WHAT IS DECLENSION?
Declension is a beautiful reflection on the demise of humanity. As well as a grammatical function that de-robes words and reveals information about their form.
Declension is a process of disclosing details about case (and gender and number) of nouns and adjectives within a sentence.
Let's acquaint ourselves with case, then we can revisit the declining part of the process.
WHAT IS CASE?
ENGLISH: WORD ORDER
When nouns sit in a sequence, they find themselves performing a particular role within the sentence structure. For example, in the following sentence, the word Callan is designated as the subject of the verb. And card is acting as the object of the verb.
If we swap the order of the sentence around – The birthday card wrote Callan – the card becomes the subject and Callan becomes the object. Callan is confused.
Even though the word Callan is always a proper noun and the word card is always a noun, they can behave as either the subject or the object within a sentence.
This behaviour is the part we call CASE: it tells us each word's role within a sentence.
In English, the equivalent of case is demonstrated through word order (as we just saw with Callan and the birthday card). While this seems perfectly natural to native English speakers, we've been jibbed into using a strict sequential sentence-making formula.
Outraged? Wish you could put Callan somewhere else in the sentence and still know he was the doer of the verb?
Well you're in luck – you want a language that declines to show case. Hello Arabic.
ARABIC: SHORT VOWELS
Rather than relying on word order, Arabic marks words for case by assigning them a short vowel. Remember short vowels? They're little squiggles that represent the sounds oo, aa, and ee (figures 4, 6, and 8). They are the cropped versions of long vowels wow (و), alif (ا), and ya (ي), respectively.
The process of adding a short vowel is like giving a word a specific outfit to reflect that word's role within a sentence. Similar to getting all the subjects of verbs to dress up in yellow leotards and all the objects of verbs to wear purple capes ... and so on and so forth in that fashion.
That's case in a nutshell.
BACK TO DECLENSION
How does 'declining' result in the addition of squiggles and capes? Doesn't declining imply the word might shrivel up and fall out of the sentence? Good point.
On this occasion, it's actually a process of stripping back layers to reveal more about the word’s grammatical character.
Just as humans deconstruct walls around themselves through sharing their feelings and stuff. To uncover a more raw version of their realities. Deep.
HOW THE PROCESS WORKS
Bonnie the moose is like a regular (proper) noun in an Arabic sentence.
As Bonnie declines to reflect case, she peels back a layer of herself (grey t-shirt) revealing more about her grammatical superpowers (spandex).
Bonnie has three different superhero outfits, each corresponding to the three cases in Arabic: nominative, accusative, and genitive.
Surprisingly, not all the superhero outfits result in flawless superpowers.
Fabrics take to everyone differently. And sometimes spandex rides up in the wrong places.
NOMINATIVE CASE (المرفوع)
When a noun declines to be nominative, it receives a damma (figure 4). The superhero outfit enacts the damma as a little fist bump. A fist bump is an obvious accompaniment to the nominative case when we consider the situations where fist bumping is most prominent.
Heads up: nominative nouns are obsessed with everything nominative-related. Name-related.
Also motivational memes. But that's not as relevant.
If you're nom-inated for an award you might do a secret fist bump.
If your name is printed on a statue you might take a fist-bump selfie in front of the statue.
If you're nominally the leader of a group you might do a fist bump after delegating the responsibility of posting pamphlets. A pretty common procedure.
All the nom related things are an opportunity to carry out the energetic and enthusiastic damma-looking gesture of a fist bump. This enthusiasm extends to their sentence-participating behaviour.
If there's a verb in a sentence, nominative nouns want everyone to know they were the ACTIVE noun in the sentence: the noun that is the doer of the verb. The subject of the verb is nominative.
WHEN: NOMINAL SENTENCES
If you're a nominative word, growing up in a nominative world, you're going to try pretty hard to get yourself in a nominal sentence. Double nom. Who wouldn't want that?
As luck would have it, there are two roles available for claiming the nominative case in a nominal sentence.
The subject and object (predicate) in nominal sentences are in the nominative case. Both? I know! Can you believe it‽
Short vowel: damma (or double damma).
Verbs: subject of verb.
Nominal sentence: subject and object.
ACCUSATIVE CASE (المنصوب)
When a noun declines to be accusative, it gets a fatHa on the end (figure 6). Nothing says accusative like a pointed fatHa-looking finger held high, ready to accuse the tallest of words.
Instead of actively taking responsibility for things, accusative nouns are very defensive and quick to point the finger.
The distress of creeping lycra? No one quite knows.
Unlike the nominative nouns that exude confidence, the accusative nouns simply don't have the assertiveness to stand up and introduce a verb into a sentence. When there's a verb, accusative nouns repeatedly fall into the habit of being the PASSIVE noun in the sentence. The object of the verb.
It's the least flattering of the superpowers, but the outfit is still tax deductible.
When the accusative nouns aren't being told what to do by verbs, they also play a part in specifying quantity. Because the accusative nouns spend most of their energy accusing words, they have a good relationship with numbers. If there's an enquiry about how many or how much something is, you'll find the noun following the particle of quantity declining to the accusative case. If you ask how many mugs I have, 'mugs' (following the how many) will decline to be accusative. If you ask how much is that doggie in the window, 'doggie' (following the how much) will decline to be accusative.
Short vowel: fatHa (or double fatHa).
Verbs: object of verb.
Noun following particle of quantity ('how much ...', 'how many ...').
GENITIVE CASE (المجرور)
The genitive case is roughly equivalent to the possessive in English. When words decline to be genitive/possessive, a little kasra sits below the end of the word (figure 8).
To help us remember, the superhero outfit includes a downward-facing bag-carrying kasra. Evidence of a strong urge to shop. The possessive wants all the things. Moderately priced stationary? Wants. Ten-pack of toothbrushes? Wants.
WHEN: NOUN PHRASES
The obvious place to find possessive nouns is in an idafa. Every annexed word in an idafa phrase is in the genitive case.
When you remember the possessive comparison it makes perfect sense. Think of an idafa as having little 'of's between each word ...
The chair of Jessica. Jessica is possessing the chair. Jessica gets a kasra.
City of New York. New York is claiming the city-ness. New York gets a kasra.
The University of Melbourne. Melbourne is possessive to the maximum, wanting all the universities. Kasra. Bam.
Any time a word follows a preposition, it also declines to the genitive case. Prepositions are the ins, ons, downs, overs and withs of language. They're generally little words that connect information within a sentence.
Without prepositions we'd make strange sentences: My friend went the swing. Icing goes the top cake. The key goes the door. I drove the zoo my sister.
When prepositions sit within a sentence, the noun following whips out a downward-swooping kasra to hold everything in place.
Nouns in the genitive/possessive case keep their short vowel low for either carrying shopping bags or propping up joining information in a sentence.
Short vowel: kasra (or double kasra).
Equivalent to English possessive.
Idafa structure: all annexed nouns.
Object of preposition.
BACK TO DECLENSION, AGAIN
Just joking. We're done here. Permission to continue crying into your Arabic grammar textbook. Or write a thank you note to English for not having case. Amen.