Nominative-accusative language

Nominative-accusative language

A nominative-accusative language (or simply accusative language) is one that marks the direct object of transitive verbs distinguishing them from the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs.

If the language has morphological case, then the direct object is marked with a case conventionally known as "accusative", while the subject is marked with another case called "nominative". If there's no case marking, the language can resort to word order (for example, the subject comes before the verb and the object comes after it, as in English).

The nominative form is usually the most unmarked form of a word, and the form that is used as the lemma. However, this does not shield it from other sound changes than marking, e.g. Finnish lemma "vete-" with the regular nominative "vesi".


Germanic and Romance languages, as well as the majority of other languages in the world, are nominative-accusative. English has no morphological case distinction between nominative and accusative, except for the pronouns, and it relies solely on word order to differentiate subject and object. The same applies to the Romance languages. German retains case marking, most notably applied to articles.

Consider German::"Der Junge sah den Mann." "The boy saw the man.":"Den Jungen sah der Mann." "The man saw that boy."(Because the noun "Junge" is a weak German noun, it is declined as well. It gets ending "-n" in all cases but Nominative Singular.)

"Der" and "den" (as well as "dem", "das", "die" and "des") all mean "the". The form of the definite article changes according to both the grammatical gender and number of the noun it applies to, and also according to the case (accusative or dative) prescribed by a transitive verb for its objects. In this case the verb "to follow" prescribes that the dative case be invoked.

The subject of the sentence, "Mann", is placed in the nominative case. "Der" is the nominative singular masculine article.

In the second example sentence, the verb "sah" (3rd person singular past form of "sehen"), like the majority of German transitive verbs, prescribes the accusative case for its object. Thus, the definite article is changed to "den", for a masculine singular word ("Jungen") in the accusative case.

To highlight the use morphological marking over positioning, consider an additional German example::"Der Mann isst den Kuchen." "The man eats the cake.":"Den Kuchen isst der Mann." "The man eats that cake", and not, as one might mistakenly assume following syntax alone, "The cake eats the man".

Note that even though the subject and object are inverted, the meaning of the sentence stays the same because morphological marking is used to distinguish between the nominative and the accusative cases.

Old English had a similar system to German, which gradually disappeared from use (see "declension in English").

Baltic-Finnic languages have two cases that are used for marking the morphosyntactic accusative. The Finnish accusative case is always telic; the object (and thus the action) is finished, a "total object", and may not be referenced again by the same action. The partitive case may appear contrastively in the same position as the accusative, and indicates an atelic object, which may be referenced again for the same action. (The partitive, however, appears in other contexts.) For example, "Kirjoitin artikkelin" "I wrote an article (completely)" has the word "artikkeli" in the (telic) accusative, indicating that the article is complete; and "Kirjoitin artikkelia" has the word "artikkeli" in the partitive, indicating that the result is not known (may or may not be completed).

ee also

* Morphosyntactic alignment

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