The Case of the Frustrating Cases


If your native language is English, you’re almost hopelessly fucked when it comes to learning a foreign language. Basic English grammar is very simple, with no genders, no need for adjective/adverb matching, simple verbs, and no cases.

At one time in the distant past, English was far more complex but was then simplified into its modern form. Most other languages, however, still use these archaic constructions to add a high degree of (what most English speakers would consider unnecessary) detail. This is why it’s relatively easy for speakers of Romanian (or Russian, German, etc) to “step down” to basic English and why it’s almost impossible to “scale up” from English to a foreign tongue.

Reading through grammar books can tax the brain of a super genius as they’re filled with obscure terms like “accusative”, “genitive” and “dative”, which often come across as more foreign than the foreign language itself.

As someone who has mastered a modicum of Romanian, as well as a smattering of other tongues, I thought it was about high time to simplify one particular aspect of foreign languages (including Romanian): cases.

Mind you, I’m no academic, so if you want a “proper” description and explanation, consult that dusty grammar book sitting in the back of the library.

What the Heck Is a Case, Anyway?

Even in modern English, verbs are conjugated. The ending (or formulation) changes to indicate something different. “I eat” is therefore different than “he eats”.

In Romanian (and other languages), nouns too are “conjugated” only this is called a “declension”. They change predominately based on whether or not the noun is the subject (doing something) or the object (something is being done to it).

Romanian also has three “genders”, which are described in terms of anatomical sexes (female, male, and neuter) but could equally be described by some random collection of terms (purple, yellow, and green) as they have nothing to do with the essential “femininity”, “masculinity” or “neutrality” of the word in question. After all, a hand is “female” in Romanian while a “fingernail” is masculine. How does that make sense? It doesn’t.

But in a Romanian sentence, there has to be a certain logical flow to everything. First the subject (noun) has to be identified by gender, described by certain adjectives or adverbs (that match the gender), and finally the recipient of the action (the object).

What sets Romanian (and other languages with cases) apart is that the ORDER of the way the sentence is written is more fluid. You can put the subject in the front, the middle, or the end, and it’s always understandable because the CASE determines which way the sentence “flows”.

Cases therefore are kind of like those windsocks you see at airports (or as icons on your weather app). They show which way the “wind” (action) is flowing (in the sentence).

In English, we divide sentences between the “active” voice and the “passive” voice, which is as close to cases as we’re going to get. That’s why:

The man rode the horse

and

The horse was ridden by the man

are identical sentences, the first being in the “active” voice (generally considered preferable) and the second being in the “passive” voice.

Cases do this without compromising on passive/active voices, leading to much tighter and more concise construction. In Romanian, you always know who is doing what and to whom.

Now let’s look at the same sentence in Icelandic (which uses the cases that were once used in English).

The man rode the horse – Mathurinn reith hesti

and

The horse rode the man – Hesturinn reith mathur

You can see right away that “hesti” and “hesturinn” (horse), as well as “manni” versus “mathur” (man) change forms (cases) to indicate whether they are the “recipient” or “doer” of the action.

Only a few modern English words still preserve these once-common case changes, and you’ll recognize them right away when you compare them to the Icelandic.

woman -> women
child -> children

Today, these are frozen in place as “irregular” plurals but were once different forms to indicate the case. Cool, eh?

Cases in Romanian

If you’re learning Russian, start by playing Russian Roulette, as the cases are far, far more difficult than Romanian. If you feel like living another day, take a deep breath and then learn Romanian instead, as it’s much easier.

Technically speaking, Romanian has “only” five cases (Russian has six which must then match both number and three different genders) but the good news is that essentially only three remain, and one is only used very rarely.

Don’t be scared of these terms, ok?

vocative – Less commonly used but easy to figure out when you need it because it’s only used when you’re addressing someone directly. If the sentence can begin with “Hey you!” then it’s likely that you’ll need the vocative case.

genitive/dative – Although these are two different cases, they’re written exactly the same way. These cases are generally used for nouns “receiving” the action (objects).

accusative/nominative – Again, two different grammatical elements, but formed the same way. This one is used for nouns “doing” the action (subject).

See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Vocative

If you’re ever in a train station, airport, or other public place and hear an announcement over the PA, it will usually begin with “Domnilor si Doamnelor…” This is the vocative case, and it means “Gentlemen and Ladies”, which is how Romanians say it (in English, we put ladies first hehe).

Vocative – Singular

Let’s imagine you’re walking down the street and you see two young lads, one wearing a T-shirt with the Russian flag and one with a T-shirt bearing the Romanian flag. You want to ask the Romanian guy a question but you definitely don’t want to speak to the Russian boy in case he decides to annex your country. So how do you shout out to the Romanian (in his native language) and only the Romanian?

The first thing you do is remember that “român” means a male Romanian. So the way you make it the vocative case is by adding “ule” onto the end.

Românule! means, “Hey you, Romanian guy, yes I’m talking to you!”

Now let’s imagine that you built a time machine and traveled back to the year 1848. Same scenario as above. How do you address the Romanian guy to get his attention?

Române! is the archaic form (the same as modern, just minus the “ul”), which is why the Romanian national anthem is called Desteapta-te, Române!” (or “hey you, Romanian, wake up!”).

You then get back in your time machine and return to today. The lads with the T-shirts have all gone but now you see two girls, one wearing a Romanian flag T-shirt and one with a Hungarian T-shirt. You don’t speak Hungarian, so how do you call out to the Romanian girl?

First, you remember that “românca” means a female Romanian. So the way you make it the vocative case is by switching the “a” to an “o”.

Românco! means, “Hey you, Romanian girl, yes I’m talking to you!”

There are some other ways to use the vocative case, but it should be understand that generally speaking, using vocative case in the singular is considered rude, potentially confrontational, and/or uneducated sounding.

The only time you ever really need it in the singular form is to address a family member, such as Grandma (bunica becomes bunico) and Grandpa (bunic becomes bunicule), etc, but if you have a Romanian family then you already know all this.

And if you don’t have a Romanian family but acquire one somehow (like marrying a Romanian), don’t start by using the vocative unless you’re very close. So don’t say hey, mother-in-law (soacro) because she’ll likely slap you in the face :P

Vocative – Plural

It’s perfectly acceptable to use the vocative when addressing groups of people. Indeed, in contrast to the singular, the plural form is the height of politeness. Therefore, concentrate your grammar studies on the plural forms as you can easily live your whole life without using the vocative in the singular. The good news is that it’s easy!

Let’s imagine that it you see two Romanian guys and one Russian guy walking down to the street, all with convenient T-shirts to identify them at a distance. How do you shout out to the Romanians without alerting the evil Russian boy?

Simply take the plural form of the noun (in this example, români) and add “lor”.

Românilor! means, “Hello there, Romanians!”

Unfortunately, you got no response, as you forgot your glasses at home and, as the group gets closer, you realize it’s actually three women walking down the street, not three men. How do you call out to just the Romanian girls?

Again, take the plural form of the noun (românce) and add “lor”.

Româncelor! means, “Hey there, Romanian ladies!”

So tying this all up in a nice little bow, you might remember that “domn” means sir/mister, the plural of which is “domni”. So to respectfully address a group of men, you’d begin by saying, “Domnilor…”

A lady/ma’am is a “doamna”, the plural of which is “doamne”. Therefore, you’d respectfully address a gathering of women by saying, “Doamnelor…”

Add these two together, “Domnilor si Doamnelor” and you now have “Attention, ladies and gentlemen”, a classic use of the vocative case.

Nominative and Accusative

If English is your native language, then all nouns are effectively in the “nominative case”. Essentially, it’s the “standard” form of all nouns.

Therefore if you learn that “child” in Romanian is “copil”, that is the nominative case form of the word.

Where Romanian gets weird is that the “definite article” (always “the” in English) goes on the end of nouns instead of at the beginning (like in Spanish, French, etc).

Therefore, copil (a masculine word) = child, while copilul is THE child.

“A child” (indefinite article) is simply un copil.

So far easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.

The plural of “child” is copii, while the definite article form is just with an extra “i”, becoming copiii.

And niște copii = some kids

The word for pen is neuter, so it takes the masculine in the singular. Therefore it’s pix (pen), un pix (a pen) and pixul (pens).


The word for “cat” is feminine, so it follows slightly different form changes. If the noun ends in ă, usually it just switches to regular “a” with the definite article.

pisică (cat) and pisica (the cat)

and o pisică (a cat)

Plural female forms are pretty easy.

pisici (cats) and pisicile (the cats)

niște pisici (some cats)

Neuter words are feminine in the plural so you get pixuri (pens), niște pixuri (some pens), and pixurile (the pens).

Keeping it really simple here (again, consult a proper grammar book for more details), understanding when to use the nominative/accusative is pretty basic. The only tricky bits are how to append the indefinite article (“the”) onto the end of the words and understanding how to pluralize nouns.

Genitive and Dative

Now we’re into wild stuff, as these two cases indicate that a noun is receiving the action.

Let’s start with a simple sentence using nominative/accusative forms:

Copilul are pixul = the child has the pen

Here’s a similar sentence using the genitive/dative:

Pixul copilului = the child’s pen (literally “the pen OF THE child”)

Almost always, the way the genitive/dative case makes itself known is by an ending of “ului” (for singular masculine) or “lor” (for plural of any gender).

Let’s practice some more!

Pixurile copilului = the child’s pens (the pens OF THE child)

Copiii au pixul = the children have the pen

Pixul copiilor = the children’s pen (the pen OF THE children)

Copiii au pixurile = the children have the pens

See? Not so difficult. It’s even easier with most feminine forms.

Copilul are pisica = The child has the cat

Copilul are o pisică = The child has a cat

Pisica copilului = The child’s cat (the cat OF THE child)

Copiii au pisica = The children have the cat

Copii au o pisică = The children have a cat

Pisicile copiilor = The children’s cats (the cats OF THE children)

Copilul are pisicile = The child has the cats

Pisicile copilului = The child’s cats (the cats OF THE child)

Not so bad now, is it?

The gen/dative case is only slightly more complicated when the indefinite article (“a” or “an” in English) is introduced.

Un copil = a child (accusative/nominative case)

Unui copil = OF A child (dat/gen case)

Therefore:

Pisică unui copil = A child’s cat (literally “cat of a child”)

Pix unui copil = A child’s pen (literally “pen of a child”)

Turning it around to see the female form with an indefinite article, we get:

Pix unei pisici = A cat’s pen (literally “pen of a cat”)

Notice how it looks like pisici is plural when it’s not. This is the confusing gen/dat case form because it sounds and looks plural, but it means “of the” in this usage. The real plural when using feminine nouns in the dat/gen case always ends in “lor”.

Rarely used but still grammatically valid are plural forms of the indefinite article with the gen/dat case. These take “unor” for either gender. For example:

Pix unor copii – Some children’s pen (a pen of the children)

Pix unor pisici = Some cats’ pen (a pen of the cats)

Although the gen/dat case usually means “of the” it can also mean “to the”. Regardless of how it’s used, it always indicates a noun receiving the action of another noun.

When Cases Finally Get Useful

So far, it just looks like one big complicated mess, switching around the forms of nouns just to indicate which one is doing something and which one is receiving. So what’s the point of all this extra complication?

Let’s use a slightly more fun sentence to find out!

Eu dau suc = I give juice (“suc” means “juice”, and is a masculine noun)

Eu dau suc unui copil = I give juice to a child

Eu dau suc unor copii = I give juice to some children

Eu dau sucul copilului = I give the child’s juice (the juice OF THE child)

Eu dau sucul copiilor = I give the children’s juice (the juice of the children)

Now let’s try it with a female noun:

Eu dau suc unei pisici = I give juice to a cat

Eu dau sucul pisicii = I give the cat’s juice

Eu dau sucul pisicilor = I give the cats’ juice

Eu dau suc pisicii = I give juice to the cat

Eu dau suc pisicile = I give juice to the cats

Bam! Now let’s ramp it up even one more level:

Eu dau unor copii sucul pisicii = I give some children the cat’s juice

Eu dau unei copil sucul pisicilor = I give a child the cats’ juice

Eu dau copilul sucul pisicii = I give the child the cat’s juice

AND

Eu dau un pix unor copii = I give a pen to some children

Eu dau pixul copiilor = I give the children’s pen

Eu dau pisica pixul copiilor = I give the cat the children’s pen

Eu dau pisici pixul copilului – I give the cats the child’s pen

Eu dau copiii pixurile pisicilor = I give the children the cats’ pens

Conclusion

That wasn’t so hard, was it? I hope not. There are definitely more complications down the road but this little mini lesson isn’t so much to help you speak/write Romanian as it is so you can understand it a little better when you hear/read it.

Just remember these three basic guides and you’ll be set:

Vocative = directly addressing someone (rarely used)
Nominative/Accusative = “normal” nouns (that do something)
Genitive/Dative = “receiving” nouns

AND NOW YOU KNOW!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Walker says:

    pixul = the pen

    Like

  2. xyz says:

    “Picior” is neutral in Romanian- un picior, doua picioare.
    “Romane” is not an archaic form of “Romanule”- it’s simply an alternate form.
    There are a few other small errors you may wish to look for.

    Like

    1. Thanks!

      Like

  3. Jos_cenzura says:

    There are a few mistakes (eu dau suc pisiciLOR) , pixUL, so be careful.

    Like

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