The genitive case (casus genitivus) in Latin is a fairly straightforward grammatical category, easier for the beginner to grasp than, say, the dative or the ablative. Strangely enough, the etymology of its name has caused more debate than its various meanings and functions. Some have claimed that genitivus denotes birth, origin, descent. Others are convinced that the Greek term ptosis genike, on which the Latin casus genitivus was modeled, would be rendered more accurately as casus generalis (genus: kind, class, sort), i.e. the case that expresses kind, variety. If so, how come the Stoics (who knew a thing or two about language structure) called the genitive case patrike, i.e. patrilineal?
For practical purposes, and before this nomenclatural tangle begins to exude the kind of frustration normally associated with an inconclusive paternity test, I would suggest that, for the time being at least, you focus on what the genitive case means rather than how it came to be that way. It may even be worth the risk of oversimplification to think of the genitive case as the possessive.
Possession is nine tenths of the… rote
Repeat as necessary: The genitive is the grammatical case that expresses possession. This basic, concrete function provides the starting point for a solid understanding of the genitive. The noun marked by the possessive genitive denotes the possessor: canis puellae (the girl’s dog), gladius militis (the soldier’s sword), domus poetae (the poet’s house). Here endeth the rote.
Now it’s time to activate those little gray cells and stretch the notion of possession just a bit. Consider the phrases: Aeneis Vergilii (Virgil’s Aeneid); puella octo annorum (eight-year old girl); statua auri (gold statue); scriptoris est scibere (it is the writer’s job/characteristic to write).
In the first example, the genitive case establishes a relationship of authorship between Virgil and his Aeneid. The next three examples demonstrate the use of the genitive of age, material, and characteristic respectively.
Now consider these two phrases: metus mortis (fear of death); amor patris (fatherly love or love towards one’s father). In metus mortis we have an objective genitive. Syntactically, fear of death means that one fears death, right? The word death is the grammatical object (as well as the object of one’s fear). In Latin it is expressed with the genitive mortis.
What about amor patris, love of the father? This can be interpreted either as an objective genitive (one loves one’s father) or a subjective genitive (it is the father that loves). In ambiguous cases like this, context provides the answer.
Follow the Clues
In more advanced uses of the genitive, various markers will clue you in on the meaning. These include for instance: the neutral singular of certain pronouns and adjectives of quantity (e.g. quid, nihil, tantum, multum, etc., as in: nihil temporis = no time); certain adverbs of quantity, such as satis (enough), nimis (too much), parum (not enough): e.g. satis temporis = enough time; verbs of remembering (memini), forgetting (obliviscor), lacking/needing (indigere), buying (emere), selling (vendere), convicting (convincere), acquitting (absolvere), etc.: e.g. proditionis convictus (= convicted of treason).
The Path to Modern English
Does English have a genitive case? Yes, it does. However, the numerous morphological markers of Old English have now shrunk to the –‘s ending (as in Tom’s briefcase) or the preposition of (as in men of honor)-with the exception of Modern English personal pronouns, which maintain their own set of possessive forms (e.g my/mine, his, her/hers, your/yours, our/ours, their/theirs, etc.).
The –‘s ending derives from the Old English genitive ending -es, vestiges of which can be found in the names for most days of the week: e.g. Wednesday, i.e. Wodenes-day > Woden’s Day (Woden being an Anglo-Saxon pagan deity). Hungry for more? Brush up your Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales (e.g. the Knyghtes (knight’s) Tale, the Cokes (cook’s) Tale, the Shipmannes (= sailor’s) Tale, and so on and so forth.)
What other names for days of the week could be concealing the Old English genitive ending -es?
(Hint: “concealing” is the key word here…)
Merriam-Webster Online: http://www.m-w.com
Institutes of Latin Grammar by John Grant (passim): http://alturl.com/5hnt
English Grammar Including Grammatical Analysis by C.P. Mason (pp 32 & 127): http://alturl.com/zpjr