Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


Cognitive Literary Science

Edited by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko

Cognitive Literary Science "Brings together researchers in cognitive-scientific fields and with literary backgrounds for a comprehensive look at cognition and literature."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Intonation and Prosodic Structure

By Caroline Féry

Intonation and Prosodic Structure "provides a state-of-the-art survey of intonation and prosodic structure."

Review of  Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian

Reviewer: Lauren Ressue
Book Title: Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian
Book Author: Olga E. Kagan
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): Russian
Issue Number: 24.971

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting

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 verbs.

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 distribution.

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 Publications.

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.

Amazon Store: