14 January 2009

Oh Vocative case! How you distract me.

For some reason, while resting on the sofa late this evening, I started thinking about the vocative case. We as speakers of English don't use it to its full advantage. Calling someone or something by name and emphasizing his, her or its very existence simply resonates: it is nothing but potent. That type of utterance during a conversation, whether is it passionate or dispassionate, makes things memorable. Whether used for good or for ill, the vocative case is a powerful tool of language, my friends.

I want you to know this, readers. (see how I used that last noun here? And the time before that? Those are examples of the vocative case--as unsexy as it can be in English. And I apologize for my teacherly voice here.)

For those of you who are familiar with Latin: The vocative is something that you'd see in poems by Horace, or you'd see it in the famous "O Mores, O Tempores" line from Cicero. You also see it in a more inelegant moment in history, in the fictionalized ultimate words of Julius Caesar (by way of Shakespeare), "Et tu Brute?" Although, of course, scholars (thanks to the historian Suetonius) have proffered that Caesar's last words--"Kai su technon?" (And you too, my son?)-- were actually in Greek(!) allowing for a whole host of speculation about the possible biological ties between betrayer and betrayed. But never fear, my friends, the vocative case was still used!

In certain times, and in certain places, an increased emphasis on a noun is certainly needed--especially when you plan on being totally dramatic:

"Oh, Stella! Why do you insist on scratching the chair with your claws? Sure it is only an Ikea chair, but it is my chair. Oh, horrible cat! Oh poor chair!" (There has got to be a great Latin translation for the 'horrible cat' bit.)

I think that the vocative gets used in interesting ways depending on where you live geographically, and in some parts of the country, it seems more natural than others. I won't say where I find this to be the case (pun intended?), so you should feel free to tell me where you think the vocative does work well--if you care enough to participate in tonight's shenanigans.

On a more personal note, there are a couple of people I know or I have known who use the vocative so intuitively, so masterfully, that it is totally natural as they mold this structure to work its siren-like, seductive powers on you. One is a professor. ( And my friends who have taken a class with this professor had better damned well know of whom I am writing. ) One of them writes a pretty damn good blog. The other, you don't know.

It's amazing what the right voice and the right grammatical case can do.

That's all for now, muffins. Good night.

P.S. I seem to be focusing on the "natural(ness)" of a grammatical structure that upon further reflection could seem unnatural to some speakers of various languages. I'm not sure what I think of any of this 'natural' business now. I've gone and made myself uncomfortable philosophically. But that is a topic of discussion for another time. Now, I'm serious, muffins. Good night.


Benjamin said...

Using the vocative case seems popular in the South, where you get a lot of sentences ending with "honey" and "darlin'." These are warm, affectionate labels anyway, but I suppose the mere fact that the speaker explicitly refers to you at all is a part of the charm.

Casey said...

I noticed, after I read this, that I sometimes use it. I think, though, that if I ever thought about using it, I would screw it all up. I guess that makes sense. When I talk, I say "hon," "buddy," and "asshole" way too much for it not to be vocative case.

alot, alot said...

Google led me to "horrendus cattus," but I don't think that is using the correct Latin vocative case endings.

I suggest that vocative usage not only varies spatially, but also in the types of places you find them. The vocative case probably gets more use in bars and from pulpits than it does at the public library.

When I started reading this post, I thought of translating Virgil's _Aeneid_, the "friends, countrymen" line, and JB's occasional use of "kittens."

suicide_blond said...

if calling folks sugarbaby and asshole to their face is vocative voice...then yeah...i *heart* that stuff alll day long....

ps..i vote the south too..

finer thing said...

In the Bronx, "People" is an awesome use of vocative case but it is addressed to imaginary throngs, not usually those present.