Recently, a Cantonese student asked me what the (grammatical) case is and what it is used for. Since the concept of declining nouns may be alien to speakers of the Chinese languages, I will shortly introduce the “cases” in German.
An Introduction to “Cases”:
In German we have the nominative, possessive, accusative and dative. Simply speaking, when the noun is in nominative it is providing the action. The noun in accusative (object) is mostly the passive part in the action, it is often a thing, not a person. The noun in the dative case is often the person, who receives something (or the one, from whom something is taken). The noun in possessive case obtains something.
–> But do not generalize! These guidelines should help you understand that nouns can represent different roles in the sentence and that every specific case has a different role.
So, why do we need to decline the nouns?
Take this sentence for example: Hans likes Anna
Hans mag Anna.
So, Hans likes Anna, but, does Anna like Hans? In the Chinese language we wouldn’t know if Anna likes Hans, because in the Chinese language the word order of the sentence is relatively fixed and that indicates the role of the noun (the case).
But in German the word order is very flexible. In German, the example above could also mean that Anna likes Hans; it depends on where you put the stress. So Anna could be the nominative noun and Hans the accusative noun, that is also possible.
The above mentioned example is in fact ambiguous, because personal names generally don’t change in German.
Since the word order is flexible and wouldn’t indicate the role of the noun, we have the cases. That means: declination and endings. “We have to ‘label‘ the nouns.” as said by my student Brian today.
Note one futher example here: Anna gives the baby to the aunti:
Anna gibt der Tante das Baby.
Anna gibt das Baby der Tante.
Das Baby gibt Anna der Tante.
Der Tante gibt Anna das Baby.
All these sentence structures are possible in German. And we don’t get confused because the cases indicate which role a specific part of the sentence “plays”.