34

The first mnemonic for Latin case ending I learnt was that for neuter words, the accusative form is always identical to the nominative form. This applies even to exotic word endings like animal or id, and so far I am not aware of any counterexample to this.

This always struck me to be an odd rule. Thus, I am curious:

  • Do we have any idea why this is the case?
  • And related: How strong is this rule? Are there any known exceptions?

Related question on Linguistics SE: Why do neuter nominative and accusative always agree in IE languages?

35
+50

I believe there are no exceptions to this rule. That's what I have always read, and I have never encountered any, neither in Greek nor in Latin, nor even in German.

There is an hypothesis about the cause of this phenomenon. Neuter words were historically limited to inanimate objects or things that cannot act. In a basic sentence, it was rarely or never the neuter thing that acted, and therefore you didn't need case to distinguish between agent and patient/theme (between "acting" and "being acted upon"). So, if you just have a transitive verb and a neuter word, there is only one possibility: the neuter thing is acted upon. With an intransitive verb, there is no object, so it is even less necessary. So semantics make case redundant for neuter words.

This hypothesis is inspired by our knowledge of ergative–absolutive languages, in which the 'subject' of an 'intransitive' verb and the 'object' of a 'transitive' verb take the same case (the absolutive case), as opposed to the 'subject' of a 'transitive' verb (ergative case, from ergon "work, deed, action", related to work). In other words, the primary complement of a verb is the thing that does not act; and only some verbs have a secondary complement, which is a thing that acts.

(This contrasts with nominative–accusative languages, such as the main European languages, in which the subject of an intransitive verb takes the nominative, but the object of a transitive verb takes the accusative case. Our primary complement is the subject, which often acts; and only some verbs have a secondary complement, the direct object.)

Of course this is an hypothesis, so take it with a grain of salt. But it's the only one I've ever heard.

  • 4
    There is a singular exception to the rule that nom. and acc. neuter plurals in Latin end in -a. The relative pronoun qui, quae, quod has quae — but it is NOT an exception to the rule under discussion! – Tom Cotton Jan 15 '17 at 16:25
  • 3
    @TomCotton: Ah, good point. And haec. It could be argued that those are contractions of qua and ha with deictic particles -e [i] and -c(ce), which would not be part of the ending. Cf. Greek -i after some forms of houtos. – Cerberus Jan 15 '17 at 17:43
12

To answer your second question, this rule is completely exceptionless, not only in Latin but in all Indo-European languages (that is, those that have a neuter gender at all).

neuter gender always had identical nominative, accusative and vocative forms in all three numbers

Wiki link

Archaic Syntax in Indo-European

  • 13
    Sources for this statement (which I believe is correct) would be helpful. – brianpck Feb 23 '16 at 19:04
  • 1
    @aper I rejected your edit because it was in conflict with what TKR wrote. Disagreement is allowed and even encouraged, but your opinion should not appear with someone else's name. Please write your answer as a separate answer. That way people can vote and comment on various different answers. Yours looked very interesting, and I have an upvote waiting with your name on it. You can access what you wrote here if you want to copy and paste it to a new one. – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 12 '18 at 11:16
  • 2
    This is wrong. Hittite is an indo-european language for which the rule of neuters doesn't hold: the nominative of a neuter noun for a transitive verb is different from the accusative. The source given 'Archaic Syntax in Indo-European' by Brigitte Bauer refers to proto-indo-european, not to its derivatives, latin, russian, hittite, etc – aper Mar 13 '18 at 7:32
4

For the sake of completeness, it seems worth noting that there's one odd exception.

The gerund is a noun derived from a verb, representing an action (for example, volāndum "flying"). For the most part it acts as a regular second-declension neuter.

However, the gerund lacks a regular nominative, and instead uses the regular present active infinitive of the verb (volāre, "to fly").

So in this one particular case, volāre is nominative, and volāndum accusative.

  • 2
    To be more precise, I would add that also volare can be the accusative. It depends on whether a preposition is used. This answer relies on the combination of infinitive and gerund being treated as a single noun, which it kind of semantically is. From another perspective, one could argue it isn't. Either way, this is a very worthwhile remark. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 4 '18 at 3:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.