The Loss of the Latin Case System – A New Morphological Approach

by Zeprina-Jaz Ainsworth (University of Oxford)

Much work has already been done on the development of the Latin case system, which has been lost almost entirely from nouns and adjectives in Romance. Scholars such as Herman (2000) have outlined phonetic, analogical, functional, and syntactic changes which may have contributed to the opacification of certain morphological case forms. However, none of the previous analyses account for the near-total loss of the case category in Romance. For instance, as the result of regular phonological changes, the singular forms in the first declension would not have ‘fallen together’ into a single, invariant shape:

PluralClassical LatinSound ChangeResult

AccusativeMENSAMLoss of final -m**mensa
AblativeMENSĀLoss of vowel length distinctions
GenitiveMENSAEae >[e]
DativeMENSAEae >[e]

Table 1: Phonetic erosion in first declension singular case/number suffixes

Moreover, cross-linguistic comparison indicates that, despite phonological, analogical, and functional developments, languages do not necessarily always lose their case systems. Finnish, for instance, retains the fifteen case values (for nouns and adjectives) reconstructed for proto-Finnic (although the abessive, comitative, instructive and prolative are now in restricted usage), and has even begun to develop new morphological suffixes:

Proto-Finnic nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative
Modern Finnish nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, (abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative), comitiative2, excessive

Table 2: Case values in proto-Finnic and modern Finnish

This study is concerned with answering the question: why do we find such different developments cross-linguistically?

One major difference between these two languages is that Latin is characterized predominantly by fusional morphology, whilst Finnish exhibits an abundance of agglutinative structure. By analysing these structures from a unit-agnostic ‘abstractive’ approach (as opposed to a ‘constructive’ perspective, in which forms are considered to be ‘built’ up of sub-word parts),[1] we may best understand how they behave in significantly different ways in diachrony.

In Latin for instance, the fully-inflected wordform and the relationship it bears to other forms in the paradigm provides the language-user with informative patterns which may be extended in the inflexion of other lexemes – there is no need to posit ‘underlying’ forms or identify sub-word morphs in order to ‘construct’ new forms. For instance, if the language-user knows a nominative singular form ending in -a, the lexeme must belong to the first declension. In the second and fourth declensions, however, even if both the nominative singular and accusative singular forms are known, there is residual ambiguity about the inflexion class to which the lexeme belongs:

Nom. sg. PUELLA 1st declension SERVUS 2nd/4th declension GRADUS 2nd/4th declension
Acc. sg. PUELLAM 1st declension SERVUM 2nd/4th declension GRADUM 2nd/4th declension
Gen. sg. PUELLAE 1st declension SERVĪ 2nd declension GRADŪS 4th declension

Table 3: Implicational relations in a sub-set of Latin nouns

In Finnish, implicative relations provide information about inflexion class, whilst the frequent isomorphic form~function mapping exhibited by inflexional suffixes provides absolute certainty in the expression of most case functions.

Nom. sg. ajatus ‘thought’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vieras ‘stranger’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Part. sg. ajatusta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vierasta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Gen. sg. ajatuksen -Vs ~ -Vks- + [n] vieraan Vs ~ -VV- + [n]

Table 4: Implicational relations and sub-word units in a sub-set of Finnish nouns

Whilst multiple forms are required in Finnish to determine the declension class to which a lexeme with a nominative singular form in -s belongs, there is certainty in many cells as to the inflexional material that will follow the lexical stem.

The abstract patterns that exist in Latin are not maximally-informative, that is, there is occasionally still uncertainty about the shape of an unknown form, even given knowledge of two forms in the language (consider table three). In Finnish, on the other hand, there is a sub-word area of absolute certainty in most of the cells in the inflexional paradigm. In addition to implicational relations, therefore, a Finnish speaker, even where there is not have sufficient information to deduce the inflexion class of a lexeme, may utilize maximally-predictable sub-word forms to produce a form (whether or not the ‘correct’ one) which may be interpreted correctly by a hearer.[2]

The observations offered here accord with language-learning data. Niemi and Niemi (1987) and Laalo (2009), for instance, observe that Finnish children recognise early the direct mapping of the suffix -n and genitive singular functions; they then utilise this knowledge in the deduction of previously unencountered forms. In Latin, exemplary paradigms and principal parts have long been used to capture the inflexional variation exhibited by lexemes. The implicational relations that exist between the nominative singular and genitive singular forms of a noun, for instance, are sufficient to enable L2 learners to ‘match’ novel items to the correct inflexion class.

I suggest that understanding the way in which morphological structures are recognised and exploited by languages-users may help to explain (in conjunction with, e.g., phonological or analogical developments) whether morphological case distinctions are likely to be lost or maintained. In Latin, the implicational relations, although informative, are not always maximally-predictive, and became opacified through time following regular phonological developments (such as those given in table one). As a result of such phonetic erosion, the area of informativeness in the Latin case system has shifted from the area of suffixal variation, distinct across declension, towards the certainty associated with the invariant form of the lexeme. By contrast, the maximally-predictable sub-word elements in Finnish may be rote-learned, which provides them with diachronic stability. These units, in addition to the less informative abstract relations, offer language-users on average more information in language use than is available to a learner of Latin in the production of novel inflected forms. Consideration of the morphological structures found in a given language and the ways in which they are recognised and exploited in language use may therefore offer some additional insight into why the robust Latin case system is not found in Romance.


Blevins, J.P., 2006. ‘Word-based Morphology’. In Journal of Linguistics 42:3. 531-573.

—-, 2016. Word and Paradigm Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blevins, J.P., P. Milin, and M. Ramscar. 2017. ‘The Zipfian Paradigm Cell Filling Problem’. In F. Kiefer, J.P. Blevins, and H. Bartos (eds.). Perspectives on Morphological Structure: Data and Analyses. Leiden: Brill. 139-158.

Herman, J., 2000. Vulgar Latin. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Laalo, K., 2009. ‘Acquisition of Case and Plural in Finnish’. In U. Stephany and M. Voeikova (eds.). Development of Nominal Inflection in First Language Acquisition: a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 49-90.

Milin, P., V. Kuperman, A. Kostić and H.R. Baayen, 2009.
‘Words and paradigms bit by bit: An information-theoretic approach to the processing of inflection and derivation’ in In J.P. Blevins and J. Blevins (eds.). Analogy in Grammar: Form and Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 214-252.

Niemi, J. and S. Niemi, 1987. ‘Acquisition of inflectional marking: A case study of Finnish’ in Nordic Journal of Linguistics 10:1. 59-89.

[1] The terms ‘abstractive’ and ‘constructive’ are from Blevins (2006).

[2] This discussion may be recast in terms of the information-theoretic notion of ‘entropy’. See, e.g., Milin et al. (2009) and Blevins (2016:171-196).