LINGUIST List 24.971

Mon Feb 25 2013

Review: Semantics: Kagan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 25-Jan-2013
From: Lauren Ressue <>
Subject: Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Olga E. KaganTITLE: Semantics of Genitive Objects in RussianSUBTITLE: A Study of Genitive of Negation and Intensional Genitive CaseSERIES TITLE: Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic TheoryPUBLISHER: SpringerYEAR: 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 maintypes of non-canonical genitive assignment: the Partitive Genitive,Intensional Genitive, and Genitive of Negation. Kagan, in “Semantics ofGenitive Objects in Russian,” takes on the goal of unifying the IntensionalGenitive and the Genitive of Negation as one phenomenon. By doing so, sheaccounts for seemingly random case-alternations. She also points outsimilarities between this phenomenon and the subjunctive and DifferentialObject Marking found in other languages. This book will be of primaryinterest to Russianists, as it provides a well-supported analysis of amuch-discussed linguistic puzzle in Russian, though it does treat broadertopics such as the distinction between inherent and structural case and therole commitment plays in language.


Chapter One introduces each of the three non-canonical genitive usesseparately. Kagan then discusses how previous analyses unify these three usesin various ways. She supports the position of Neidle (1988) that the Genitiveof Negation and Intensional Genitive are two different instantiations of thesame phenomenon, which she calls “Irrealis Genitive”. The chapter introducessemantic parallels between the Genitive of Negation and the IntensionalGenitive and ends by providing evidence that the Partitive Genitive should notbe included in the Irrealis Genitive.

Chapter Two explores previous accounts of non-canonical genitive use,including the syntactic Configurational approach (Bailyn 1997, Harves2002a,b); the Empty Modifier approach, which has both a syntactic analysis(Pesetsky 1982, Franks 1997 and others) and a semantic analysis (Pereltsvaig1999, Neidle 1988); and the semantico-pragmatic Perspectival Center (Borschevand Partee 2002, Partee and Borschev 2004). Kagan also discusses thehypothesis that runs through many of these analyses -- that the Genitive ofNegation is only licensed when the verb is unaccusative. The firstshortcoming Kagan finds in most of the works is that they do not allow for aunified analysis of the different types of non-canonical genitive use, eventhough there is much reason to believe, as discussed in Chapter One, that theyare one phenomenon. A second shortcoming is that many of the analyses dependon the unaccusativity hypothesis, even though there is reason to believe thatnot all instances of the Genitive of Negation co-occur with unaccusativeverbs.

Chapter Three outlines the analysis of the subjunctive mood, based on Farkas(2003), that Kagan adopts. The key here is that subjunctive sentences are onlylicensed when the truth or falsity of their proposition is not decided. Thesubjunctive is relevant, as Kagan argues that “the restrictions imposed on its[the Irrealis Genitive’s] use are essentially identical to the ones thatdelimit the use of the subjunctive mood, with the only difference stemmingfrom the fact that mood is sensitive to the interpretation of a clause andcase, of an [sic] nominal phrase” (p. 59). If these factors are relevant fora verbal category, it is reasonable to think they might also be relevant for anominal category, and in fact Kagan argues that the Irrealis Genitive is thenominal 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 ofa few problems Kagan ran into when eliciting judgments from her consultants,such as language variation, register and the idiosyncratic properties ofverbs. Kagan argues that objects that take the Irrealis Genitive have twomain properties that differentiate them from their nominative or accusativecounterparts: (i) they are property denoting (of type {e, t}) [editor's note:using curly brackets rather than angle brackets due to html formattingrestrictions] rather than individual-denoting ({e}) or quantificational ({{e,t}, t}), and (ii) they lack Relative Existential Commitment (REC). These twoproperties provide a uniform semantics for the Irrealis Genitive that capturesthe interpretational properties of genitive arguments as well as theirdistribution.

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

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

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

Chapter Eight contains two topics. In the first, Kagan shows how the IrrealisGenitive might be relevant for other languages. She discusses DifferentialObject Marking (DOM), a phenomenon in many languages in which a case-markedobject alternates with an unmarked object, and outlines Aissen’s (2003) formalaccount of DOM. Aissen’s account is couched in the framework of OptimalityTheory (OT) and is based on the resolution of the tension between iconicityand economy. Kagan discusses the similarities between DOM in languages such asHebrew, Catalan and Turkish and suggests that DOM and the Irrealis Genitiveare related, as they both divide nominals into two groups based on theirdegree of individuation. She argues that we can extend Aissen’s OT analysisof DOM to the Irrealis Genitive if we assume that the genitive case is thedefault case in Russian. The second part of this chapter discusses a fourthtype of genitive-accusative alternation not previously mentioned: that onobjects of verbs containing either the reflexive suffix -sja and/or the verbalprefixes na-, pere-, do- and nedo-. Kagan claims that the use of the genitivein such environments is not the Irrealis Genitive because genitive is licensedin sentences when the object does not lack Existential Commitment. These twotopics are meant to place the Irrealis Genitive in a broader perspective ofcase 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 itoffers greater generality in the analysis of the genitive in Russian. It alsoallows us to better generate testable predictions about thegenitive-accusative case-alternation and provides more precision in thedescription of the Irrealis Genitive. This book follows the line of thoughtfrom her previous work (Kagan 2010), and follows individual threads fromNeidle (1988), Farkas (2003) and Borschev et al. (2008), among others.

The book will be of primary interest to those interested in non-canonicalgenitive use in Russian. However, Kagan does appeal to a larger audience inthat 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 theIrrealis Genitive with data from other languages. Kagan’s arguments here,however, are largely dependent on her controversial claim, supported byPesetsky (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 largeraudience is lost.

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

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

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

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

Despite these shortcomings, Kagan’s book is a convincing work about a subjectthat 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 thetopic 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 workshopon formal approaches to Slavic linguistics: The Cornell meeting, ed. W.Browne, E. Dornisch, N. Kondrashova, and D. Zec. Ann Arbor: Michigan SlavicPublications.

Borschev, Vladimir and Barbara Partee. 2002. The Russian genitive ofnegation in existential sentences: The role of theme-rheme structurereconsidered. 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 theproperty-type hypothesis. In Formal Approaches to Slavic linguistics: TheStony Brook meeting (FASL 16), ed. A. Antonenko et al. Ann Arbor: MichiganSlavic Publishers.

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

Franks, Steven. 1997. Parameters of Slavic morphosyntax revisited: Aminimalist retrospective. In Annual workshop on formal approaches to Slaviclinguistics: 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. InProceedings 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. RussianLinguistics 34(1): 17-39.

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

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

Pereltsvaig, Asya. 1999. The genitive of negation and aspect in Russian. InMcGill 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 syntacticcategories. Ms. lingBuzz/001120.


Lauren Ressue is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic and EastEuropean Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University. Her interestslie generally in the semantics and morphosemantics of the Slavic and Uraliclanguages. In the past, her work has focused on the morphosemantics of verbalprefixes and aspect. In her dissertation, she explores the semantics ofreciprocal expressions in Russian and especially examines the interaction ofreciprocity with temporal and event structure.

Page Updated: 25-Feb-2013