Predicate adjectives

How to cite

Long, Alison, Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett, Alexander Krasovitsky, Matthew Baerman & Harley Quilliam. 2009. Surrey Database of Short Term Morphosyntactic Change: Predicate adjectives. 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: Predicate adjectives provides statistical analyses of changes in the properties of predicate adjectives in a 10 million word corpus of Russian literary texts written between 1801 and 2000.

In Russian, 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.

Basic references

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

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

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


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

Title: Surrey Database of Short Term Morphosyntactic Change: Predicate adjectives

Publisher: University of Surrey

Year: 2009