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Review of  Russian

Reviewer: Daniel Buncic
Book Title: Russian
Book Author: Paul Cubberley
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Russian
Issue Number: 14.1500

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Cubberley, Paul (2002) Russian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge
University Press, xvi+380pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-79191-X, $70.00;
paperback ISBN 0-521-79641-5, $25.00.

Announced at

Daniel Buncic, Slavonic Department, University of Bonn (Germany)


Paul Cubberley addresses his book to two rather heterogeneous groups
of readers (p.9): on the one hand, teachers of Russian who, while
having a good practical knowledge of Russian, would like to know more
about the linguistic background of their subject, and on the other
hand, linguists who do not know Russian but want to get a general
overview over the linguistic peculiarities of this
language. Consequently, the book includes a lot of redundancy for both
groups, e.g. rather detailed descriptions of such general concepts as
the 'phoneme' (pp.53-55) or the 'sentence' (pp.176-178) with English
examples, or the double representation of every single Russian example
in a Cyrillic and a transcribed form. Nevertheless, Cubberley tries to
give "a linguistic introduction" that satisfies both general
linguists and Russian teachers, and indeed most information is
interesting for all of them.

In this overview the historical and the comparative aspect are always
present, as Cubberley views these approaches as basic for the
understanding of language. Therefore the first chapter after the short
"Introduction" (pp.1-11) is "History of the language" (pp.12-52),
where Cubberley gives a short overview over the general history of
Russia (pp.12-16), and an introduction into the history of the Russian
language (from Indo-European to Modern Russian). Apart from historical
grammar (pp.16-43), which forms the main part of this historical
chapter, he also includes short sections about the "Development of
the standard language" (pp.43-48) and the history of Russian
writing/orthography (pp. 48-52).

What follows are four chapters about the traditional layers of
structural linguistic analysis: "Phonology", "Morphology",
"Syntax", and "Word-formation and lexicology". All of these start
with a short "Introduction" for non-linguists into the theoretical
framework necessary for understanding the linguistic
description. Linguists are each time explicitly told to skip these

The second chapter, named "Phonology" (pp.53-101), treats phonetics
(pp.55-59), phonology proper (pp.59-95), including suprasegmental
features and matters of style, and a short introduction into the
representation of the Russian language in writing (pp.95-101). Russian
Phonology is represented both in a traditional way based on
articulatory features and with binary distinctive features. In his
phonemic representation Cubberley opts for a radically distributional
analysis similar to the one proposed by the "Moscow Phonological

Chapter three about morphology (pp.102-175) is a detailed, traditional
description of the inflectional system of Russian, ordered according
to word classes. Spread over this chapter are declension and
conjugation charts for the various word classes, in which the forms
and endings are represented phonemically. The morphological
description contains thorough treatments of morphophonology, a
systematization of stress patterns (including their relative
frequencies), and variation.

After another theoretical introduction the syntax chapter (number
four, pp.176-254) gives an overview about sentence types and the
syntactical relations within them: "The simple sentence"
(pp.181-226), and "The complex sentence" (pp.226-252). The latter of
these sections enumerates all types of subordinate clauses. The former
includes treatments of the parts of the sentence and word
order. Syntactical relations within phrases are treated in various
ways: While there is a separate section about the nominal phrase
(pp.178-181), which precedes "The simple sentence", the verbal
phrase is dealt with under "The parts of the sentence: The
Predicate" (pp.190-214).

The fifth chapter, "Word-formation and lexicology" (pp.255-312), is
basically an extension of the morphology chapter, namely derivational
morphology and compounding, including short sections about various
types of borrowing, among others from Church Slavonic. The main part
of this chapter is formed by long annotated lists of Russian affixes
(in part an adapted version of Cubberley 1994) and compound types and
their functions. The second part implied in the chapter heading,
"Lexicology (and phraseology)" (pp.306-312) is a brief comment on
lexical relations such as homonymy, synonymy, etc., on the historical
sources of the Russian lexicon (Iranian, Germanic, Turkic, Greek...),
and on stylistic registers.

The sixth chapter, "Dialects" (pp.313-331), is a rather exhaustive
introduction into Russian dialectology, which of course cannot give a
full picture of all Russian dialects, but which provides the reader
with a representative overview over the main dialectal deviations from
the norm. All levels of language are covered here, including prosody
and intonation.

The last chapter, "Sociolinguistics" (pp.332-362), begins with a
more thorough description of registers, the status of the Russian
standard language, and diastratic variation. Problems of interference
(diglossia, bilingualism, etc.) are treated shortly (pp.350-354). The
book is finished by a section titled "Pragmatics" (pp.354-362),
which is concerned mainly with forms of address and various
possibilities to formulate greetings and inquiries.

Apart from the references to literature quoted, there is a thematic
bibliography of recommended titles, which are exclusively in English.


(a) Presentation of the material

As Cubberley addresses a readership that does not know either Russian
or linguistics, the didactic qualities of this book are of special
importance. Indeed the author does a good job in explaining
everything. Often he demonstrates one thing from several points of
view (e.g. "Another way of putting this is...", p.73). Sometimes the
author does not even fear to contradict himself in order not to
introduce all at once, e.g. when he first claims that there are no
syllables with hard consonant + /e/ and gives the exceptions from this
rule only later (p.65). Another example of a very good explanation is
the problem of the case of a negative direct object (accusative or
genitive), where he refers to the notion of topic and comment
(p.215f.). Unfortunately, this notion itself is nowhere explicitly

For non-linguists the introductions into the theoretical framework
that begin every chapter will be very useful. Interestingly enough,
the first chapter about the history of Russian lacks such an
introduction. Are non-linguists who do not know what a phoneme is
nevertheless expected to understand the Indo-Europeanist
transcriptions and to know what it means when a Proto-Indo-European
semivowel [i] becomes a Proto-Slavonic [j]? Clearly this chapter
would have needed at least as much introduction as the others.

Of course, there remain several explanations that might be a bit
misleading for readers who do not know Russian: For example, in the
section about negation there is a statement that "Added negatives
[...] emphasise the negative" (p.184), with the example _On nikogda
nichego ne chitaet_ 'He never reads a thing' (literally: 'He never
does not read nothing'). However, in sentences like these there is no
'emphasis' at all, since it is just ungrammatical not to negate all
the three negative words in this sentence: *_On nikogda chego-to
chitaet_, the literal equivalent of 'He never reads anything' is
impossible. Also some examples might have been chosen better, e.g. the
one that is to show that an acute accent can be used in written texts
to disambiguate the word _chto_, which is both a conjunction 'that'
and an interrogative pronoun 'what' (p.237). However, the sentence
quoted would not have been ambiguous even without the accent. (A
better example would have been _Ona mne rasskazala, chto ona pishet_
'She told me that she writes' vs. _Ona mne rasskazala, chto' ona
pishet_ (with the acute) 'She told me what she writes'.)

Cubberley uses different transcriptions for each chapter of his book
(transliteration, phonemic transcription, morphophonemic
transcription, transliteration or transcription with morpheme borders
marked, etc.), which is sometimes rather confusing. Proper names in
the text are transcribed unsystematically, e.g. on one and the same
page (p.8) we find "S^c^erba" and "S^axmatov" (with haczeks, so
scientific transliteration), but Mel'chuk (with "ch" for [tS], as in
English practical transcription). Even in a column of a table titled
"Name (IPA)" there are two non-IPA transcriptions (p.96).

The chosen representation of stress by an apostrophe after the
stressed vowel is a bit confusing, as the apostrophe (in a slightly
more italic shape) is also used to indicate palatalized consonants;
this results in forms like "n'ed'e'l'a" (p.113) or "i'l'i"
(p.172). An acute accent above the respective vowel, which is the
usual stress marker in Russian, would have been a good alternative.

"Russian - A Linguistic Introduction" is obviously meant as a
reference-book rather than to be read from the first page to the
last. Therefore it has no conclusion. However, various obstacles make
it hard to find the desired information quickly. The table of contents
can cover only three of the up to seven levels of subdivision, and the
index does not contain concrete constructions. Moreover, bold type is
used very sparsely, and the fourth-level headings are only italic,
while the fifth-level headings are bold and thus strike out much
more. This makes it hard to orient oneself when leafing through the

The arrangement of the material does not follow one consistent
principle, as it is sometimes onomasiological and sometimes
semasiological. The latter arrangement would be the one Russian
teachers are used to, whereas the former one would be more interesting
for general linguists to find out how certain concepts are expressed
in Russian. (Maybe in a second edition one could rearrange the
contents of the morphology and syntax chapter into one chapter

(b) Theoretical approach

One of Cubberley's strong sides is certainly his good overview over
linguistic developments going on at the moment (e.g. his evaluation of
the status of analyticity, p.346). Thus he sees many new tendencies
that are usually not found in traditional Russian grammars, e.g. that
word-final /m'/ has been "virtually removed" (p.77), the acceptable
softening of /s/ in /s'jes't'/ 'sit down' (p.79), the
pronunciation tendencies of geminate consonants (p.81), or the new
vocative form (e.g. _Sash!_ 'Sasha!', p.95).

In this context it is noteworthy that the author often gives an
estimated frequency of patterns and additional stylistic information,
e.g. for the affixes (p.263-269) or the stress patterns (p.122-125),
though sometimes I would not agree, e.g. with the "not common" ov ~
u alternation (p.87), which is basic in a group of very productive
verbs (_organizovat'_ 'organize', _risovat'_ 'draw', _var'irovat'_
'vary', etc.).

One of the major advantages of this book is that it treats prosodic
features and intonation (a subject in which the author takes a deep
interest, cf. Cubberley 1980) much more thoroughly than one is used
to and in all relevant chapters, even in dialectology (p.322-324) - in
spite of the few material offered by Russian dialectologists.

In parts the book appears very modern, e.g. when the author claims
that "Word order is of particular significance in Russian"
(p.177). At first glance this is contrary to the traditional view that
word order has no grammatical significance in a strongly inflecting
language like Russian, but what Cubberley means here is the pragmatic
function, which, however, he explains rather shortly (e.g. only one
and a half page about the influence of topic and comment on word
order, p.225f.).

Unfortunately, this rather short treatment of pragmatic and semantic
aspects is typical of the whole book. Another example is the syntax
chapter, where Cubberley explicitly opts for a "structural" approach
and against a "semantic" approach (p.177f.) at syntax. There is only
one page about the meaning side of the aspect category (p.150f.), as
Cubberley claims that "At the level of linguistics, the concept is
not overly difficult" (p.150). Anyone who has tried to teach a
non-Slav to use the Russian aspects correctly knows that it is a very
difficult topic that produces many mistakes. In this context, a
quarter of a page about the verbs of motion (p.151, with not a single
example for illustration) is absurd, given that teachers of Russian
are one of the two main target groups of this book.

All chapters are treated very much from a historical perspective,
because the author is convinced that "a general comprehension of the
historical dimension [...] contributes directly to an understanding of
the synchronic structure" (p.10). Therefore e.g. he rejects
generative approaches to describe the relationship between the two or
even more stems of a verb but tries to operate with their historical
development (p.148-150). This seems sensible enough, but sometimes the
historical information is not very helpful, e.g. when _peshchera_
'cave' is explained to come from _pek-_ 'bake' (p.88) or when the
reader is told that prepositions like _dlja_ 'for (the benefit of)',
_krome_ 'except' and _okolo_ 'near' (p.171) or particles like _vot_
'lo!' or _pochti_ 'almost' (p.173f.; cf. also p.263) are "derived
from nouns, verbs, etc., but also now considered non-derived"
(p.171). This is not of much help neither for the teacher nor for the
general linguists, especially as there is no explanation what these
words are actually derived from.

In one case this historical perspective makes Cubberley arrive at a
very interesting view of the morphological structure of adverbs: While
he does assume that only "nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numerals"
have endings (p.106), on the next page he claims that the adverb
_naverx_ has a "zero ending": "{naverx} + {0} 'upwards'
(cf. {naverx} + {u} 'up above')" (p.107). Diachronically of course
this is indeed an ending, since etymologically this adverb is made up
of the preposition _na_ 'on' and the accusative (respectively,
locative) form of a noun _verx_ 'top'. Synchronically, however, it
should be clear that this adverb cannot have any ending, not even a
zero one.

This almost Neo-Grammarian approach contrasts with Cubberley's
strictly distributional phonemic analysis, which results e.g. (as he
admits himself, p.70) in the "counter-intuitive" use of the symbol
/i/ for [1] in all phonemic transcriptions. (These transcriptions
would have been more readable if they had always been included in
phonemic brackets.) Moreover the declension and conjugation charts do
not include the written representation of the endings. For example,
the genitive singular ending of nouns like _vremeni_ 'time'
(nominative _vremja_) transcribed as _on'-i_ is never stressed in any
word, so that its first vowel is always pronounced as [i], and written
as , but for theoretical reasons phonologically transcribed as
_o_. Similarly, in the historical s-stem nouns like _nebo_ 'sky,
heaven', _chudo_ 'wonder' or _koleso_ 'wheel', Cubberley is forced to
treat the element -'es- appearing in all words as -es- when it is a
theme (in _nebesa_ 'heavens', _chudesa_ 'wonders'), but as -os- when
it is part of the root (in _kolesa_ 'wheels'). This approach is
fascinating enough, but without an orthographic and/or phonetic
representation it must be rather confusing both for non-linguists and
for non-experts at Russian.

(c) Reflection of current research

Whenever there is a disputable question, Cubberley quotes both sides
of the discussion, and, where necessary, makes a decision (e.g. the
origin of the name _Rus'_, p.12f.; the theoretical framework of
intonation, p.89f.; the classification systems for nouns,
p.111). However, newer, less traditional opinions have a good chance
of escaping the author's notice. Thus, throughout the book the term
"Old Russian" is used without even being discussed, although because
of the Belarusan and Ukrainian participation in this period of Russian
history it would be more appropriate to call this language "Old East
Slavonic". Cubberley refers to a "period of great translation
activity under Jaroslav the Wise" (p.43) without mentioning Francis
J. Thomson's (1988/93) well-substantiated thesis that this myth is in
fact based on the mistranslation of an entry in the Primary Chronicle
and that such translation activity never took place. The diglossia
theory according to Uspensky, Worth and Lunt is called "now generally
accepted" (p.44), though even Uspensky himself has not stood up for
it any more lately (see Rehder 1989, Keipert 1999: 739). When treating
the so-called "Second Palatalization" (p.28), the results of which
in most contexts disappeared in Russian, it would have been worthwhile
mentioning the ancient dialect of Novgorod, which never executed this
sound shift at all and on the basis of which probably Modern Russian
does not show the results, whereas Ukrainian and Belarusan, not being
influenced by Novgorod, continue the Old East Slavonic tradition
(cf. Gluskina 1966; Zaliznjak 1995: 37-38, 1998: 448f.).

In some places a book intended as an introduction would have needed
some more references for further information. There are several
anonymous formulations like "It has been suggested" (p.111) or
"some have argued" (p.317). Moreover, Cubberley recommends only
English-language books for further reading (e.g. p.332, 363). This may
be sufficient for non-Russophone linguists, but it is an unnecessary
restriction for Russian teachers.

(d) Material presented

Some very good chapters have already been mentioned: The historical
approach, suprasegmental features, and several other rather 'modern'
subjects. Two further very good chapters are dialectology (p.313-331),
which is a really good treatment of the linguistic categories that
appear in various dialects of Russian (e.g. vowel length,
definiteness), and affixation, which is another of Cubberley's
specialities (cf. Cubberley 1994).

Unfortunately, many mistakes can be found in political matters,
e.g. when Cubberley refers "to the federation as a whole, or, more
correctly, to the Russian republic within it" (p.3; there just is no
such entity as a Russian republic within the Russian Federation), or
when he enumerates the Slavonic languages: Kashubian is missing in the
text (p.6), and Bosnian on the map (p.7). This map shows language
borders, but they are always identical to state frontiers, although
Russian is spoken in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, Slovenian is spoken
in Austria and Italy, etc. However, this simplification is obviously
not deliberate, since the language area marked for Macedonian does
include large portions of Western Bulgaria (!) and Northern Greece.

There are several minor mistakes and inconsistencies, which probably
cannot be avoided in the first imprint of a book of this extent (400
pages of facts!). Some of the less obvious mistakes I would like to
mention here.

Cubberley claims that "There has never been a proposal to replace
Cyrillic with a Roman script [...], at least not for Russian as such"
- however, there have been several such proposals, the most advanced
attempt being a project elaborated by the Sub-Commission for
Latinization of the Ministry of Science (Glavnauka), which was headed
by Nikolaj F. Jakovlev (cf. Alpatov 2001, Ashnin/Alpatov 2001).

Morris Halle's "Sound Pattern of Russian" is quoted as from 1971
(p.57 and bibliography), which is only the 2nd edition; the 1st
edition is from 1959, consequently nine years before Chomsky & Halle's
"Sound Pattern of English" (1968), and not just a later adaptation
of this.

The Russian word _poltora_ for 'one and a half' is made up of _pol_
'half' and _(v)tora_ 'the second (genitive singular)', so the original
meaning is 'half of the second', taking 'the first' already for
granted. It is not 'half of three' (p.143), though mathematically this
would make sense, too (cf. Vasmer 1950-58: s.v.).


"Russian: A Linguistic Introduction" provides a very comprehensive
introduction into Russian linguistics - indeed so comprehensive that
it is almost incredible that this work could be accomplished by one
man alone. As this man cannot be a specialist in all the fields
covered, one can see some differences in quality. The book gives very
good information on the phonology, morphology (incl. word-formation)
and syntax of the Russian language as it is actually spoken now, as
well as to its dialectology, historical grammar and historical
lexicology. There are good aspects of Russian sociolinguistics, but
semantics and pragmatics are neglected almost completely, whereas the
historical approach is a bit over-emphasized.


Alpatov, Vladimir (2001). Un projet peu connu de latinisation de
l'alphabet russe. - Slavica Occitania 12: Alphabets slaves et
interculturalites, pp.13-28.

Ashnin, Fedor & Alpatov, Vladimir (2001). Putin za realjnyje celi. My
mogli perejti na latinskoe pis'mo. - Nezavisimaja gazeta, 31 Mar 2001.

Chomsky, Noam & Halle, Morris (1968). The sound pattern of
English. New York: Harper & Row.

Cubberley, Paul (1994). Handbook of Russian affixes. Columbus (Ohio):
Slavica Publishers.

Cubberley, Paul (1980). The suprasegmental features in Slavonic
phonetic typology. Amsterdam: Verlag Adolf M. Hakkert.

Gluskina, Z. (1966). O drugiej palatalizacji spolglosek
tylnojezykowych w rosyjskich dialektach polnocno-zachnodnich. - Slavia
Orientalis 15.4, pp.475-482.

Halle, Morris (1959). The sound pattern of Russian: a linguistic and
acoustical investigation. With an excursus on the contextual variants
of the Russian vowels by Lawrence G. Jones. 's-Gravenhage: Mouton.

Keipert, Helmut (1999). Geschichte der russischen Literatursprache. -
Handbuch der sprachwissenschaftlichen Russistik und ihrer
Grenzdisziplinen, ed. by Helmut Jachnow. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz,

Lunt, Horace G. (1988). Did Jaroslav the Wise sponsor translations
into Slavonic? - Studies on the Slavo-Byzantine and West-European
Middle Ages. In memoriam Ivan Dujcev. Sofia (Studia Slavico-Byzantina
et Mediaevalia Europensia, vol.1).

Rehder, Peter (1989). Diglossie in der Rus': Anmerkungen zu
B.A. Uspenskijs Diglossie-Konzeption. - Die Welt der Slaven 34.2,

Thomson, Francis J. (1988/93). 'Made in Rusia'. A survey of the
translations allegedly made in Kievan Russia. - Millennium Russiae
Christianae. Tausend Jahre christliches Russland 988-1988: Vorträge
des Symposiums anlässlich der Tausendjahrfeier der Christianisierung
Russlands (Münster 5.-9. Juni 1988), ed. by G. Birkfellner. Cologne
1993. [Reprint in Thomson 1999: V.]

Thomson, Francis J. (1999). The reception of Byzantine culture in
Mediaeval Russia. Aldershot et al.: Ashgate.

Vasmer, Max (1950-58). Russisches etymologisches
Wörterbuch. Heidelberg. [Russian translation with additions by
O.N.Trubachev: Fasmer, Maks (1964-73, 3rd ed. 1996). Etimologicheskij
slovar' russkogo jazyka.]

Zaliznjak, Andrej A. (1995). Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt. Moskva:
Jazyki russkoj kul'tury.

Zaliznjak, Andrej A. (1998). Posleslovie lingvista. - Janin, Valentin
L. Ja poslal tebe berestu... 3rd ed. (1st ed. 1965). Moskva: Jazyki
russkoj kul'tury, pp.425-449.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Daniel Buncic works as a lecturer at the Slavonic Department of Bonn University (Germany), where he teaches Slavonic linguistics, and is currently writing his PhD thesis about a Ruthenian phrasebook from the 17th century. Among his main research interests are phonology, contrastive analysis, writing systems, and the development of standard languages.

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