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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

World Record Languages?

Anyone who has tried to learn classical Greek or Latin will be familiar with the so-called case system as manifested in endings that are added onto nouns, pronouns, or adjectives. Latin has six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative, plus remnants of a locative case. Cases indicate relations among words.

Latin puella means ‘girl’, but puellae means ‘for the girl’ or ‘of the girl’ (the ending -e signals the word is in the dative case). We know many languages get by with no case at all, while others have very complex systems. Mandarin has no cases, English has only a residue of earlier cases, apparent in differences in pronouns like ‘him’ vs. ‘he’ vs. ‘his’.

Russian has six cases, while Finnish has at least 14. But it is not yet known how much complexity is possible in a case system, or the full range of word-to-word relationships that may be signaled by case endings.

Two languages spoken in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia show very rich case systems, perhaps far in excess of other languages. Tabasaran, spoken by 95,000 people, even got listed in the 1997 Guinness Book of Records as having the most (52) cases.

It turns out this number may have been a bit inflated by enthusiastic linguists. Nonetheless, Tabasaran and the nearby Tsez (spoken by 7,000 people) both have case systems of astonishing complexity.

The question of exactly how many is one we will leave to the experts. Linguist Bernard Comrie points out that a basic distinction needs to be made in Tabasaran between ‘core’ cases (which can attach directly to a noun) and ‘non-core’, which can only attach after another case suffix is already present.

He notes that while Tabasaran cases have probably been overestimated, there is still a large number of possible combinations of multiple suffixes, each with a unique meaning. A Tabasaran noun may have up to 53 distinct forms, once you add case suffixes specifying location and movement of objects in relation to that noun.

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