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LINGUIST List 24.971

Mon Feb 25 2013

Review: Semantics: Kagan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 25-Jan-2013
From: Lauren Ressue <ressue.1osu.edu>
Subject: Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4351.html

AUTHOR: Olga E. Kagan
TITLE: Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian
SUBTITLE: A Study of Genitive of Negation and Intensional Genitive Case
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Lauren Ressue, Ohio State University


In Russian, in addition to the “canonical” genitive used to mark possession,
the “non-canonical” genitive (as opposed to either accusative or nominative)
is sometimes assigned to non-oblique verbal arguments. There are three main
types of non-canonical genitive assignment: the Partitive Genitive,
Intensional Genitive, and Genitive of Negation. Kagan, in “Semantics of
Genitive Objects in Russian,” takes on the goal of unifying the Intensional
Genitive and the Genitive of Negation as one phenomenon. By doing so, she
accounts for seemingly random case-alternations. She also points out
similarities between this phenomenon and the subjunctive and Differential
Object Marking found in other languages. This book will be of primary
interest to Russianists, as it provides a well-supported analysis of a
much-discussed linguistic puzzle in Russian, though it does treat broader
topics such as the distinction between inherent and structural case and the
role commitment plays in language.


Chapter One introduces each of the three non-canonical genitive uses
separately. Kagan then discusses how previous analyses unify these three uses
in various ways. She supports the position of Neidle (1988) that the Genitive
of Negation and Intensional Genitive are two different instantiations of the
same phenomenon, which she calls “Irrealis Genitive”. The chapter introduces
semantic parallels between the Genitive of Negation and the Intensional
Genitive and ends by providing evidence that the Partitive Genitive should not
be included in the Irrealis Genitive.

Chapter Two explores previous accounts of non-canonical genitive use,
including the syntactic Configurational approach (Bailyn 1997, Harves
2002a,b); the Empty Modifier approach, which has both a syntactic analysis
(Pesetsky 1982, Franks 1997 and others) and a semantic analysis (Pereltsvaig
1999, Neidle 1988); and the semantico-pragmatic Perspectival Center (Borschev
and Partee 2002, Partee and Borschev 2004). Kagan also discusses the
hypothesis that runs through many of these analyses -- that the Genitive of
Negation is only licensed when the verb is unaccusative. The first
shortcoming Kagan finds in most of the works is that they do not allow for a
unified analysis of the different types of non-canonical genitive use, even
though there is much reason to believe, as discussed in Chapter One, that they
are one phenomenon. A second shortcoming is that many of the analyses depend
on the unaccusativity hypothesis, even though there is reason to believe that
not all instances of the Genitive of Negation co-occur with unaccusative

Chapter Three outlines the analysis of the subjunctive mood, based on Farkas
(2003), that Kagan adopts. The key here is that subjunctive sentences are only
licensed when the truth or falsity of their proposition is not decided. The
subjunctive is relevant, as Kagan argues that “the restrictions imposed on its
[the Irrealis Genitive’s] use are essentially identical to the ones that
delimit the use of the subjunctive mood, with the only difference stemming
from the fact that mood is sensitive to the interpretation of a clause and
case, of an [sic] nominal phrase” (p. 59). If these factors are relevant for
a verbal category, it is reasonable to think they might also be relevant for a
nominal category, and in fact Kagan argues that the Irrealis Genitive is the
nominal counterpart of the subjunctive.

Chapter Four outlines the analysis for when the Irrealis Genitive is licensed,
as opposed to the accusative or nominative. It starts with an explanation of
a few problems Kagan ran into when eliciting judgments from her consultants,
such as language variation, register and the idiosyncratic properties of
verbs. Kagan argues that objects that take the Irrealis Genitive have two
main properties that differentiate them from their nominative or accusative
counterparts: (i) they are property denoting (of type {e, t}) [editor's note:
using curly brackets rather than angle brackets due to html formatting
restrictions] rather than individual-denoting ({e}) or quantificational ({{e,
t}, t}), and (ii) they lack Relative Existential Commitment (REC). These two
properties provide a uniform semantics for the Irrealis Genitive that captures
the interpretational properties of genitive arguments as well as their

Chapter Five looks in more depth at the distribution of genitive versus
accusative case marking on objects of intensional verbs, a distribution which
can at times seem random. Kagan explores the data and explains that seeming
counterexamples are actually accounted for by REC. Many of the counterexamples
are explained if we consider the difference between an object that must come
into being and an object that simply must change location to be within one's
vicinity. For example, Kagan compares objects of the verb ždat' 'to wait'.
If one waits for a rusalka 'mermaid', only the accusative is licensed, whereas
one may await a genitive čudo 'miracle'. Kagan explains that if one is
waiting for a mermaid, one is waiting for the mermaid to move into our
vicinity, whereas if we wait for a miracle, we wait for one to appear out of
the blue. The miracle therefore lacks REC in the modal base introduced by the
verb, while the mermaid does not.

The main part of Chapter Six more closely explores data concerning the
Genitive of Negation and explains why those objects that take genitive in
various contexts lack REC. For example, Kagan argues that in two linguistic
environments, existential sentences and sentences containing perception
predicates (such as vidno ‘seen, visible’), “a salient location is introduced
and commitment to existence comes to be anchored to this location” (p. 128).
This sensitivity to location then explains why in some negated sentences
proper names, which generally do not appear in the Irrealis Genitive because
the entity denoted by them is presupposed to exist, take the genitive. The
genitive is licensed when there is a lack of existential commitment to an
entity in a particular time or location. The last part of the chapter returns
to the subjunctive and highlights the similarities between the Irrealis
Genitive and the subjunctive.

Chapter Seven begins with the observation that there is a correlation between
verbal aspect, number and genitive/accusative case assignment in Russian.
Kagan explores previous accounts and shows that this correlation falls out
from her analysis, specifically citing her proposed property of REC.

Chapter Eight contains two topics. In the first, Kagan shows how the Irrealis
Genitive might be relevant for other languages. She discusses Differential
Object Marking (DOM), a phenomenon in many languages in which a case-marked
object alternates with an unmarked object, and outlines Aissen’s (2003) formal
account of DOM. Aissen’s account is couched in the framework of Optimality
Theory (OT) and is based on the resolution of the tension between iconicity
and economy. Kagan discusses the similarities between DOM in languages such as
Hebrew, Catalan and Turkish and suggests that DOM and the Irrealis Genitive
are related, as they both divide nominals into two groups based on their
degree of individuation. She argues that we can extend Aissen’s OT analysis
of DOM to the Irrealis Genitive if we assume that the genitive case is the
default case in Russian. The second part of this chapter discusses a fourth
type of genitive-accusative alternation not previously mentioned: that on
objects of verbs containing either the reflexive suffix -sja and/or the verbal
prefixes na-, pere-, do- and nedo-. Kagan claims that the use of the genitive
in such environments is not the Irrealis Genitive because genitive is licensed
in sentences when the object does not lack Existential Commitment. These two
topics are meant to place the Irrealis Genitive in a broader perspective of
case alternations.


Kagan takes on a subject that has a long tradition of scholarship behind it.
Her work advances our understanding of non-canonical genitive in that it
offers greater generality in the analysis of the genitive in Russian. It also
allows us to better generate testable predictions about the
genitive-accusative case-alternation and provides more precision in the
description of the Irrealis Genitive. This book follows the line of thought
from her previous work (Kagan 2010), and follows individual threads from
Neidle (1988), Farkas (2003) and Borschev et al. (2008), among others.

The book will be of primary interest to those interested in non-canonical
genitive use in Russian. However, Kagan does appeal to a larger audience in
that her analysis treats similarities between nominal and verbal phrases,
discusses problems in the distinction between inherent and structural case,
and highlights the role commitment to truth or existence can play in language.
Additionally, the last chapter of the book broadens its scope and compares the
Irrealis Genitive with data from other languages. Kagan’s arguments here,
however, are largely dependent on her controversial claim, supported by
Pesetsky (2012), that genitive is the unmarked, or default, case in Russian.
If one does not believe this, then part of this book's appeal to a larger
audience is lost.

A major strength of the book is that Kagan has a plethora of data to back up
her claims. Kagan gathered most of her data through questionnaires. Each
point and piece of analysis is backed up with numerous insightful examples.
Even more impressive is that each questionnaire was completed by 19-25 native
speakers, a high number in the field of semantics.

Although the amount and variety of data are strengths of this book, Kagan
writes that “the phenomena under discussion are characterized by a
considerable variation in native speakers’ judgments... People often disagree
as to which of two cases should be used in a given sentence. The reasons for
such variation have to do with language change as well as the sensitivity of
the phenomenon to pragmatic context” (p. x). She uses this reasoning to
account for data that contradict her arguments. Although variation is a
common hurdle in semantics, in this book there are two problems with this
justification. First, Kagan provides no biographical information about the
consultants she used for the questionnaires. Age, place of birth and place of
residence at least would be relevant if she wants to show that language change
is affecting the Irrealis Genitive.

Second, although she tells us that not all speakers had the same judgments
about case assignment and that “no unified pattern exists” (p. 76), only
seldom does she discuss variation in her data or provide information about the
number of speakers who judged a certain sentence felicitous. She does say
that the data in general show “clear statistical tendencies” (p. 77) but she
does not specify what she considers statistical significance. Thus, although
Kagan tells us that language change is underway, she does not let us see and
evaluate this change for ourselves. These problems lead one to question how
statistically significant and consistent her data is.

Lastly, this book would benefit by the inclusion of an index and a final, full
bibliography, instead of individual lists at the end of each chapter.

Despite these shortcomings, Kagan’s book is a convincing work about a subject
that has been rehashed so much that it seems nothing new could said about it.
It is well researched, well-argued and makes an important contribution to the
topic of genitive objects and to the field of Russian linguistics in general.


Aissen, Judith. 2003. Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. economy.
Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 21: 435-483.

Bailyn, John F. 1997. Genitive of negation is obligatory. In Annual workshop
on formal approaches to Slavic linguistics: The Cornell meeting, ed. W.
Browne, E. Dornisch, N. Kondrashova, and D. Zec. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic

Borschev, Vladimir and Barbara Partee. 2002. The Russian genitive of
negation in existential sentences: The role of theme-rheme structure
reconsidered. In Travaux de Circle Linguistique de Prague (novella serie),
vol. 4, ed. E. Hajieova and P. Sgall. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub. Co.

Borschev, Vladimir, Elena V. Paducheva, Barbara H. Partee, Yakov G Testelets,
and Igor Yanovich. 2008. Russian genitives, non-referentiality, and the
property-type hypothesis. In Formal Approaches to Slavic linguistics: The
Stony Brook meeting (FASL 16), ed. A. Antonenko et al. Ann Arbor: Michigan
Slavic Publishers.

Farkas, Donka F. 2003. Assertion, belief and mood choice. Paper presented at
the workshop on Conditional and Unconditional Modality, ESSLLI, Vienna.

Franks, Steven. 1997. Parameters of Slavic morphosyntax revisited: A
minimalist retrospective. In Annual workshop on formal approaches to Slavic
linguistics: The Connecticut meeting, eds. Z. Boscovic, S. Franks, and W.
Snyder. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications.

Harves, Stephanie. 2002a. Genitive of negation and the syntax of scope. In
Proceedings of ConSOLE 9, eds. M. van Koppen, E. Thrift, E.J. van der Torre,
and M. Zimmerman, 96-110.

Harves, Stephanie. 2002b. Unaccusative syntax in Russian. Ph.D. dissertation,
Princeton University.

Kagan, Olga. 2010. Genitive objects, existence and individuation. Russian
Linguistics 34(1): 17-39.

Neidle, Carol. 1988. The role of case in Russian syntax. Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic Publishers.

Partee, Barbara and Vladimir Borschev. 2004. The semantics of Russian
Genitive of Negation: The nature and role of Perspectival Structure. In
Proceedings from SALT XIV, ed. R. Young, 212-234. Ithaca: CLC Publications.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. 1999. The genitive of negation and aspect in Russian. In
McGill Working Papers in Linguistics 14, ed. Y. Rose and J. Steele, 111-140.

Pesetsky, David M. 1982. Paths and categories. Ph.D. dissertation.
Cambridge: MIT.

Pesetsky, David M. 2012. Russian case morphology and the syntactic
categories. Ms. lingBuzz/001120.


Lauren Ressue is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic and East
European Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University. Her interests
lie generally in the semantics and morphosemantics of the Slavic and Uralic
languages. In the past, her work has focused on the morphosemantics of verbal
prefixes and aspect. In her dissertation, she explores the semantics of
reciprocal expressions in Russian and especially examines the interaction of
reciprocity with temporal and event structure.
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