The Anatomy of “Touching”

Mar 20, 2015 by

touching-1The verb ‘to touch’ in Russian—kasat’sja and its perfective counterpart kosnut’sja—is a very peculiar one, in several respects. To begin with, it is unusual in having the clitic –sja, without any of the meanings typically associated with it. These meanings include:





  • reflexive (i.e. action applied to oneself), as in Vanya breetsja ‘Vanya shaves himself’,
  • reciprocal (i.e. action applied to each other), as in Ljubovniki celujutsja ‘The lovers are kissing (each other)’,
  • inchoative (i.e. event caused from within), as in Dveri otkryvajutsja ‘The doors are opening’,
  • passive, as in Steny krasjatsja maljarom ‘The walls are being painted by a painter’,
  • antipassive (i.e. action applied to some unspecified, usually animate, object), as in Sobaka kusaetsja ‘The dog bites (people)’

The verb kasat’sja ‘to touch’ does not involve any of these meanings. ‘To touch oneself’ is kasatsja sebja and ‘to touch each other’ is kasatsja drug druga. Nor does it denote an action happening to the object from within; thus, if I touch the wall, the wall is touched because of my deliberate action, not because of some causes internal to the wall itself. As is the case with other verbs taking genitive objects (more on which below), kasat’sja ‘to touch’ does not passivize. Nor does it have the added meaning of unspecified animate object (discussed in Levin 1985); note, for example, the following attested example with a specific inanimate object:

Načertite figuru tak, čtoby odin iz ee uglov kasalsja etoj točki.

draw.IMPERATIVE figure so that one of its corners touched [this point].GEN

‘Draw this figure so that one of its corners touches this point.’

Moreover, unlike most other sja-verbs, kasat’sja ‘to touch’ cannot appear without –sja: there is no verb *kasat’ (compare: breet ‘(he) shaves’, celujut ‘(they) kiss’, otkryvajut ‘(they) open’, krasjat ‘(they) paint’, kusaet ‘(it) bites’). There are a number of other verbs in Russian that obligatorily appear with -sja, but they typically denote feelings or expression of feelings: bojat’sja ‘to be afraid, to fear’, smejat’sja ‘to laugh’. The verb kasat’sja ‘to touch’ does not fit that profile either.

But as with other verbs in Russian, the appearance of –sja excludes the possibility of an accusative direct object. Thus, instead of having a direct-object frame, as in the English John touched the wall, the Russian verb ‘to touch’ takes an oblique object, in the genitive case. In Russian, one touches “of the wall”: kasat’sja steny lit. ‘to touch wall.GEN’. Yet, when it comes to verbs taking genitive objects, kasat’sja ‘to touch’ does not fit comfortably either. As discussed in Blauvelt (1980: 69-126), there are four classes of Russian verbs (with 67 verbs total listed by Blauvelt) that obligatorily take genitive objects:

  • verbs taking the genitive of removal (i.e. when “the subject recoils or in some way moves off or away from the object”, p. 69): e.g. izbegat’ ‘to avoid, escape’, čuždat’sja ‘to avoid, shun’
  • verbs taking the genitive case with the meaning of a reached or desired goal (usually with the prefix do– and often also with –sja): e.g. dostignut’ ‘to reach, obtain, achieve’, dokričat’sja ‘to shout until the object hears the subject’, žaždat’ ‘to passionately want’
  • verbs taking the quantitative genitive (typically with the prefix na– and often also with the -sja): navarit’ ‘to cook a large quantity of’, naest’sja ‘to each something to one’s heart’s content’, and
  • verbs taking the genitive case with the meaning of ‘worth, value’: e.g. stoit’ ‘to possess in reality a given value or cost’, zasluživat’ ‘to be worthy of something’.

However, note that, as I have argued elsewhere, in the third category listed above, it is the prefix na– that selects the genitive rather than the verb itself (Pereltsvaig 2006, Kagan & Pereltsvaig 2011). Verbs in the second category, the “genitive of goal” can be subdivided into those that share the prefix do- and verbs that take intensional objects, such as žaždat’ ‘to passionately want’ (for more on the latter, see Kagan 2005, 2012). The verb kasat’sja ‘to touch’ does not fit any of the four categories listed above. Consequently, Blauvelt lists it with three other “verbs with other meanings”, that is verbs that do not fit any of her categories (p. 81). Do these four verbs form a coherent category? The answer is no. In fact, a closer look at them reveals that the other three “exceptional” verbs can either be placed in one of four above-mentioned categories or should not be listed under “verbs obligatorily taking genitive” at all. One of Blauvelt’s verbs, sprosit’sja ‘to ask for permission to do something’, strikes me as very odd with a genitive object. With respect to nakoldovat’ ‘to conjure up, charm, cast a spell on; prophesy, predict, foretell’, I disagree with Blauvelt and think that it fits well with the third category listed above (“quantity genitive”). Moreover, it can take accusative objects if the quantitative meaning is absent, as in the following Google hit:

Počemu Garri Potter ne nakoldoval sebe zrenie?

why       Harry Potter not conjured.up to.himself vision.ACC

‘Why didn’t Harry Potter not conjure himself (better) eye-sight?’

The last exceptional verb listed by Blauvelt, xvatat’ in the sense of ‘to suffice, be sufficient’ also has a quantitative meaning. Thus, only kasat’sja ‘to touch’ is truly exceptional. Some scholars have analyzed it as belonging to the second category listed above, the “genitive of goal”, but as Blauvelt notes correctly, verbs in that category are either related by the prefixes that they share (such as do-) or have intensional meanings (cf. Kagan 2005, 2012). Therefore, kasat’sja ‘to touch’ is in a category of its own. The peculiar nature of this verbs frame is further emphasized by the fact that its near-synonyms do not appear with genitive objects:

trogat’ ‘to touch, feel’ + ACCUSATIVE

ščupat’ ‘to touch, feel’ + ACCUSATIVE

prikasat’sja ‘to touch, contact’ + k ‘to’ + DATIVE

dotragivat’sja ‘to touch, dab’ + do ‘to’ + GENITIVE

And if the verb kasat’sja ‘to touch’ itself is not tricky enough, its nominalized form kasanie ‘touching’ has some complications of its own. Since it denotes an event (or process) rather than a “thing”, we expect it to appear with the frame typical for such event nominalizations in Russian: the external argument (“the one who is touching”, corresponding to the verbal subject) in the instrumental and the internal argument (“whatever is being touched”, corresponding to the genitive object of the verb) in the genitive. This expectation is borne out:

kasanie igrokom setki

touching player.INSTR net.GEN

‘a touching of the net by the player’

Moreover, as follows from Grimshaw’s (1990) analysis of event nominalizations (in English), we expect the possibility of aspectual modifiers, like ‘frequent’ and ‘constant’, and agent-oriented modifiers such as ‘intentional’ and ‘deliberate’. This expectation is also borne out:

častoe   kasanie igrokom setki

frequent touching player.INSTR net.GEN

‘a frequent touching of the net by the player’


umyšlennoe kasanie igrokom setki

deliberate touching player.INSTR net.GEN

‘a frequent touching of the net by the player’

Finally, Grimshaw also claimed that event nominalizations cannot appear with the external argument in the absence of the internal one; here too, kasanie ‘touching’ fits well:

*kasanie igrokom

touching player.INSTR

intended: ‘*a touching by the player’

But in addition to this perfectly regular event nominalization frame, kasanie ‘touching’ can also appear with the double-genitive frame, where both the external and the internal arguments are in the genitive case (the following example is a Google hit):

kasanie snarjada beder

touching crossbar.GEN hips.GEN

‘a touching of the crossbar at the hips’ (from a description of weightlifting)

Russian uses the double-genitive frame with non-event nominalizations, denoting a “thing” rather than a process:

sobranie kartin Èrmitaža

collection paintings.GEN Hermitage.GEN

‘Hermitage’s collection of paintings’

Note, however, the difference in word order: in ‘a touching of the crossbar at the hips’ the argument that corresponds to the verb’s object (‘the hips’) comes last, whereas in ‘Hermitage’s collection of paintings’, the argument corresponding to the verb’s object (‘paintings’) comes before the possessor (‘Hermitage’). Reversing the order of the two genitives in each of these examples leads to ungrammaticality.

Yet despite its double-genitive frame, kasanie snarjada beder ‘a touching of the crossbar at the hips’ is still an event nominalization, as shown by the possibility of aspectual modifiers, like ‘frequent’ and ‘constant’:

častoe kasanie snarjada beder

frequent touching crossbar.GEN hips.GEN

‘frequent touching of the crossbar at the hips’

What, then, is the difference between kasanie igrokom setki ‘a touching of the net by the player’, with an instrumental external argument, and kasanie snarjada beder ‘a touching of the crossbar at the hips’, with a genitive external argument? An analysis of Google hits in both frames reveals that the difference is in whether the external argument is conceptualized as coming into contact with the internal argument through moving of one’s own volition: the player in the former example moves on his own, whereas the crossbar in the latter example is moved by the athlete. This generalization is confirmed by the incongruity of agent-oriented modifiers such as ‘intentional’ and ‘deliberate’ with kasanie ‘touching’ and the double-genitive frame (indicated by the % sign):

%umyšlennoe kasanie snarjada beder

deliberate touching crossbar.GEN hips.GEN

intended: ‘%deliberate touching of the crossbar at the hips’

Note that, curiously, the relevant aspect of volition here concerns movement rather than touching per se. Thus, if a player moving of his own volition inadvertently touches the net, kasanie igrokom setki ‘a touching of the net by the player’ is still fine, as is the following:

slučajnoe kasanie igrokom setki

accidental touching player.INSTR net.GEN

‘an accidental touching of the net by the player’

These observations regarding kasanie ‘touching’ suggest that Grimshaw’s use of agent-oriented modifiers such as ‘intentional’ and ‘deliberate’ as tests for event nominalizations in inappropriate: events/processes can, after all, occur without a volitional agent causing them (cf. Pazel’skaya & Tatevosov’s discussion of napolnenie ‘filling’).



Blauvelt, Yvonne (1980) Russian Verbal Government. Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University.

Grimshaw, Jane (1990) Argument Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kagan, Olga (2005) Genitive case: a modal account. Proceedings of Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics 21: 1-21.

Kagan, Olga (2012) Semantics of Genitive Objects in Russian: A Study of Genitive of Negation and Intensional Genitive Case. Dordrecht: Springer.

Kagan, Olga and Asya Pereltsvaig (2011) Syntax and Semantics of Bare NPs: Objects of Intensive Reflexive Verbs in Russian. In: Bonami, Olivier & Patricia Cabredo Hofherr (eds.) Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 8. Pp. 221-238.

Levin, Beth (1985) Case Theory and the Russian Reflexive Affix. In: Jeffrey Goldberg, Susannah MacKaye, and Michael Wescoat (eds.) Proceedings of the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistic 4. Stanford: CSLI Publications. Pp. 178-191.

Pazel’skaya, Anna & Sergei Tatevosov (2008) Otglagol’noe imja i struktura russkogo glagola. [= Deverbal Noun and the structure of the Russian verb]. In: Vladimir Pungian & Sergei Tatevosov (eds.) Issledovanija po glagol’noj derivacii. [= Studies in verbal derivation]. Moscow. Pp. 348-380.

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2006) Small nominals. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 24(2): 433-500.

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