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Background

The German language has cases, but for many words some or all cases are identical. However, interrogatives are distinct for each case. Therefore native speakers often identify the case of a word in context by rephrasing the context to a question asking for the word in question. I presume that this technique exists in other languages featuring cases as well.

An example:

  • German:

    1. What case is Anna in “Er sah Anna.”?
    2. Wen sah er? Anna.
    3. Wen is in the accusative case and hence Anna in the first sentence also is.
  • English:

    1. What case is Anna in “He saw Anna.”?
    2. Whom did he see? Anna.
    3. Whom is in the oblique case and hence Anna in the first sentence also is.

    (Of course this doesn’t work so well in English, since cases are so invisible that people find it difficult to use whom correctly.)

Actual question

Here I claimed that the above technique only works for native speakers who intuitively use the grammatical cases correctly and thus automatically use the correct interrogatives. By contrast, language learners (unless very advanced) know the correct interrogative as much as they know which case to use – either they know both or none. Hence this technique is not useful to them.

Am I correct about this or did I miss anything?

3

As a native German speaker and student of linguistics I think you're correct here, most learners will approach a foreign language by learning grammatical rules, and case distinction is fundamental to inflected languages.

However, there is the case of learners learning solely by immersion (the beautiful German term for that is “Sprachbad”) without being aware of grammar rules. As for natives, case identifying questions will come in handy for them, especially in case of unmarked nouns such as names.

The need for such case identifying aids is predicated not only on the complexity of the system and the native's ignorance, but also on the relatively free word order in German, which makes it difficult or even impossible to determine a case by the noun's position in the sentence, compare:

SPO word order

Er sah Anna.

  • Wer sah Anna? → Er → Nom. → subject
  • Wen sah er? → Anna → Acc. → object

OPS word order

Anna sah er.

  • Wer sah Anna? → Er → Nom. → subject
  • Wen sah er? → Anna → Acc. → object

The common rule “subject before (inflected) verb” of course does not apply for sentences with OPS word order, the questions help identifying here. Admittedly OPS word order is not as frequently used, but nevertheless serves a clear purpose – emphasizing the object – , is grammatically valid and is understood.

4

It may be that rephrasing as a question works even if the learner's native language doesn't have cases.

My wife speaks Bulgarian natively and studied Russian in college in the US (where her teachers didn't rephrase as a question) and in Bulgaria (where they did). Although Bulgarian doesn't have cases* (and its interrogative pronouns in particular work as in English) she reports that she found rephrasing as a question to be a useful aid in remembering which case to use. She says the question method was intuitive for her. Maybe she just matches Bulgarian prepositions to Russian cases. E.G. Dative=на кого, Instrumental=с кого. But you could do that in English too.

So yeah, I think the question method will work on anyone, regardless of native language. I wonder if anyone has tried to collect any data no this question.

*mostly. The vocative is still used, masculine definite nouns take different articles in writing depending on whether they're the subject or not, and there's still a difference between nominative, accusative, and dative pronouns. But Bulgarian's case system is a tiny worn-down nub compared to Russian's.

  • there's still a difference between nominative, accusative, and dative pronouns – does this include interrogative pronouns? And is what is left of the cases comparable to Russian? Also, can your wife explain why this is helpful? – Wrzlprmft Aug 13 '17 at 15:44
  • No, interrogative pronouns are only nominative or non-nominative (and even then it seems the non-nominative one is vanishing, like English "whom"). As far as I can tell, the Bulgarian interrogative pronoun system is very much like English:Nominative. But my wife says the question method was intuitive for her. Maybe she just matches Bulgarian prepositions to Russian cases. E.G. Dative=на кого, Instrumental=с кого. But you could do that in English too. – Daniel Bensen Aug 13 '17 at 18:03

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