Did case systems dissappear in coordination with allowing arbitrarily deep embedding?

Given that Piraha (and Warlpiri) do not allow embedded clauses, and Piraha does not allow recursion at all, clause embedding is not universal to all languages. It is reasonable to suppose that it does not appear in full blown form in pre-literate societies. So unlimited embedding of clauses is something that post-dates writing and evolved along with it. This whole question presupposes this thesis.

To support this, I will give the evidence of the Hebrew bible (since the only ancient language I can read is Hebrew). From reading a few books of the old testament, and translating them to English, I can attest that the grammatical complexity of the old testament does not give any clear evidence of a grammar which allows Charles Dickens or Henry James recursive styles. The oldest parts never go more than one embedded clause deep, and there are grammar errors which suggest that the authors had a problem with complex sentences.

(EDIT: I was told by a classicist that this is not so pronounced in ancient greek and latin. A classics student I asked told me that Homer's work is recursive, although not as complex as later writing. He claimed that the later latin writers, he named Cicero and Thucidedes, are about equally recursive as Shakespeare and Dickens. This was interesting, because their recursive sentences occur in heavily cased languages, in ancient times.)

I am not asking about this, I just ask you to accept this hypothesis for the sake of making sense of this question. Assuming that grammatical recursion evolved in the historical period, one can ask: what effects did the introduction of recursive grammar have?

I believe that the major effect of the introduction of recursion is to disfavor the complex case systems typical of ancient and pre-literate languages, in favor of using separate words like "to" and "of". While it is easy enough to add a case marker to a stand-alone word, like house, so as to say "I walked house-ward" (in an approximation to a case in English), this construction does not work when you replace "house" by "place where my mother in law was born". You can say "I walked to the place where my mother in law was born", but you can't say "I walked (place where my mother in law was born)-ward".

Cases and clause recursion don't play well, for the same reason that free word order and recursion don't play well. If you can rearrange the words in a sentence, you can't make clauses nest, because you just can't rearrange words outside of clause boundaries without wrecking the embedded clause boundaries, and you need clear start and end markers for clauses, which are not provided without the appropriate stand-alone function words "to","in", "of", "which","that", and so on.

This hypothesis makes the following predictions, and these are the questions I have:

The mainstream view of linguists is that case-shedding is a kind-of degenration of language with time, and that it occurs as speakers lose the quality of excellence of the early language. You hear this piffle from classicists when they discuss the Latin case system. I am saying that the cases disappear because the language is developing recursion, not because the speakers are getting dumber. They are getting smarter.

(EDIT: It seems that the answer for ancient Latin is that the recursion is as developed as in modern languages.)

I am sorry for not separating the questions, but they are all about the same thing, and feel free to answer only one, any insight is welcome. I am not sure if it is in the linguistics literature, or if it is original to me. I think this idea is original, but please disabuse me of this belief if I am wrong.

EDIT: In response to comments

I got a downvote and weird comments, so I would like to make the hypothesis clearer. Consider the Hebrew sentence "and he walked to Shechem". In the Bible, it is "Ve-Halach Shchem-a" (and-(walked-he) Shechem-ward). In modern Hebrew, nobody would use this expression. They say "Ve-Halach le-Shchem" (and-(walked-he) to-Shechem).

What happened? The post-modifier "a" attaching to Shechem is replaced by a pre-modifier. Why does it happen? I know why--- because if you wanted to say "And he walked to the large mountain by the sea", you would say "Ve-halach la-har hagadol leyad ha-yam" (And-walked-he to-the-mountain the-big by the-sea). You could not say "Ve halach har-a hagadol leyad ha-yam", using the post modifier, without cluttering up the clause "har hagadol leyad ha-yam" with an extra syllable in the middle. By the way, if the Bible ever said such embedded things, it would say it this way:

"Vehalach har-a, ha-har hagadol leyad hayam". (And walked-he to-the-mountain, the-mountain the-big beside the sea.--- And he walked to the mountain, the big mountain beside the sea.)

It would use the post-modifier to make the mountain into the proper case, but it would then clarify what the mountain meant in a separate phrase that isn't really embedded. The case system is mucking up the embedding.

Nobody uses "mountain-ward" in modern Hebrew, except for some idiomatic phrases, like "halachti ha-baita" (I walked home-ward). The case modifier is replaced with what is essentially a stand-alone function word "le" or "la" (meaning "to" or "to the").

Why do you prefer the pre-modifier rather than the post-modifier? I strongly believe that the reason is that if you are doing Chomskian transformations which move phrases to different roles, you want to be able to move the whole phrase somewhere else as a unit, without mucking around inside to remove stupid dangling case-modifiers. So you prefer the function word "le" or "la", which functions exactly the same as the English "to". It comes at the beginning, and you just lop it off to make a stand-alone phrase that can be moved to another position in a different sentence.

To make the example clear, I will pretend that English can do the same thing. Suppose that English was able to say "I walked mountain-ward", using a modifier "ward" on words that tells you that you are walking to the mountain. Then you could say

"I walked mountain-ward with the statues of presidents carved into it"

or you could say

"I walked to a mountain with the statues of presidents carved into it"

The first form has a stupid case modifier in the middle of the clause that needs to be excised if you want to do a transformation. For example, if you want to say

"The mountain with the statues of presidents carved into it is pretty"

You would need to change mountain-ward into mountain, which requires mucking around inside the clause. This is much more intuitive when the function stuff occurs before the word, as a pre-modifier, rather than after the word, as a post-modifier.

So languages that deal with embedding on a regular basis like to have the syllable signifying "to" before the word, not after. In this position, it can drop off and become a separate word without any difficulty, and after this happens, you would say that the case has been lost, and a function word is gained.

In hebrew "le" is not a separate word in writing, but it might as well be, considering how it is used. It has the same exact function as the "to" in English, but it took over the "a" (-ward, as in homeward) post-modifier so much, that it is jarring to read the Bible and read "Lech Shchema ve-tagur sham." (Go Shchem-ward and live there). It seems obvious to me, considering how fast this happened (in the last 100 years) that the reason is that recursive clause embedding is common in modern Hebrew, and essentially nonexistent in Biblical hebrew.

The possessive 's of English is perhaps another reasonable example, but it is strange, in that you can apply it to clauses. I don't care about this weird exception. It seems that the rule is that when you have embedding, you prefer modifiers to happen at the beginning, and then they might as well drop off and become stand-alone function words.

This phenomenon of replacing post-modifiers or word-modifiers for case with a universal function word should happen to languages as they acquire recursive clause embedding. I want to know if this is true elsewhere than Hebrew.

EDIT: Explaining this in English

I will make up a case system for English, by replacing function words, so as to not have to write Latin examples.

verb modifiers will be as follows:

etc., using the function word plus "ly" as the case word for a verb-attaching adjective-like (or argument like) phrase, except for "to-ly" which is "ward".

etc., using "ish" and the function word as the case marking for a adjective phrase

Then taking a sentence with embedding:

The second expression is easy to permute:

But when doing a transformation, like asking

I have to take the phrase "the store-to-ly the-sea-by-ish" and transform it by scanning to remove the "to-ly" from the store. In the phrase "the store-to-ly the-sea-by-ish", "the store" is the leading noun, and it gets the case marker.

the This doesn't look too hard in this example, but if the leading noun is buried deep in the noun phrase, it becomes more difficult:

I enclosed the relevant phrase in parentheses in both examples (the intended parsing is that the sea is next to Greece, not the store), and italicized the cased leading noun, which in the example is "store-to-ly".

Now if I want to transform the phrase "the store by the sea which is next to Greece, which the Italian Health department closed in the year of our Lord 1999." into a question about whether this store is still closed, I have to take the phrase in parentheses, scan inside this phrase past "sea-by-ish, which is next Greece-to-ish," to find "store-to-ly" and then transform that token into "store". The transformed question is

You need to scan the phrase to remove the case markers from the leading noun. In standard English, no scan is ever required for a transformation--- you just move the entire phrase:

Notice that the parenthesized NP is exactly the same as before, just dropping the initial "to the". This makes transformations easy, even with deep embedding, and it is also the definition of what makes a language uncased. So uncased is recursion friendly, and cased is not.

I believe that the desire to make phrases movable without modification during transformations is the driving force for the phenomenon of case-shedding in languages.

The examples above, applying the case-markings to the main noun in the noun phrase, is how it works in Latin.

EDIT: Clarify

Did case systems dissappear to make embedding easier?

I edited this question in response to Karlsson's paper, "Constraints on Multiple Center-Embedding of Clauses" (Journal of Linguistics 43 (2), 2007, 365-392), linked here: http://www.ling.helsinki.fi/~fkarlsso/ceb5.pdf .


Given that Piraha (and Warlpiri) do not allow embedded clauses, and Piraha does not allow recursion at all, clause embedding is not universal to all languages. As Karlsson persuasively argues, full blown recursion developed in the historical period. I will assume this here, and I will not repeat Karlsson's arguments.

In the Hebrew bible, there is no more than one embedded clause in any given sentence, consistent with Karlsson's bound for pre-literate societies, and there are grammar errors which suggest that the authors had a problem with complex sentences. As Karlsson explains, Greek and Latin writers developed full blown center-recursion explicitly somewhere around the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, and there is no evidence that recursion existed before then in any form


As recursive embedding becomes common, it is possible that speakers prefer constructions which allow embedded clauses to take on different roles with no internal modifications. If you say

and you try to modify home to the embedded noun-phrase "the wide-open field where John slaughtered the goat", you say

this requires inserting a syllable in the middle of the noun-phrase "wide-open field where John slaughtered the goat". If you want to move the noun-phrase to the subject position of a different sentence, you need to scan the interior of the noun-phrase to remove the case-modifier:

If you have a stand-alone preposition, no scan is required

the words past "to" are exactly the same as when the noun-phrase is in the subject role. If the preposition can appear at the beginning of the phrase, it gives a clear "push" indicator for a mechanical parser, and it allows for trivial transformation of phrases to different roles.

compare the cased:

Store from-ly means "from the store" in a case approximation in English.

to the uncased:

There is no internal scan of the noun-phrases required in order to change their function. the words stay the same as the noun-phrase takes on different roles, only the preposition changes.

The case-introducing/case-removing noun-phrase scan is really annoying. It is computationally taxing, and I believe that it creates a linguistic pressure to remove cases from a language, and replace these with prepositions. When there are no cases, you have effortless noun-phrase embedding--- you just change the preposition, which always appears at the beginning.

I personally witnessed case-shedding events, in modern Hebrew. In the Bible, you would always say "Halachti le-beyto", "I went to-his-house" to mean "I went to his house", using a possessive marker on the word "bayit" (house). But modern Hebrew speaker will always say "Halachti la-bayit shelo", "I went to the house of him", precisely because the word "shel" can be used to embed, as in "Halachti la-bayit shel ha-ach hagadol sheli" "I went to the house of my big brother".

In addition to a possessive marker, which was shed, Biblical Hebrew also has a "to" case, so that it says "I walked Schem-ward" ("Halachti Schem-a"). Modern Hebrew, despite prescriptivist admonitions, also dropped this case entirely, so that all modern speakers use the recursion friendly: "I walked to shchem" ("Halachti le-Schem").

From my own native speaker intuition, I know that this is a consequence of the ubiquitous embedding in modern Hebrew. You don't say "I walked city-ward by the sea" in modern Hebrew, it is ungrammatical. you say "I walked to the city by the sea", with the exact same form as in English.

The Bible doesn't embed very much, and if it wanted to do this, it would say it in a pre-literate way that suggests recursion is completely alien to the author: "Halachti Schema, zu ha-'ir le-yad ha-yam"/"I walked city-ward, this is the city by the sea."

So the hypothesis is that recursive languages shed their cases as soon as most speakers begin to produce and transform multiply embedded sentences on a regular basis. This happens at different times for different languages.


This hypothesis makes the following predictions, and these are the questions I have:

I have read the latest edited version of your question, and I think I understand what you mean now.

It is important to make a distinction between an ordinary suffix and a case ending (which could be considered a special kind of suffix). Consider the following two examples:

The Latin sentence means exactly the same as the English one. The word liber ("book") is the subject of the sentence, and so it is in the nominative; viri ("of the man") is in the genitive, as indicated by the case ending -i (the nominative would be vir). The adjective magni ("large") is also in the genitive (nominative magnus). The head word (viri) of the noun phrase (magni viri) determines the case, number, and sex of the whole noun phrase; the adjective must always be in the exact same case, number, and sex.

This is a central principle in most of the case-heavy languages, including Latin, Greek, and German. Perhaps it would be better to characterise them as heavy in noun inflection, as this includes number and sex too. This principle is called concord or agreement, as you may know.

Consider the contrast with the English phrase: only the head of the noun phrase, the noun itself, is marked (with 's). Because the English suffix does not involve concord, I would not call it a case ending. The principal remaining concord in English is between subject and verb (I am v. he is). How about Biblical Hebrew? Is only the head marked, or adjectives as well?

Can you see now how easy it is to add a relative clause to an inflected noun phrase?

This time virum ("man") is in the accusative, because it is object. I have marked all words agreeing in case/number/sex with virum in bold. The word pater ("father") is marked as subject by the nominative. The finite verb of the main clause is servavit ("saved").

The parsing difficulties in your the wide open sheep grazing field-from-ly are not present in the Latin, simply because the first word of the noun phrase (magnum) is already marked as object. Imagine if the word the in your field phrase were already marked as "from-ly". It would look like this:

See how the parsing problem disappears? You don't need to hold your breath for the function of the noun phrase to appear.

German works the same way, and Ancient Greek too. The latter does have a few suffixes that serve as case endings but are only attached to the head word; and you are right, those can normally only be used when the noun phrase consists of a single word, no dependencies or embedding. But I can only think of two such suffixes, and they are rare and/or semi-archaic.

The word οἶκός (/oi.kos/) means "house"; the suffix δε (/de/) means "towards"; νέεσθαι (/ne.e.stai/) means "to return". (The accusative ending -όν (/on/) is used because the suffix -δε requires the accusative.) So the whole means "to return home". This suffix cannot be used with complex noun phrases, as you suggested.

As to your suggestion that embedding a clause in the middle of another clause did not happen until the Hellenistic period, that is just not correct. It took me a whole two minutes to find a counter example, in lines 11 and 12 of the Odyssey. Homer's work comprises the oldest European literature in existence, probably composed in the 8th century BC.

The word ὅσοι is a relative pronoun referring back to ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες, "all the others"; it introduces a subordinate clause with the finite verb φύγον, "escaped". The main clause has ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες as its subject, and ἔσαν ("were") as its finite verb.

The Homeric poems were meant to be recited out loud in the correct rhythm (metre). In fact, nearly all literature of Antiquity was meant to be read out loud up until the emergence of novels, around the first century AD. So people were able to use and understand (centrally) embedded clauses in speech throughout European history. I agree that they are generally less easy to parse than embedding at the end of a sentence, so there were obviously some restrictions, just as now; but central embedding was used. It is probably very, very old.

One thing to note is that relative pronouns were relatively new: it can be observed in Homer that relative pronouns were still in the process of developing out of demonstrative/personal pronouns of the third person (there never was a strong distinction between demonstrative and personal pronouns of the third person in Latin and Greek throughout Antiquity). However, participles are much older, as are conjunctions; and both can be used to embed verbs with complements just as well, and were in fact so used (e.g. in Homer).

The question deals with two ideas: the possibility of recursive embedding of clauses, and the use of case systems. We are asked to entertain a hypothesis that has the following basic parts:

  1. There was some kind of early state in prehistory at which no language had embedding, and where all languages had elaborate case systems.

  2. The advent of writing encouraged the development of embedding.

  3. Embedding developed at the expense of case-marking.

  4. All languages in the world are at some point in the continuum between having an elaborate case system and having recursive embedding.

To be able to begin to entertain this idea, we need to show that case marking and embedding are strategies which can serve the same purpose. I think that this is false.

Case-marking is a strategy for marking dependency relations between heads and dependents, where the marking falls on the dependent. Alternate ways of indicating these relations are by marking the head, or by marking neither, but using certain word order patterns to indicate different types of grammatical relations. So if a language lacks case-marking, then it would be reasonable to suppose that it is either a head-marking language, or it has relatively rigid constituent order. We could also suppose that case-marking languages will have more flexible constituent order, and will be less likely to mark grammatical relations. The choice between case-marking and some parallel strategy affects the organization of the language at the clause level.

Clause embedding, however, is a strategy that is reflected primarily at the level above the basic clause. When two clauses are linked, the linking strategy could involve coordination (no embedding), subordination (one clause is embedded in the other), or cosubordination (both clauses are embedded in some higher structure).

Basically, I can't see now how this theory has any a priori plausibility right now. I don't think it should be explored further until we can get an explanation for why, on linguistic grounds, case-marking as an organizational strategy in grammar should compete with, rather than work in conjunction with, clause embedding.

As I was commenting above, English has a possessive "case" marker that can apply to phrases and it exhibits an "allergy" to recursion.

On the other hand, if "cases" just refer to context-sensitive form variations like "be is am are was were", I see no clash with recursion there (likewise in Spanish, which has plenty of recursion but vastly more verb forms than English.) Esperanto has a simple two-noun-case system and a very productive system of affixes, but when you're used to it, it feels very natural even though the affixes can't mark phrases.

If we're simply talking about morphology that changes word meaning, I don't see a real issue there either. For example, in Esperanto I can say manĝaĵujo, a food container, with the "container" suffix -ujo, but ruĝa fruktujo "red fruit container" should mean "a fruit container that is red", not "a container of red fruit"... basically what I'm getting at is that affixes ordinarily apply only to words, not phrases, and this is no different from English affixes. Yet this doesn't feel like an incompatibility between recursion and morphology, merely a limitation on the complexity of morphological changes. If I want to say "container of red fruit" then I simply give up on affixes and say "ujo de ruĝa frukto", "container of red fruit".

Now I can only talk about the languages I know about (English, Spanish and Esperanto, all in the same family I'm afraid) but it seems to me that word-level variations such as case markers and affixes can be thought of as providing shortcuts for standalone words like "of", "that", "female" (stewardess) etc. Yes, word-level changes don't play well with recursion but that doesn't necessarily encourage them to disappear. As long as they provide some utility that the stand-alone alternatives don't, they will tend to stay. For example, English will keep "'s" for the foreseeable future because it is more concise than "of" (and because "of" is more ambiguous, having more meanings than just the possessive); and this would probably be true even if "'s" were strictly applicable onto to words and not phrases. If Esperanto ever became really popular, the accusative case "-n" might disappear for most sentences, yet would probably remain whereever it provides information concisely, e.g. "hejmen" = homeward, to home.

Anyway, I'm a linguistic 'newb' myself. I suspect there are lots of forces acting on languages that neither of us appreciate very well, forces that probably outweigh the hypothesis of this question.