Could Four German Cases Soon Become Three?

Ah, the four German cases — or will it soon be only three? Our grammar detective follows the clues to help you crack this grammatical case.
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There’s been a lot of talk recently about the four German cases, and one of them has been hit especially hard. Sentences like der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (the dative is the death of the genitive) made the rounds in the media and caused quite an uproar. What’s actually happening here, and do we really have to equate it to murder? Or is it “only” attempted manslaughter? To get some clarity on the topic, let’s go back to the beginning of how we got the four German cases in the first place.

1. Who: What Are The Four German Cases?

A first look in the case files shows that the four cases are known by many different names. They’re also known as declensions. That name comes from the Latin word declinatio, meaning “bending,” and the verb declinare, meaning “to bend, to lower.” In the broad sense, declension describes how a word changes form depending on how it’s used. It can apply to nouns, adjectives and most commonly verbs, where the different forms are known as conjugations. For nouns, the different cases are a central part of German sentence structure.

There are four different cases:

  1. Nominative (also known as the wer/was case)
  2. Genitive (also known as the wessen case)
  3. Dative (also known as the wem case)
  4. Accusative (also known as the wen/was case)

The question words (wer/was, wessen, wem, wen/was) indicate how you can ask a question with the different German cases. This could be important for our investigation, so keep this in mind as we continue.

2. Why: What Have The Four Cases Done?

Let’s get to one of the most important questions: What purpose do the four different cases fulfill in a sentence, and what motive could there be to get rid of one of them?

Now, before we start with the investigation, we first have to find out why there are four cases to begin with. A noun’s case shows the relationship it has to other parts of a sentence. The article that comes with the noun or the pronoun that represents it also changes forms based on the case (remember declensions?).

That might all sound logical in theory, but what does it mean for our case — or rather, our four cases?

Let’s sketch it out with an example. Think about a normal sentence from everyday life, like this one:

Die Frau gibt ihrer Schwester den Spanishordner ihres Kindes. (The woman gives her sister the Spanish notebook of her child.)

In this sentence, the wer is clear — it’s the woman doing the giving. Wem? It’s the sister who is receiving. Was? The Spanish notebook. And wessen? The child’s. Makes sense? We’ve used the four question words from above to define the four different cases.

In other words: Die Frau is the subject (in nominative), ihrer Schwester is the indirect object (in dative), den Spanischordner is the direct object (in accusative), and ihres Kindes is the possessive (in genitive).

Theoretically, a subject in nominative (die Frau) together with the verb as predicate (gibt) already forms a complete sentence. Die Frau gibt. The objects provide additional information. So why do you need four cases?
Imagine the sentence without a clear distinction between the different kinds of objects and actors:

Die Frau gibt ihre Schwester der Spanishordner ihr Kindes.

Since German has relatively flexible word order, we no longer know who the woman gave the notebook to: her sister or her child? So we see that each case plays an important role and doesn’t have just one specific function, but rather helps us understand the sentence as a whole. Thanks, cases! So why, then, does the genitive have it so hard?

3. How: What Happened To One Of The Four Cases

In the debate over the genitive, one word is especially prominent: wegen. This preposition should normally be followed by the genitive, but over time it’s become common to say wegen dem Regen (dative) instead of wegen des Regens (genitive).

The official German dictionary now allows this as a colloquial variant, and other prepositions are also replacing the genitive in spoken German. For example, den Spanischordner von meiner Schwester (dative) instead of den Spanischorder meiner Schwester (genitive).

So shouldn’t we fear that the genitive is indeed dead and that we’ll soon find its lifeless grammatical body? Not at all! The genitive is still alive, as the preposition trotz shows. Here the genitive reigns supreme, even if it wasn’t always that way, as you can see in words like trotzdem or trotz allem, where the influence of the dative is clear. And the possessive genitive S used with names is still very popular.

4. Case Closed

Those of you who were happy to hear that there were only three German cases instead of four — well, it could be worse. There are in fact languages with many more cases to deal with. In Russian, for example, you have to learn six cases, and in Latin, you have the four usual suspects as well as the ablative and the vocative.

That’s why we can count ourselves lucky, under the circumstances! The four cases help convey information precisely and understand each other in many different ways. So let’s celebrate the four German cases!

This article originally appeared on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.

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