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

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 of modifier in phrases with ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘four’. 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 of modifier in phrases with ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘four’ provides statistical analyses of changes in the case of the modifier in phrases quantified with ‘two’, ‘three’ or ‘four’ in a 10 million word corpus of Russian literary texts written between 1801 and 2000. 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.

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.


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

Publisher: University of Surrey

Year: 2009