Twitter reinvents the vocative case

I recently saw an interesting idea on reddit: that the @name notation popularized by Twitter and now adopted on many internet forums as a way of addressing someone is basically a reinvention of the vocative case.

What’s a case? Well, English has three cases for nouns: subjective, objective, and possessive.

The subjective noun acted on the possessive noun’s objective noun.

These roughly correspond to Latin’s nominative, accusative, and genitive, but are quite different in the fiddly details.

Latin had several other cases, one of which was the vocative. This case was used to address people and things in what you said. Some English examples would be:

  1. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
  2. Yo homes, smell you later.
  3. Hey buddy, pass the salt.
  4. Mother, should I run for President?

All of these would be in the vocative case in Latin, but to my knowledge there isn’t a formal grammar for it in English.

By introducing a standard notation for addressing @someone, Twitter regularizes this in English. In a way, it is a formalization of the grammar and an inflection of the noun.

I think that the ultimate test for whether this a grammatical change or a passing fad is whether @name will make it into print outside of discussions of Twitter itself. If it does, the vocative will be reinvented.

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Leons Petrazickis

I’m a full-stack developer at IBM Digital Business Group. I do Ruby, Node, Python, Hadoop, Spark, as well as web scale devops with Docker and Terraform.

My opinions are my own.