Just in case

The last post, about the figure of speech that the Greeks called polyptoton, explained that the name of that rhetorical device came from polus ‘more than one, many,’ and the root pto- ‘to fall.’ As the Greeks saw it, the various forms of a word were different ways in which the word could ‘fall out.’ The Romans admired the Greeks so much that they made some of them their slaves, which was a literal way of carrying over aspects of Greek culture. Often the Romans borrowed Greek words with little or no change (other than using the Roman rather than the Greek alphabet): φιλοσοφία became philosophia, δρaμα became drama, θέατρον became theatrum, etc. Sometimes, though, the Romans resorted to what linguists call a loan-translation: rather than adopting a foreign word, a language finds an equivalent of its own.

When it came to the Greek grammatical notion that the forms of a word were different ways it could “fall out,” the Romans turned to their verb for ‘to fall,’ cadere, the forerunner of Spanish caer. In particular, Latin speakers began using the past participle casus as an abstract noun to designate the feature that we, following the Romans, still call caso/case. With the exception of different forms for the singular and plural of a noun (and English uses ‘s and s’ to indicate possession), modern Spanish and English have almost entirely lost their case endings, but distinct forms survive in our pronouns. For example, Spanish has for the subject of a verb, te for the object of a verb, ti for the object of a preposition, and tu to show possession. In a similar way, English uses he for the subject of a verb, him for the object of a verb or preposition, and his to show possession.

Beyond grammar, we use caso/case to express the idea that events might “fall out” a certain way. ¿Si llueve? En ese caso no iremos de paseo. It was once common in public buildings in the United States to see a glass-covered box with an ax inside it, and the words “In case of fire break glass” [to take out the ax and use it to smash down a door, knock out a window, cut through a wall, or do whatever is necessary to escape from a burning building]. The same or similar words still appear on some fire alarms. Just in case you’ve never seen those things, you can look here or here. And you can even see a bilingual sign that warns people against using an elevator in case a building is on fire.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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