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(Obvious disclaimer about the definition of "accusative case" being a touchy subject in English)

I'm an ESL speaker and have noticed that e.g. in German the following exchange

"You're a wizard, Harry." "Me?"

Would go like this:

"Du bist ein Zauberer, Harry." "Ich?"

I used to think this was simply a form of an echo question in German, i.e.

"Ich (bin ein Zauberer)?"

but this clearly falls flat in English

"Me (is a wizard)?"

Actually echoing seems to just drop the verb:

"Me? A wizard?"

So what's going on here? It also seems to work with other pronouns:

"He's a wizard." "Him?"

This feels like some form of echo question to me but it clearly behaves differently. Other languages seem to share this oddity (e.g. Danish with "Mig?", although both Danish and English presumably got this from some place else like Old Norse) so I'm not sure if it's really just German being weird and there's something completely reasonable I'm overlooking here.

  • Also, yes, I'm aware the question in Harry Potter is "I'm a what?", which is a simple echo question, but I couldn't think of a better example. But note that it also gets weird if you ask "Who?": "He's a wizard." "Who?" "Him." – Alan Plum Jun 18 at 17:58
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    The accusative is the default case in English. It's most unusual and ridiculous sounding to say "It is I", and there's no easy way round "It's [only] us." – Edwin Ashworth Jun 18 at 18:34
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    French has this as well - moi. C'est moi ! Qui -- moi ? – Isabel Archer Jun 18 at 18:34
  • "Are you referring to ..." – Hot Licks Jun 18 at 19:32
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    @AlanPlum Agree re interesting follow-up question. It may be addressed in the book I cited. I don't remember. Would you not say though that much of ELU is "prescriptivist"? – Richard Kayser Jun 19 at 14:16
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Let me first say (1) in "it is me.", "Me" is the dative, not the accusative,

Ang.-Sax.

S. Nom. ic, gen. min, dative me, accusative mec.

Pl. Nom. we, gen. user, dative us, accusative usic.

(2) The answer is "because the French say it that way."

Long answer:

English grammar usually agrees with German.

The war for It is I as opposed to It is me, was probably lost in the 1990's when Quirk agreed that "It is me." is correct. It had been going on for a long time. In 1877, Ebenezer Cobham Brewer wrote in the entry on “me” in “Errors of Speech and of Spelling, Volume 1”

Me, objective of ‘I’

S.Nominative I, possessive. mine, objective me;

Plu. Nominative we, possessive ours, objective us.

‘Me” is used after the verb To be, and after the words than, but, like, and as, with such pertinacity it is at least doubtful whether it is not correct. C’est moi is the French Idiom, not C'est je, and It is me is far more common than It is I. (“Me” is dative not accusative case.)

So again, the French say il est plus riche que moi, or plus riche que je ne suis, “more rich than me,” or “more rich than I am.”

This is the style adopted by English.

(At this point, you may wish to have a look at the “official” French dictionary, Larousse for "Moi":

Définitions

Moi (My translation)

(• This form used in all the functions and positions of personal stressed pronouns (also known as disjunctive pronouns and emphatic) pronouns,

(i) in apposition to ‘I’ or ‘myself’,

(ii) as the subject of an infinitive or participle,

(iii) after a preposition,

(iv) after it is,

(v) in phrases, and

(vi) as postposed complement of a imperative):

“Me departed, there will be no one left. (Compare with “With me gone/With my departure, there will be no one left.”)

“You think like me.”

• Moi is also used to indicate the interest taken by someone who gives an imperative: Look at me how he is dressed. (This is in the sense of “[I have looked, now you] look, how he is dressed” this construction does not exist in English – we would say “I say! Look how he is dressed.”)

• Moi can be reinforced by “-self”, to which it is linked by a hyphen: I astonished myself.

Brewer continues with the answer:

It is by no means certain that these Gallicisms should be abolished, but grammarians stoutly resist them, and the tendency of the educated classes is more and more in their disfavour.

[...]

(The following are correct.)

You did not suspect it to be me. You did not know it was me.

He likes you better than me (than he likes me).

(It Is quite certain that we did not use the object me after the verb to be before the Conquest. We said ic sylf hit eom (I self it am – it is myself), and Chaucer frequently writes it am I, but never it am me.

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  • As long as you don't go and abolish these Gallicisms in French, @Greybeard, it's fine with me! Croyez-moi, sans eux je ne pourrais pas moi-même m'exprimer correctement en français. – Isabel Archer Jun 18 at 22:27
  • I find this answer a bit frustrating as this is clearly not just an English and French thing (though of course other languages could have simply copied this from French) but this is the most convincing explanation to me and considering this isn't french.stackexchange.com, I guess the buck stops with French. – Alan Plum Jun 19 at 8:45
  • Aside fom Brewer (1877), what source do you have for your assertion that this "me" is in the dative case? Or that English even has a dative case? – Rosie F Jun 19 at 15:28
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In educated 19th and early 20th century England, Harry would probably have replied "I?"

Here's an example.

Sir Bash. Confess the truth ;- have not you been listening and overbearing my conversation?

Side. Who, I sir? Not I, sir.

The Way to Keep Him: A Comedy, in Five Acts By Arthur Murphy 1925

https://books.google.co.uk/

These days it sounds affected.

If you want a grammatical justification then I suggest:

"You're a wizard, Harry."

"(Is that remark directed at) Me?"

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First, it depends on the language. Like German go Italian ("Io?" not "Μe") and Greek ("Εγω?)". But French goes with English ("Moi?" not "Je"?). Well, I'm cheating a bit, because 'moi' is not not exactly the object form. It is rather the indirect object form (as in "donnez le moi", or "Ce libre la c'est à moi). Truth be told, though, this has nothing to do with grammar and everything to do with usage. Nobody thought about which case it was in.

There is a very useful article on the subject in Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

Me is used in many constructions where strict grammarians prescribe I. This usage is not so much ungrammatical as indicative of the shrinking range of the nominative form: me began to replace I sometime around the 16th century largely because of the pressure of word order. I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position: absolutely who, me? , emphatically me too , and after prepositions, conjunctions, and verbs, including be. come with me you're as big as me it's me Almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions, especially in speech; some recommend I in formal and especially written contexts after be and after as and than when the first term of the comparison is the subject of a verb.

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