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How did the irregular German case system develop, specifically that the same article such as "der" occurs in different places in terms of gender and case, and there is no strict overarching pattern, for example, both neutral and feminine do not change from nominative to accusative, while masculine does?

Thank you

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    The kind of bijective mapping you seem to expect does not arise automatically or easily. It would correspond to case-unique endings in Latin, which are pretty non-existing either. In constructed languages you will have more regularity, but typically by having more duplicates. Can you provide an example language behaving differently?
    – guidot
    Apr 4, 2022 at 20:39
  • You mean, can I provide an example of a language with grammatical regularity? Don't agglutinative languages such as Turkish have a very strong one-to-one morphemic representation in their endings? I mean each grammatical function is marked by a particular suffix. If a verb, or pronoun, is feminine plural, then you would just see the feminine ending followed by the plural ending. At least I think so. My question is really about a desire to see the specific evolution of how things ended up in this way. It seems like there was once some regularity, but it got a bit scrambled. I just want to see Apr 5, 2022 at 10:13
  • that specific chain of events. Thanks very much. Apr 5, 2022 at 10:14

2 Answers 2

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German and English developed both from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Language. This common ancestor had 3 grammatical numbers (singular, dual, plural), 8 grammatical cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative, allative and ablative), 3 genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) and a system of tempus and mood combinations that is more complicated that the modern systems. Over many centuries the common ancestor language lost the dual number and many cases, and when English and German separated from each other about 1500 years ago, both languages lost even more features, and they did not loose the same features.

Today German has a much simpler system of tenses and moods than English. On the other hand English completely lost the tu-vos-distinction (»du - Sie« in German) and the gender system for nouns. (In English gender exists only for pronouns, but no longer for nouns, while in German still every noun has at last one gender.)

This explains how it happened, that modern German has genders for nouns, but English doesn't: English just lost this feature. But how these genders developed in first place is another story:

Linguists believe that in early states of PIE grammar distinguished only animate from inanimate. Animate is anything that is alive: people, animals, ghosts, gods. Anything that is not alive belongs to the inanimate noun class (tools, clothes, food, ...) This distinction still exists in German and English. Not for nouns but for some pronouns: You use "who" for animate items and "that/what" for inanimate. (The man who I saw is still standing there. Who is standing there? - The tree that I saw is still standing there. What is standing there?)

The animate noun class is the ancestor of masculine gender and inanimate is the ancestor for neuter nouns. Swedish is a language that still has this system. But for obvious reasons they don't call the animate noun class "masculine" because it also contains all nouns for female persons and animals. So they call it "utrum" which is Latin and means "both". And the noun class for inanimate nouns is "neutrum" (from Latin ne-utrum = none of both) or neuter which is a newer version of "neutrum".

When you compare the articles and other grammatical features of the feminine noun class with the plural form, you will see many similarities. Not only in German, but also in other languages that have a feminine noun class. And there is a reason for this:

Beside the distinction between animate and inanimate there also was the distinction between one thing (singular), two things (dual) and many things (plural). Dual became extinct, but after a while people began to use the plural form also for some singular items. They used the plural form for single women and girls, for single female animals and even for some single inanimate items. And so a third singular noun class developed from the plural form: the feminine noun class. Languages like Italian kept only masculine and feminine and lost the neuter class. German still has all of them: masculine, feminine and neuter and English lost the complete gender system for nouns.

The articles and pronouns used in German today are very old. They are older than German itself. And they changed over many thousands of years, so it's hard to see today where they came from when you see them in modern German. But I hope you see a very old hidden system behind these words now.

How the details happened, (Why is the definite singular article for feminine genitive the same as for masculine nominative?) is hard to say today. The reason in most of these cases is just: Languages develop irregularity and almost all changes happen by accident. Nobody is planing living languages. There is no guiding mind behind the way how languages develop. They develop like living species: Small changes happen here and there, most of them will be ignored, but some of them spread over the whole population, and nobody can say how and why this happened. It's pure coincidence.

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In the following, I will use examples from the inflection of verbs to introduce some concepts that are then applied to the inflection of determiners. I have sometimes, when I wanted to put particular emphasis on them, put values of grammatical features in square brackets.

German is a fusional language, i.e. an inflecting language where suffixes usually express bundles of features. For instance, looking at the paradigm of verbs in the present indicative, ‑e expresses both [1st person] and [singular].

sg. pl.
1st sag-e sag-en
2nd sag-st sag-t
3rd sag-t sag-en

This table reveals another characteristic typical of many inflectional languages: Not all feature combinations are uniquely marked. In the plural, there is no opposition between 1st and 3rd person; both [1st person, plural] and [3rd person, plural] are marked by ‑en.

Furthermore, this syncretism isn't random, but systematic. Typically, unmarked categories tend to have less syncretism than marked ones. For verbs in the present indicative, the unmarked singular has a triple opposition ‑e, ‑st, ‑t with regard to person, whereas the marked plural only has a double opposition [1st or 3rd person] ‑en vs. [2nd person] ‑t. In fact, the triple opposition is limited to the present indicative; all other tenses and moods have the same double opposition as the plural of the present indicative. For instance, in the singular past indicative, ich sagte, du sagtest, er sagte.

Historically, syncretism may arise when originally distinct suffixes collapse into one. For a long time (up to the 15th century), the plural present indicative would retain a triple opposition: sagen, saget, sagent. (In some dialects, the syncretism went farther than in the standard language and the plural endings for all persons collapsed into one ending ‑en or ‑et.)

With these concepts in hand, let's take a look at the inflection of determiners such as dies-, jen-, welch-.

masc. neut. fem. pl.
nom. [acc.] -er [-en] -es -e -e
dat. -em -em -er -en
gen. -es -es -er -er

I have combined the rows for [nominative] and [accusative] into one because they are distinct only in the masculine singular. This systematic syncretism is inherited (all the way back from Proto-Indo-European for the neuter, and from West Germanic for the plural).

Again, presence of marked features reduces the number of oppositions. In the unmarked singular nominative, we have a triple opposition dies-er, dies-es, dies-e; but in the marked dative and genitive, [masculine or neuter] dies-em, dies-es is opposed to [feminine] dies-er. In the marked plural, there is no distinction between genders.

Some of the homophones such as [masculine, nominative] dies-er and [feminine, dative or genitive] dies-er are due to phonetic changes. In Old High German, these forms were still distinct (dër vs. dëra/-u/-o).

Finally, note that, all the various dialects, at each stage of development, were highly functional means of communicating. That is to say, the human capacity for language has no trouble dealing with the various phenomena previously mentioned, such as fusions of multiple features into one suffix and syncretisms. (It also has no trouble with completely isolating or polysynthetic languages.)

And features that are expressed by a suffix for some parts of speech may be unexpressed in others. For instance, in the following sentence, the features [nominative], [dative] and [accusative] are not expressed at all (which does make it ambiguous; it could be Fritz being introduced to Maria or the other way around).

Jochen hat Fritz Maria vorgestellt.

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