Short term morphosyntactic change

Project Overview


Short term morphosyntactic change

Project members:

Prof Greville G. Corbett
Dr Matthew Baerman
Dr Dunstan Brown
Dr Alexander Krasovitsky
Dr Alison Long

Period of award

September 2004 - May 2008


Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) - RG/AN4375/APN18306

Languages change by gaining and losing word forms over time, but an equally significant role in their history is played by subtle shifts in the function of existing forms. Investigating such developments requires us to analyse patterns of use in large amounts of historical data, but such data are simply unavailable for most languages. Russian is a happy exception. It is a language with a rich and relatively stable system of inflectional morphology. Yet while the system of forms has changed relatively little, the use of these forms has undergone a remarkable degree of change over the last 200 years, a period for which a substantial quantity of varied material is available.

By investigating a corpus of literary texts created between 1801 and 2000 (10 million words in total), we have shown how dramatically a language can change even as the actual word forms remain unchanged. The databases were designed to help address two theoretical questions:       

  • What is the nature of morphosyntactic change in a language whose morphological system remains stable?        
  • What factors condition the choice between competing forms?     

The databases created for this project provide statistical analyses of the competition between grammatical forms for six morphosyntactic phenomena within equal time periods, described below. We give the user the means to investigate morphological, syntactic, stylistic and socio-linguistic factors involved in historical change, and so to observe how innovative usage spreads across contexts. Besides the results of this original study, we also give the results of earlier, less complete, studies by other scholars. The data are the result of several person-years of effort; we have published some of the findings, and we welcome further use of the database by other researchers. We want the database to be accessible to historical linguists with no knowledge of Russian, as well as to Russianists, and so we give the examples in transliterated form.  

 The morphosyntactic phenomena investigated 

Case assignment on predicate nouns

Nouns in predicate position with the copular byt´ (‘to be’) may take either the nominative or the instrumental case, as in (1) and (2):

(1)   eli byl   vrač              (2)   On byl vrač-om  
    he was doctor[SG.NOM]            he was doctor-SG.INS
    ‘He was a doctor.'     'He was a doctor.'

The nominative is the case originally used in the predicate. The instrumental is the innovation, which has expanded dramatically over the last two centuries.  The accepted view is that predicate nouns with more specified temporal, referential or evidential properties favour the instrumental (Nichols 1981,  Timberlake 2004). These properties may be linked to the semantics of the predicate noun (animacy, concreteness) and aspects of clause structure (such as the tense/mood of the copula, word order, and the presence of dependents on the predicate, for example adjuncts restricting the predicated property temporarily). The statistics derived from the corpus show that while this view is correct with regard to 19th century and early 20th century Russian, in the second half of the 20th century the instrumental with predicate nouns became dominant and exceeded the bounds of the constraints given (Krasovitsky, Long, Baerman, Brown & Corbett 2008). During that period the instrumental forced out the nominative irrespective of semantic restrictions.  This general change has left behind isolated pockets of specific lexical items (e.g. nouns of nationality or semantically bleached nouns), which retain nominative use.

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Basic references

Krasovitsky, Alexander, Alison Long, Matthew Baerman, Dunstan Brown & Greville G. Corbett. 2008. Predicate nouns in  Russian. Russian Linguistics 32(2). 99-113.

Nichols, Johanna. 1981. Predicate nominals: A partial surface syntax of Russian (University of California Publications in Linguistics 97). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Timberlake, Alan. 2004. A reference grammar of Russian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Predicate adjectives

A predicate adjective may take one of three forms: the short form (SF), the long form nominative (LF-N) or the long form instrumental (LF-I).

(1)  On   byl  sčastliv.
  he was   happy [SHORT FORM
  ‘He was happy.’
(2)  On   byl  sčastliv-yj.
  he was  happy-NOM [LONG FORM]
  ‘He was happy.’
(3)  On   byl  sčastliv-ym.
  he was  happy-INS [LONG FORM]
  ‘He was happy.’

Each of these adjectival forms shows number, and in the singular also gender (those in our examples are singular and masculine). The database reflects the very interesting situation which has arisen at the end of a development reaching back to Common Slavonic. Originally the adjective had only short forms. Over the centuries, the long form (first nominative, and later also instrumental) has gained ground (see Larsen 2005). Previous corpus studies (for example,  Gustavsson 1976) have documented this ongoing change. In current Russian, there are several factors in play, which the user can investigate: the type of subject, the type of verb, the type of adjective, and the presence of complements. Within this complex environment, the short form has been increasingly supplanted by the long form. However, there is a group of approximately 20 adjectives which favour the short form in the predicate position and, in some instances, appear to be becoming specialized as predicate     adjectives. This suggests that the class itself is splitting (Corbett 2004), and that the number of adjectives allowing the short form is likely continue to decline over time.

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Basic references

Corbett, Greville G. 2004. The Russian adjective: A pervasive yet elusive category. In R. M. W. Dixon & Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald (eds.), Adjective classes: A cross-linguistic typology, 199‑222. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gustavsson, Sven. 1976. Predicative adjectives with the copula byt’ in Modern Russian (Stockholm Slavic Studies 10). Stokholm: Almqwist & Wiksell International.

Larsen, Karin. 2005. The evolution of the system of long and short adjectives in Old Russian (Slavistische Beiträge 439). Munich: Otto Sagner.

Case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs

In modern Russian we observe variation in the case used to mark the direct object of a negated verb, either accusative (1) or genitive (2).                                                                                                                        

(1)   On   ne  kupil  žurnal
  he not bought magazine[SG.ACC]
  ‘ He didn't buy a/the magazine. ’
(2)   On   ne  kupil  žurnala
  he not bought magazine-SG.GEN
  ‘ He didn't buy a/the magazine. ’

The corresponding sentence without negation, as in (3), requires the accusative for the direct object, with no other choice possible.

(3)   On  kupil   žurnal  
  he bought magazine[SG.ACC]  
  ‘ He bought a/the magazine. ’

In earlier periods, the distribution of the two cases with direct objects was clear-cut: the genitive marked the object of negated verbs, while the accusative marked the object of non-negated verbs. In other words, only constructions comparable to (2) and (3) were found. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the accusative (as in (1)) became an established alternative in this construction, but its spread was rather slow. The rate of change increased in the second half of the 20th century and by the end of this period the split between accusative and genitive use was more or less equal. This is a dramatic shift over the short term. The complexity of the factors involved in the choice has been well established (see the classic articles by Restan 1960 and Timberlake 1975), and the user can now research further. Statistics presented in the database reveal the impact of the factors these authors identified, including verb aspect, the form of the governing verb (finite vs. infinitive), the position of the negation in infinitival constructions, and the lexico-semantic properties of the object  noun. Statistical analysis shows a subtle switch in the relative weight of these factors. The lexical semantics of the object noun is much more important for genitive/accusative variation now than it was before the middle of the 20th century, while the role of aspectual semantics, which had been a dominating factor in previous periods, has now been diminished under some syntactic conditions (with finite verbs) or reduced to insignificance under others (with indirectly negated infinitives).

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Basic references

Restan, Per. 1960. The objective case in negative clauses in Russian: the genitive or the accusative? Scando-Slavica 6. 92-112.

Timberlake, Alan. 1975. Hierarchies in the genitive of negation. Slavic and East European Journal 19(2). 123-138.

Predicate agreement with quantified expressions

Predicates whose agreement controller is a quantified expression may take either singular or plural agreement.

(1)    Gorel-o            četyre   sveči.
  burned-SG  four candles
  ‘Four candles were burning.’
(2)   Gorel-i            četyre   sveči.
  burned-PL  four candles
  ‘Four candles were burning.’

Predicate agreement with quantified expressions shows significant variability synchronically, determined by the quantifier type, the word order, and the lexical semantics of the noun and of the verb. Statistics derived from the corpus reveal a complex relationship between these factors. The quantifier type is a dominant condition: low numerals favour plural agreement overall, higher numerals allow variation, conditioned by word order and animacy. Word order, or precedence (Corbett 2006) is the second most important agreement condition: subject-predicate word order favours plural predicates irrespective of the subject noun’s lexical semantics. Animate subjects show stronger preference for plural agreement than inanimate. Animacy however does not override word order: with subject-verb word order plural predicates are more frequent irrespective of the subject noun’s lexical semantics. Finally, the variation in question is  subject to the Predicate Hierarchy of Individuation (Robblee 1997) : verbs that take more individuated arguments, namely activity (agentive) verbs are more likely to agree in the plural than are verbs of state. Diachronic analysis shows an unusual undulating type change: a fall in one period can be followed by a rise in the succeeding one.

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Basic references

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robblee, Karen. 1997. The interaction of Russian word order, agreement and case marking. In Anne-Marie Symon-Vandenbergen, Kristin Davidse & Dirk Noёl (eds.), Reconnecting language: Morphology and syntax in functional perspective (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 154), 227-248. Amsterdam & Philadephia: John Benjamins.

Predicate agreement with conjoined noun phrases

Conjoined noun phrases may take either a singular or a plural predicate:

(1)    Sjuda  prixod-it   avtobus  poezd.
  here   arrive-3SG  bus and  train
  ‘A bus and train are coming here.’
(1)    Sjuda  prixod-jat   avtobus  poezd.
  here   arrive-3PL  bus and  train
  ‘A bus and train are coming here.’

The database documents this variation with respect to these factors: the  noun’s lexical semantics (animacy and concreteness/abstractness), the noun’s morphosyntactic properties (gender and number), verb characteristics (such as transitivity contrasts and the activity/state contrast), word order (namely, subject-verb or verb-subject) and the structure of the conjuncts (number of subjects, presence of common modifier). These factors are known to apply cross-linguistically (Corbett 2006). The database also provides information on how the semantic relationships between conjoined subjects affect predicate number: the database provides statistics of morphosyntactic choices with respect to each type of conjunction (co-ordinate, disjunctive, adversative) and for asyndetic conjoined noun phrases.

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Basic references

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Case of modifier in phrases with ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘four’

Numerals in Russian and in Slavonic more generally are notorious for their complex syntax and morphology. Some of this complexity results from the loss of the dual in most of the Slavonic languages, which led to strange combinations within quantifier phrases. In particular, quantifier phrases with the numerals dva ‘two’ , tri ‘three’ and četyre ‘four’  allow alternative case marking on attributive adjectives. When the phrase is in the nominative or accusative, adjectives are either in that case (1), or they are governed by the numeral and take the genitive (2).                                                                                                                                                                            

(1)   On   opublikoval   tri   bol´š-ie     stat´-i.
  he published three[ACC]   large-PL.ACC     article-GEN.SG
  ‘He published three long articles.’
(2)   On   opublikoval   tri   bol´š-ix  stat´-i.
  he published three[ACC]   large-PL.GEN  article-GEN.SG
  ‘He published three long articles.’

We can make some sense of this pattern; there is a typological generalization  according to which, when numerals vary in their behaviour, the higher will be more noun-like. The phrases above fall between those with odin ‘one’,  which shows many adjective-like characteristics, and pjat´ ‘five’, which requires the genitive plural of nouns and adjectives in examples like (2); see Corbett (1993 for details and references). Thus there is partial motivation for the alternative forms. Perhaps surprisingly, the choice between the forms is constrained by several factors: the properties of the numeral, the properties of the noun, the case of the quantified expression and the position of the modifier. The data available in the database allow the user to explore the complex interaction of these conditioning factors. The general development over the last two centuries has been a dramatic shift in favour of the genitive.  Initially, the gender and animacy of the noun affected the nominative/genitive variation, while the syntactic case of the whole phrase (nominative or accusative) had no noticeable effect. In later periods we find a split within feminine nouns with respect to syntactic case: genitive adjectives are slightly more frequent with accusative phrases than with nominative. Most recently (in second half of the 20th century) the influence of syntactic case has been weakened or eliminated, but another factor, animacy, has come into play affecting choices in phrases with feminine nouns. Gender, however, remains an important factor: while phrases with masculine and neuter nouns have generalized a new model using just genitive adjectives, those with feminine nouns retain the two possibilities, and in fact still favour the nominative.

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Basic references

Corbett, Greville G. 1993. The head of Russian numeral expressions. In Greville G. Corbett, Norman M. Fraser & Scott McGlashan (eds.), Heads in grammatical theory, 11-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.