed word order or flexible word order.

A sentence with a fixed word order follows a certain pattern, like, subject-verb-order.

It means that words that describe the subject of a sentence come first, then a verb, then an object.

You generally can’t change the word order. If you do, the meaning of the sentence can change.

English is a language with a fixed word order.

In the sentence, Mary loves John

  • Mary is the subject
  • loves is the verb
  • John is the direct object

You don’t say Mary John loves or Loves Mary John.

If you move words around and get John loves Mary, the sentence is still correct, the meaning is entirely different!

Latvian, on the other hand, is a language with a relatively flexible word order.

It means you can move words around and the meaning of the sentence is not going to change.

Let’s take the analogous sentence Ieva mīl Jāni as an example.

In this sentence, Ieva is the subject, mīl is the verb to love and Jānis is the direct object. Ieva loves Jānis.

If you change the order of words, Ieva will still love Jānis!

  • Ieva mīl Jāni
  • Ieva Jāni mīl
  • Jāni mīl Ieva
  • Jāni Ieva mīl
  • Mīl Jāni Ieva
  • Mīl Ieva Jāni

All of these sentences are perfectly valid and understandable to speakers of Latvian. There is no doubt who is in love and who this love is for.

How is that possible?

If you can’t rely on the position of words in a sentence, you need some other clues.

If you look at the endings of the nouns in the sentence, you can tell which is the subject and which is the object.

Ieva is the subject and we use the nominative noun case for the subject of the sentence. Jānis is a male name in Latvian. Jānis is the nominative case form or dictionary form of the name. In this sentence, Jāni is the word form in the accusative case which denotes the direct object in this sentence.

When Latvians hear Jāni mīl… (note the -i ending), they know that the sentence may be incomplete and it’s not him who’s in love.

Some words in Latvian are undeclinable. They typically are international words like auto, video, radio and untranslated proper nouns like YouTube, Netflix.

Undeclinable means that the ending never changes.

It might seem that these are the most favorite words for Latvian learners.

While it is very easy to use such words in a sentence, it takes extra brainpower for learners as well as native speakers to understand the sentence.

Es skatos YouTube video.
I watch YouTube video.

Do I watch one video or several? Is it a video produced by YouTube or do I watch the video on YouTube?

When things can be ambiguous, we usually use helper words to make them clearer.

Es skatos to YouTube video. I watch that YouTube video.
Es skatos visus YouTube video. I watch all YouTube videos.

Es skatos video iekš YouTube. I’m watching the video on YouTube.
Es taisu video priekš YouTube. I’m editing a video for YouTube.

When Latvians can’t decline a noun, it’s common to use the preposition iekš in place of the locative case to mean in or at something/someplace. Similary, priekš is used in place of the dative case to mean for something.

It’s also common to latvianize such nouns.

Es skatos video YouTubē. I’m watching the video on YouTube.
Es meklēju Googlē. I’m searching on Google.
Man patīk iPhoni (aifouni). I like the iPhone.

As you can see, we have a natural inclination to decline nouns even if they are not supposted to be declined.

This post was not intended to be linguistically correct.

But I hope you understand why the noun cases which you have to bother to learn can be useful.