LINGUIST List 26.2793

Fri Jun 05 2015

Review: Morphology; Semantics; Syntax; Typology: Chahine (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 18-Apr-2014
From: Dario Lecic <>
Subject: Current Studies in Slavic Linguistics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Irina Kor Chahine
TITLE: Current Studies in Slavic Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 146
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Dario Lecic, University of Sheffield

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume is a collection of selected papers presented at the 6th Annual Meeting of the Slavic Linguistics Society held in Aix-en-Provence from 1 to 3 September, 2011. As stated in the introduction, it intends to provide “equal consideration to various issues of Slavic linguistics, from morphology to syntax and semantics” (1). The primary topic of the volume is Slavic impersonal constructions viewed from a typological perspective; however, it also includes topics as diverse as reflexives, antipassive and evidentiality markers, zero signs, clitics, lexical synonymy, polysemy, etc. It is conveniently divided into 4 thematic sections: Morphosyntax (4 articles), Syntactical relations (4 articles), Impersonal constructions (5 articles), and Lexical semantics (4 articles).

The book starts off with an introduction by Marguerite Guiraud-Weber and Irina Kor Chahine which gives a typological overview of the impersonal construction (IC), which is relatively abundant in Slavic languages and used in a great variety of functions. The authors emphasize on several occasions that it is wrong to identify impersonal sentences with either elliptical, zero subject or syntactically empty constructions. The subject of an IC is generic or indeterminate, unlike in the latter types. In ICs, if there is a nominal element present, it usually appears in an oblique case and serves the role of experiencer or of observer but never of an active agent. They also develop a typology of such constructions across Slavic languages, based on the case of the nominal element and the meaning of the construction. For instance, impersonals describing environment will usually have the nominal element in the Locative (e.g. Russian “Na ulice xolodno”); sentences of negative existence will appear with a Genitive nominal (e.g. Serbo-Croatian “Nema knjige”); impersonals describing mental or physical states will involve an experiencer in the Dative (e.g. Bulgarian “Težko ti”); whereas conveying the meaning of damage caused by a natural phenomenon will require an impersonal with an Instrumental (e.g. Russian “Vetrom sorvalo kryšu”) or Accusative (Czech “Souseda ranilo”); there are also impersonal constructions that use an Accusative argument with an intransitive verb (e.g. Russian Ego “lixoradit”). All these constructions are in one way or another objects of interest in Section 3.

The section on Morphosyntax starts off with an article by Steven Franks “Binding and morphology revisited”. Franks looks at the cross-linguistic variation in the behaviour of anaphora such as Russian “sebja” and English “himself”. In Government and Binding Theory (GB), “Logical Form (LF) properties depend on Phonetic Form (PF) properties” (28). In the case of anaphora this would mean that the choice of its antecedent relies on its morphology. So “sebja” is usually defined as a morphologically simplex anaphor (in that it looks like a head, is subject-oriented, and allows long-distance antecedents) and “himself” as morphologically complex (has the internal structure of a phrase, allows only local antecedents, and is not subject-oriented). Furthermore, “sebja” has so-called phi-features (person, number, gender), whereas “himself” does not. However, Franks notes several inconsistencies that arise when Slavic anaphoras are analysed in this way. He believes the antecedency is determined in the LF itself without ever gaining access to PF. PF morphology can encode less than required by LF (as in the case of Polish and Czech ‘head reciprocals’) or more (as in the case of Bulgarian ‘phrasal reflexives’ such as “sebe si”). More importantly, what matters is semantic rather than morphological structure.

In his article “Possessor Raising and Slavic clitics”, Anton Zimmerling argues against a generalised syntactic account of all Slavic constructions with possessive operators. Some Slavic languages mark phrase-level and clause-level possessives with different morphological cases. For instance, Russian phrase-level possessives are genitives (“Ona ne doč’ Petrova”), whereas clause-level possessives are datives (“Ona Petrovu ne doč’”). For such cases, the author proposes an alternative account, that of Possessive Shift, which involves a change in both syntax and argument marking. Also, he feels it is necessary to keep apart the relation ‘X owns Y’, where the possessor is necessarily animate, from other pseudo-possessive relations, namely WHOLE: PART and ‘X has feature Y’, where the possessee is inanimate and possessor can be either.

Katarzyna Janic’s article deals with the antipassive, which is defined as “a syntactic operation that detransitivizes transitive constructions” (63). The analysis of such constructions so far has been concentrated mostly on ergative languages. The author believes this was the case because such languages were thought to possess explicit antipassive markers which trigger an explicit change in the agreement pattern (Nahuatl being one example). However, Janic argues that languages that do have such constructions rarely have a marker dedicated exclusively to the antipassive, but rather that this function is fulfilled by a polyfunctional marker. When considered in this light, antipassives can be found in a number of accusative languages as well. In Slavonic languages, for instance, the antipassive marker is usually the reflexive/reciprocal marker (Polish “Chłopiec uchwycił się klamk-i”; Russian “Sobaka kusaet-sja”).

Marijana Marelj and Eric Reuland analyse the ‘reflexive clitic’ SE (manifested as “se/sja/się/si” etc.) in a number of Slavic and Romance languages. Even though this clitic can appear in a number of unrelated constructions in these languages (including reflexive, reciprocal, passive and impersonal), they argue that it is possible to account for the presence of the clitic in all these constructions in a uniform way. In other words, SE has a fixed role in all these constructions, and this role is neither inherently reflexive nor anaphoric. Since SE is underspecified in terms of phi-features, the authors consider it a member of the ‘mop up squad’, “a functional element that can be merged and mop up offending features that need to be taken care of in syntax” (78).

The first article in the section on Syntactic relations, written by Daniel Weiss, bears an intriguing title, “The lazy speaker and the fascination of emptiness”. What makes this article special is that it focuses on Colloquial Russian (CR) and aims to discover ‘quirks’ which might distinguish it from Standard Russian and other Slavic languages. The author analyses different types of syntactic gaps in terms of explicitness/implicitness and textual redundancy/economy. After analysing numerous examples of both referential ellipsis (such as subject, object or relative pronoun omission) and referential zeroes (indefinite zero, generic you and verb omission), he comes to the conclusion that CR is quite unique among European languages in that it allows simultaneous omission of both main verbs and head nouns (thus leaving only stranded modifiers or relative pronouns). Weiss sees this as a manipulation (but a legal one) of the third Gricean maxim. However, as more often than not such utterances can have ambiguous readings, at the same time it violates the first of Grice’s maxims. By allowing such drastic omissions, it seems (Colloquial) Russian is moving closer to East Asian languages when it comes to grammatical marking.

The article by Dorota Sikora “Is the Polish verb iść an auxiliary to be?” analyses the infinitive constructions (IC) with this verb to determine the level of its grammaticalisation. She believes this verb is currently leading a ‘double life’ in Polish, existing both in the lexicon as a full verb with a spatial meaning and an auxiliary with a future meaning (e.g. “X idzie siedzieć”). Heine defined the process of grammaticalisation as consisting of four stages: initial phase &gt; bridging context phase &gt; switch contexts phase &gt; conventionalisation. Sikora’s corpus analysis shows that “iść” is currently between the second and third phase. This can be observed in the fact that “iść” ICs can have two or three readings, but also in the release of its selection constraints. Used as a full verb, it can only be followed by motion verbs; however, used as an auxiliary, there is no such constraint. Also, when used as a lexical verb, it can take a number of prefixes to express perfectivity; as an auxiliary, it cannot do so. The author also suggests that “iść” is fulfilling the role of the present perfect, which does not formally exist in Polish.

Maxim Makartsev analyses evidentiality markers in Albanian and Macedonian bilingual political discourse. In Macedonian, expression of evidentiality is compulsory in the past tense (perfect forms are used to express unwitnessed events and aorist/imperfect for witnessed events); In Albanian, it is optional (admirative forms are used to express unwitnessed evidentiality). Makartsev analyses the language of a bilingual Albanian-Macedonian political talk show broadcast on Macedonian TV where all exchanges are subtitled into both languages. He looks at the common strategies used by the show’s subtitlers for translating the past tense forms from one language into the other. His data shows that the speakers can convey not only that they witnessed the events, but also whether they believe in the information they convey (epistemic modality). Macedonian uses grammatical markers for that purpose, and Albanian lexical.

Alexander Letuchiy analyses “A strange variant of Russian čtoby-construction”. The ‘strange’ construction in question is a temporal clause embedded within a “čtoby”-clause, thus giving the sentence a tripartite structure. The author tries to determine how the tense in this temporal clause is chosen, whether it is governed by “čtoby” or by the tense of the main clause. Namely, “čtoby” is necessarily followed either by past tense or infinitive; other tenses are not allowed. Most of the examples he found have a present or future tense in the temporal clause, which would suggest the choice is based on semantic criteria. However, there are also examples in which past tense is used in the temporal clause to signal a future event (but all examples involve only the combination of “čtoby” + “kogda”). Since “kogda” is one of the least restrictive subordinators, the author believes this makes it more transparent to the influence of “čtoby”. Unfortunately, the frequency of such a combination is too low to be able to prove any kind of point (163 tokens out of 500,000 in total), so the author’s conclusions are based solely on speculation. The potential importance of this article lies in the fact that most authors analyse only single embedding and assume that the behaviour of sentences with multiple embedding can easily be derived from the first. However, this article shows this might not necessarily be the case.

As stated at the beginning, Section 3 represents the main focus of the book - impersonal constructions. First article is by Jasmina Milićević, who analyses impersonal constructions (ICs) in Serbian within Meľčuk’s Meaning-Text Linguistic model. Her typology of ICs distinguishes between ICs with a semantically full (indefinite impersonal) pronoun as subjects and those with a semantically empty (dummy) pronoun as subject. Each of these can further have zero and non-zero realisations; however, in Slavic languages, only the variants with zero referents have been attested. In previous literature, impersonal has been opposed to the passive and considered a distinct grammatical category. However, Milićević does not consider the two mutually exclusive but rather looks at their interaction. She notes that certain voices (Meľčuk’s model defines a greater number of voices than the classical active - passive distinction) are always accompanied by ICs. Although that does not necessarily mean ICs are markers of that voice, she sees them as way of reinforcing the information carried by the actual marker.

Article by Małgorzata Krzek, “Interpretation and voice in Polish SIĘ and -NO/-TO constructions” looks at the functions of the respective markers. Both constructions have similar features: both can appear with verbs of all transitivity patterns; in both constructions, active syntactic subjects are projected and a generic reading is available. However, the author claims that, despite their similarities, the two markers cannot be given a uniform analysis. -NO/-TO suffix is best analysed as “the head of the functional projection (VoiceP) located between vP and TP” (192); it only heads the active impersonal Voice Phrase, not the passive one. In other words, the -NO/-TO construction is still active and NO/TO are not passive morphemes. The SIĘ construction, on the other hand, is also active, but does not block passivization; as for its function according to Krzek, it is a syntactic subject to which nominative case is assigned, but it could also be a functional projection - she leaves this question open for future analyses.

Dative-infinitive constructions in Russian are the topic of Alina Israeli’s article. The author feels it is necessary to distinguish between various types of infinitive constructions based on the case of the subject, clause type, aspectual distinctions etc. rather than putting all of them under one roof. The constructions she is interested in consist of four elements: 1) dative subject, 2) infinitive, 3) negative particle “ne” and 4) the particles “li”, “že” and “by”. These four elements can combine in 10 different ways, all of which Israeli analyses in detail. It becomes apparent from her analysis that aspect does play a role in these constructions - perfective and imperfective verbs produce different semantic outcomes (e.g. prediction, impossibility, likelihood, rhetorical questions, etc.) and have different combinatory abilities.

In an article “On the nature of dative arguments in Russian constructions with ‘predicatives’”, Sergey Say compares individual grammatical properties of predicatives (e.g. “kuriť vredno”) to those of their corresponding adjectives (“kurenye vredno”). There is considerable debate whether such predicatives constitute a separate part of speech or they should be classified alongside the adjectives. The property he explores is the ability of the predicative to co-occur with the dative argument denoting Experiencer. Based on data from the Russian National Corpus, the author establishes 4 types of predicatives based on this property: 1) predicatives that cannot co-occur with dative arguments (neither can the corresponding long and short adjectives, e.g. *mne tiho, *mne solnečno), 2) predicatives that take dative arguments, but corresponding adjectives do not, 3) predicatives and short adjectives that take dative arguments, but long adjectives do not (“tesno”, “tjaželo”), 4) all three constructions take dative arguments (“prijatno”, “izvesno”). Moreover, he further subdivides Type 2 based on semantic relationship between the predicatives and corresponding adjectives. For instance, words such as “holodno” refer to a subjective feeling when used as predicatives, but as adjectives their meaning is objective. Another subtype are predicatives of emotion (such as “grustno”, “veselo”) which denote internal states of the Experiencer, whereas the adjectives denote external manifestations of this state. What is interesting in this article is that the author uses 3 different models to account for the existence of each subtype, namely constructional, derivational and inflectional.

Kathrin Schlund analyses what she calls Russian Adversity Impersonals (AIs) (such as “Lodku uneslo vetrom”). The reason for labelling them ‘adversity’ is that the effect an uncontrollable elemental force has on an animate or inanimate patient is predominantly negative. She finds several parallels between case assignment in such constructions and case assignment in languages with split ergativity. For instance, in ergative-absolutive languages, the instigator of a transitive action is demoted to an oblique case (ergative). Similarly, in AIs this agent is demoted to the Instrumental. There are also comparable constraints of tense and aspect, animacy, adverbial and information structure in both. It has always been argued that languages which are rich in inflectional morphology and free in word order can vary more easily between nominative-accusative and ergative-absolutive features. According to the author, Russian seems to be a case in point.

The final section, Lexical semantics, starts with an article by Glòria de Valdivia, Joan Castellví and Mariona Taulé entitled “Morphological and lexical aspect in Russian deverbal nominalizations”. The question they ask is to what extent the morphological and lexical aspect of the base verb determines the lexical denotation of its corresponding nominalization. Their first revelation, based on corpus data, is that there is a tendency to derive nominalizations from the imperfective verb rather than the perfective. After that, they use native speakers of Russian to determine how the lexical reading of a deverbal noun is actually determined. They show that there is a tendency to have more nouns with an event or state reading coming from an imperfective base verb, and more nouns with a result reading coming from a perfective base verb.

Dmitrij Dobrovoľskij and Ludmila Pöppel analyse two pairs of Russian lexical synonyms from the semantic field POWER, namely “revolyucija/perevorot” and “myatež/vosstanie”. Even though they are often mentioned as near-synonyms, the authors show that substantial nuances in their usages exist, most notably on the dimension of evaluation - one member of the pair (“revolyucija” and “vosstanie”) is usually used to refer to a positive change, the other to a negative one. As such, “they are important means of manipulating public opinion” (294). Also, by comparing the uses of these words in the 1917 editions of Pravda and modern dictionaries, they demonstrate that a semantic shift has taken place, which has not been noted before.

Vladimir Beliakov analyses collocations with nominal quantifiers in Russian. There are two classes of nouns that can serve as collocators in this case: 1) aggregate nouns (“staja”, “roi”, “armija”, “buket”, etc.) and 2) nouns with quantificative semantics (“gruda”, “kipa”, “prorva”, etc.). The former have certain restrictions as to their referents (e.g. “roi pčel”, but *roi ptic). However, they are not limited to living organisms only (“les ruk”, “roi samoletov”). In this latter case, we are dealing with metaphorical transfer, but in the process these nouns lose their lexical meaning and become semantically incomplete. The collocators of the second category can also be used metaphorically (“voroh novostei”, “kipa problem”, etc.); however, there is no change at work as they never start off with lexical meaning in the first place; the only meaning they have is only in association with other concepts; in other words, they function like collective quantifiers.

The final article of the volume is by a group of authors (Tatiana Reznikova, Ekaterina Rahilina, Olga Karpov, Maria Kyuseva, Daria Ryzhova and Timofey Arkhangelskiy) and deals with polysemy patterns in Russian adjectives and adverbs of quality (e.g. “spokojnij”). Their extremely thorough analysis involves identifying all possible meanings of a polysemous item, restrictions on co-occurring words, types of semantic shifts between individual meanings (the most frequent being metaphoric and metonymic extension). However, besides these two, they also identify a third type of shift, which involves two domains which are in no way similar (e.g. property of an animal → high degree). They call it re-branding. The examples extracted from the Russian National Corpus were implemented into an online database which can be searched for all of the abovementioned features. The database gives clear evidence for a systematic organisation of vocabulary.


As is visible from the Summary above, the editor selected articles from a wide variety of topics in Slavic linguistics, so this book will be of interest to researchers from a range of disciplines, not limited solely to Slavic languages. Some articles especially offer highly innovative and revolutionary views. For instance, Schlund’s and Janic’s attempts to find parallels between some aspects of Slavic languages on the one hand and ergative languages on the other are definitely praiseworthy. Reznikova et al. identify a whole new type of semantic change and Sikora notes the emergence of a whole new tense (the Present Perfect) in Polish by means of “iść”. All of these are quite impressive accomplishments.

The theoretical orientation of the majority of articles is generative, so readers without a background knowledge of traditional generativism might find some articles harder to follow (especially the ones in Section 1) due to the use of highly specialised terminology. However, there are also authors who adopt a more empirical approach, analysing data from corpora and other sources (such as Say, de Valdivia et al., Dobrovoľskij and Pöppel, etc.), thus breaking away from classical generative focus on intuitive reasoning, which is undoubtedly positive.

The majority of articles deal with Russian, which is understandable as Russian is the most widely spoken Slavic language. However, there is some inconsistency in the visual presentation of examples from Russian. Whereas some authors transliterate Russian examples and present them in Latin script, some authors leave the Cyrillic originals, thus making it harder for some readers to interpret, e.g., speakers of other Slavic languages which do not, or have never used, the Cyrillic script. Examples from Bulgarian and Serbian, on the other hand, always appear in Latin script. The editor could have intervened by standardising the manner of presentation of such examples.


Dario Lecic is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield doing empirical research on Croatian morphology. His main research interests are morphology, corpus linguistics and linguistic typology.

Page Updated: 05-Jun-2015