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Whenever I search “what are the use of cases”, the most common answer I find is that cases allow us to know the thematic role of a word in a sentence: the nominative case indicates who/what does the action (the subject); the accusative indicates who / what receives the action (the direct object) and so forth. This then means that languages that employ cases do not need to necessarily follow a strict word order in their sentences in order for their meaning to be understood.

However, in the following sentence:

Ich danke dir.

Since I am a Spanish native speaker, I would expect “dich” instead of “dir”, since “du” is the one who receives the action of the verb (and is the direct object). Does a native german speaker see this phrase as having a connotation that the “thanks” are being given / handed and thus use the dative “dir” (indirect object)?

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    The German cases have nothing to do with direct / indirect object. Not an answer to your question, just an advice for learning German: It won't get you very far applying this concept to German. Dec 13, 2023 at 23:13
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    The concept of direct and indirect object don't make sense for German. Forget it. Dec 14, 2023 at 1:55
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    Ich sehe dich=I see you. Ich gucke dir hinterher=I am looking at you (walking away). Both times'you' is the recipient of the action. But once the verb requires Akkusativ, the other dativ. The required cases are like a property of the verb which governs the related nouns, their cases and what they mean or indicate in relation to it. Dec 14, 2023 at 2:03
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    @planetmaker so in you example "ich sehe x", the meaning of "x" in the sentence and how it relates to other nouns in the would already be implied by the verb sehen, and we just simply arbitrarily decided to use a certain case (akk) with the verb sehen, as we do with gucken (dat). We may find some patterns in that a certain case is used predominantly when talking about a specific function of a noun in a sentence (which was probably not chosen accidentally and might have semantical and historical implications), but still both the role of the noun and the case are governed by the verb, right?
    – Agustin G.
    Dec 14, 2023 at 2:29
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    Translation does not respect cases (even though in Spanish they are not present, more or less equivalent direct and indirect objects are). As Spanish speaker, let me tell you the bad news: you can anticipate it with accuracy, you have to learn each verb with its associated preposition.
    – c.p.
    Dec 14, 2023 at 5:20

4 Answers 4

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Cases provide the information which is otherwise (in case-free languages) provided by prepositions. Your example is not a good one for noticing this, because in it, the case could actually be omitted without losing information (the cases don't provide necessary information in your example sentence, but in others they do).

But there are cases (pun inteded) where they will disambiguise the meaning of the phrase. Take the example

Ich übergebe dir Georgs Sohn.

("I hand over the son of Georg to you")

Ich being Nominativ, dir being Dativ, Georgs being Genitiv, and Sohn being Akkusativ is really crucial for the meaning of the sentence. Without cases, there would be a lot of combinations amongst the relations of the nouns in this phrase. Other languages use prepositions (for instance English) or word order (for instance Chinese, I believe) to resolve the ambiguity.

German has only a very limited case system, and some relations cannot be expressed in cases. In Latin, there is the Ablativus case, capable of expressing (amongst others) relations like by blackmailing. In Finnish (I have heard), you have cases for expressing relations like Me, being a teacher or Me, as a teacher. In order to express those relations you will have to use a preposition in German as well.

The relations which are expressed by cases are not simple. You might be able to identify some rules of thumb. But which case is being used also depends on the verb. The verb defines which valences it takes in which case. The verb geben takes an object in Akkusativ (the object that is being given) and optionally a Dativ object (who it is given to). The roles of the objects in each case may depend on the verb. And then, on top of that, there is also prepositions which demand certain cases.

Although I would assume that there must be a history in the development of the cases, where "originally" each case would encode a certain "concept" of relation, it is a hopeless endeavor to try and describe a semantic system behind the cases. You will find that some rule of thumbs might work a lot of times, but then they will fail to explain a lot of cases, too. I am afraid there is no simple answer. Take, as some examples

  • Ich sehe es dir nach [dass du zu spät bist] ("Ich can forgive you being late", Dativ, demanded by the verb)
  • Ich zeige ihn an. ("I report him to the police", literally "I indicate him", Akkusativ, demanded by the verb, anzeigen could also take an optional Dativ object, which would indicate who something is being indicated to.)
  • Während des Fußballspiels ("During the soccer match", Genitiv demanded by the preposition)

Similar to how hard it is to identify semantic concepts in prepositions in languages like Spanish or Italian, I don't think it would make sense to search for "hidden" semantics in the cases. Just as you have to learn the prepositions together with the verb, you have to learn the cases together with the verb. If there was an original concept behind them, it has gone through too many layers of transformation.

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  • Thank you for you answer, Jonathan. So, basing myself on your example, nominativ gti (gives the information) of who is doing the action, akk gti of who is receiving the action, dat gti of who is the recipient and gen gti of possesion, right?
    – Agustin G.
    Dec 13, 2023 at 23:36
  • @AgustinG. I am not sure I understand the question. What is the difference between "who is receving the action" and "who is the recipient"? Anyway, I amended my answer, hope it answers your question. Dec 14, 2023 at 0:37
  • Great, I think I am understanding it. Just a couple more details. Firstly, when you write that in my example the case could be omitted, what do you mean by that? Secondly and lastly, as a sort of conclusion: cases in German (and in other languages) provide information of the nouns role / how it relates to other nouns in the sentence. In some cases, such as your example, there are some "governing" semantic concepts regarding cases which allow us to understand the what the sentence is saying (since if these concepts didn't exist we wouldn't be able to tell the role of each noun in the sentence)
    – Agustin G.
    Dec 14, 2023 at 2:10
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    @AgustinG. When I wrote the case could be omitted, I didn't mean this would result in proper German. I just meant from a logical point of view, the case is not adding information in your example. Dec 14, 2023 at 9:00
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    @AgustinG. As for your conclusion, I think you are right :) Dec 14, 2023 at 9:10
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It might help to get the point of view of someone who has struggled with these concepts, and I'm a native English speaker so perhaps I qualify. English only has three cases, subject, object and possessive. English also follows a relatively strict semantic pattern when it comes to which case to use in a particular situation, and I gather from your question that it's the same in Spanish. German has a default semantic pattern, which works in most cases, but there are also many exceptions and as a learner you just have to memorize them. You mention "danken" in your question and that's one of the exceptions. In fact it's one of a whole class of verbs called "dative verbs" since they take a dative object but no accusative object (at for some meanings). For this reason it's best not to think of objects in German as "direct" or "indirect", but instead as "accusative" or "dative", because the roles of direct and indirect objects don't always correspond to German case.

Other examples of dative verbs are

  • "glauben":

    "Niemand kann ihm glauben. ― No on can believe him (dative)."

  • "gratulieren":

    "Ich gratuliere dir. ― I congratulate you (dative)."

  • "helfen":

    "Ich habe ihm bei der Reparatur des Wagens geholfen. ― I helped him (dative) with the car repair."

You might think of this as something like the subject/object switch that sometimes occurs when translating verbs from one language to another, for example Spanish "Me gusta la canción. ― I like the song." (Literally: "The song pleases me.") Actually the Spanish word for word translation to German works: "Mir gefällt das Lied."

On top of this, certain prepositions and other words require nouns in a particular case which seems to have nothing to do with direct vs. indirect. For example "mit ― with" takes dative but "ohne ― without" takes accusative.

In general different languages just seem to do things differently, to the point that even the terminology you use to describe one language does not work for a different language.

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Cases indeed transport the role of a noun in the sentence.

I think nominative and accusative are clear - one is the actor, the other the thing affected by the action (you using "receiving the action" actually doesn't help much as you have seen, because receiving can often mean dative).

Dative's original meaning is "the receiver" - That would mean it could only be used with verbs that somehow denote "giving", but indeed the concept of the "receiver" is vastly extended (that's a concept German has inherited from Latin) to the concepts of "giving" someone a commodity, interest, respect, opinion, ownership or purpose.

Macht mir mal dem Lehrer keinen Ärger!

(two datives - one ("Mir") expressing interest, one ("dem Lehrer") receivership)

The genitive can transport even more different notions. In most languages, the genitive has somewhat degenerated to a pure "possessive" (same in German). But there are still quite some remnants in German of the original broadth of meaning the Latin genitive could transport:

"Der Zorn Gottes" - that's not quite a possessive, but rather more an attribute. (Zusatz-Genitiv)

"Goethes Faust" - also not a possessive, but rather authorship

"Das Lexikon der Tiere" - "Genitiv des Gegenstands" - what is it about?

"Eine Fahrkarte zweiter Klasse" - "genitivis qualitatis" denotes a quality

"Ein Glas roten Weines" - "genitivus quantitatis" denotes a measure

And a lot more you might want to look up in a good grammar book (German Wikipedia has acceptable entries, especially on dative and genitive with numerous examples)

While the above is only marginally explaining the purpose of cases in German, I think these general concepts are interesting background information, but not immediately useful when actually learning the language. There are just too many nuances and exceptions to the above generic rules. Probably the best way to learn the case system is to

  1. Memorize verbs not simply by their direct translation, but with the possible choice and purpose of object cases, so instead of "geben == to give", memorize "jmd. etwas geben == to give sth to sbdy"
  2. Memorize prepositions by adding a case example, like rather than memorizing "mit == with", remember "mit etwas/jmd == with sth/sbdy"
  3. Memorize a few rough outliers (like verbs or prepositions taking genitive) separately, "marking them red" in memory.
  4. In active conversation, it might sometimes be simpler to use prepositions (i.e "das Auto von Jürgen" instead of "Jürgens Auto"). In very many cases, you might be able to - at least for western languages - directly translate the prepositional expression of your native language as an alternative approach to using a specific case in German.
  5. A somewhat dirty trick in active conversation if you don't know the proper case in German is: try to use plural instead of singular and try to use the indefinite form instead of the definite one: Because of the higher ambiguity of these forms you might actually be getting away with a wrong assumption :).
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  • Oh, ok. I see. So the cases do give information of the role of the noun. It is just that in some languages these interpretations of the role can change (some langauges have a more vast interpretation, referencing your answer). Like in the example of: Ich danke dir. Germans see this as GIVING thanks to someone, hence the dativ, while other languages can see giving thanks as a more direct action more related with the accusative. Is this correct?
    – Agustin G.
    Dec 14, 2023 at 0:07
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    In other words, the choice of the case used can give us an insight into the subtleties of how each language and its speakers see/Interpret certain concepts, right?
    – Agustin G.
    Dec 14, 2023 at 0:11
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    @AgustinG. I think, you can make that claim, and think I would even agree. But then, what does it even mean? How could this claim be falsified if it was actually false? It looks a lot like projecting an interpretation on the language that is hard to pin down. Speakers of German are definitely not aware of these concepts whenever they use Dativ. Dec 14, 2023 at 0:50
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    I would assume the best approach to learn the German case system is 1) to gain some understanding on why has the case been chosen like it was, but mainly simply learn your verbs in a more extended form, i.e. not "geben == to give", but rather "jmd. etwas geben == to give something to somebody". This covers at least the verbs that ask for specific cases.
    – tofro
    Dec 14, 2023 at 9:22
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Since you're a native Spanish speaker, would it give you some insight to know that most native English speakers find it surprising, and a bit confusing, that "I like it" is translated as "Lo me gusta"?

We think the pronoun should be 'yo', the verb should end in '-o', and Spanish "has got the arrow pointing in the wrong direction". Different languages grammaticize abstractions differently.

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