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For beginner, the way case is thought is to see what role the parts of the sentence play and choose the declension/ form of elements of the sentence based on that. However, I have seen also another approach that certain verbs pre-determine the case. Yet, I've also found verbs which can work in two cases at same (acc or dativ).

It seems to me then that case is something that arises out of semantics and not syntax in itself. Am I correct? Or can one through a more careful consideration find that case comes from syntax? If so, how would one do it?

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  • Sounds like a linguistics question to me that is probably best answered elsewhere.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 10, 2022 at 8:56
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    How so? I am asking specifically on the German Language... @CarstenS Aug 10, 2022 at 9:03
  • One problem I have with the question is that syntax and semantics are not really independent. One example: Is it a semantics or a syntax feature that mit commands dative case? I wouldn't be able to tell. Aug 10, 2022 at 12:56
  • I guess sometimes it is both at the same time. The verbs which only take in accusative or dative can be considered in a similar cateogory. They're syntatically structure represents their semantical part very well @JonathanScholbach Aug 10, 2022 at 13:01
  • I think the same. But then, you just got yourself an answer to your question, didn't you? Aug 10, 2022 at 13:14

2 Answers 2

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I don't think this question can be answered with "either/or". (And I think this question is on the verge of being off-topic here: Case is not a grammar aspect unique to German)

Case both drives semantics and marks syntactical elements (and is not necessarily "based on"):

Nominative (in any language) marks the subject of a sentence, objective case the object. So case definitely acts as a syntax marker. For some languages more, for others less (strict SPO languages like English don't really need such markers, as their syntax is clearly defined through word order only, while German with a more flexible order has a bit of a higher need for grammatical case marking syntax elements).

On the other hand, case also conveys semantics: Genitive may convey possession, dative may mark a receiver, languages that have an ablative may mark separation, removal or instrumentation through it.

Very generally, I'd say, the more cases a language has, the more semantics it may be able to convey through them. In a language that basically only has an objective case (like English, for example), the possible selection to convey semantics is limited, while languages that have more cases might be able to express more by just applying a specific case to a word (don't read this as "being more expressive" - that's not what I'm trying to say).

Grammatical case might also act as a modifier to prepositions: the German "in" is a good example - used with accusative, it conveys movement to somewhere, used with dative, it conveys "at or around" some place - clearly a semantic function.

I'm pretty sure you could devise a (very complex and very unruly) syntax for any language that swallows all those semantical elements completely: Two alternative (I'm sure, oversimplified, but this is just to illustrate the idea) examples could be:

 <General Sentence> ::= <Subject> <Predicate> <Object>

versus

 <Sentence with Object and Receiver> ::= <Subject> <Predicate> <Dative Object> <Accusative Object>

and you've built the semantical aspect of case completely into the syntax.

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Both. Syntax describes how correct sentences are formed. Clearly, all meaningful (correct) sentences will therefore follow the rules of syntax.

However, a group of words and syntax alone is not enough to determine case, tempus or modus.

Let's say you want to form a sentence using the words ich, gehen, in, Park. We can look at the set of all correct sentences according to syntax:

Ich gehe in den Park.

In den Park gehe ich.

Ich ging in den Park.

Ich gehe im Park.

Ich ginge im Park.

Im Park ging ich.

... lots and lots more ...

Only some, maybe even only one, of these sentences will express exactly what you want to say. Semantics allows you to pick the sentence that corresponds to what you want to convey from all syntactically correct sentences.

Speaking differently: Knowing what you want to say (semantics), rules for forming sentences (syntax) allows you to express what you want to say.

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