Case assignment on predicate nouns

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 predicate nouns. 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 predicate nouns provides statistical analyses of changes in case assignment on predicate nouns in a 10 million word corpus of Russian literary texts written between 1801 and 2000. In Russian, 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) On byl vrač
  he was doctor[SG.NOM]
  ‘He was a doctor.’
(2) On byl vrač-om
  he was doctor-SG.INS
  ‘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.

Basic references

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

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

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


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 predicate nouns

Publisher: University of Surrey

Year: 2009