Case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs

How to cite

Krasovitsky, Alexander, Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett, Matthew Baerman, Alison Long & Harley Quilliam. 2009. Surrey Database of Short Term Morphosyntactic Change: Case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs. University of Surrey.

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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.

The Surrey Database of Short Term Morphosyntactic Change: Case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs provides statistical analyses of changes in case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs in a 10 million word corpus of Russian literary texts written between 1801 and 2000.

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 žurnal-a.
  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:

(1) 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).

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. <em>Slavic and East European Journal 19. 123-138.


The database was created for the project 'Short term morphosyntactic change: Variation in Russian 1801-2000', funded by the Arts and Humanties Research Council under grant number RG/AN4375/APN18306. This support is gratefully acknowledged.



Creators: Krasovitsky, Alexander; Brown, Dunstan; Corbett, Greville G.; Baerman, Matthew; Long, Alison; Quilliam, Harley;

Title: Surrey Database of Short Term Morphosyntactic Change: Case assignment on direct objects of negated transitive verbs

Publisher: University of Surrey

Year: 2009