Dative Absolute Demystified

Jan 23, 2015 by

The Old Church Slavonic (OCS) passage from Matthew 14:6, contains a phrase whose structure may not be immediately clear: dьni že byvъšu roždьstva irodova, translated in the King James Version as “But when Herod’s birthday was kept”, which renders the meaning of the OCS phrase but with an entirely different syntax. Let’s deal with the easy parts of the OCS phrase first. The easiest bit is že, which is a conjunction. Next consider roždьstva irodova (lit. ‘of birthday Herod’s’): it is a genitive possessor relating to dьni ‘day’, that is ‘day of Herod’s birthday’, and containing a possessive adjective irodova ‘Herod’s’ modifying the noun roždьstva ‘birthday’. Now we get to the hard parts: dьni ‘day’ is the dative singular form of the masculine noun dьnь (it belongs to the simple declension, more on which in the following post; see the table in Lunt 2001: 72), and byvъšu is a past active participle from the verb byti ‘to be’, and it too appears in the dative singular masculine form (of the twofold declension, see the table in Lunt 2001: 54). Why is ‘day’ and ‘being’ in the dative?

ward-absoluteThis construction is known as “dative absolute”, a subtype of the so-called “absolute constructions”, common in various Indo-European languages, although not very common in English (more on which below) and not found in modern Russian at all. Absolute constructions are phrases (or “clauses”) that contain a subject and a non-finite predicate (and therefore can be considered a subtype of “small clauses”; cf. Moro 1995). The term “non-finite” means not bearing tense and refers to a wide range of forms such as infinitives or participles. In the case of the OCS dative absolute, we have a participle as the predicate. In our specific example, it is the past active participle byvъšu, characterized by the suffix ъš (cf. Lunt 2001: 108-109). Note that the participle agrees with the noun of which it is predicated (here, dьni ‘day’) in gender, number, and case.

The subject of the absolute construction—and therefore the agreeing participial predicate as well—could appear in any of several different cases, depending on the language. For example, in Latin the subject of the absolute construction appeared in the ablative case; hence, in Latin this construction is referred to as “ablative absolute”. For example, Urbe capta Aeneas fugit ‘With the city captured, Aeneas fled’. Greek and German have the accusative absolute construction where the subject and the participle are in the accusative case; Greek also has the genitive absolute construction. Vedic Sanskrit featured the locative absolute construction; while the dative absolute was found not only in OCS but also in Gothic.

In modern English, the absolute construction is not particularly common and is more characteristic of the written rather than spoken language. Since English essentially lost the case system, we cannot classify its absolute construction by the case it features, but one can recognize such constructions by the presence of a subject and a participle—and the absence of a finite (= tense-bearing) element. For example, in The guests having finally arrived, the party could start, the guests is the subject and having arrived is the past active participle construction, corresponding to the OCS byvъš-. Thus, the more syntactically accurate translation of the OCS phrase from the Matthew 14:6 passage is ‘It being Herod’s birthday’, or even more precisely though less idiomatically ‘Herod’s birthday taking place’. The absolute construction also appears in English in several fixed expressions, for instance, all things considered… (which contains a passive participle).

Note that the absolute construction is not the same thing as the dangling participle, which your grammar school teachers have warned you about—in both English and Russian they are considered “bad grammar”. Unlike the absolute constructions, dangling participles are just that: they are participles lacking a subject. Compare: Having finally arrived, the party started (dangling participle) vs. The guests having finally arrived, the party started (absolute construction). What makes the dangling participles “bad” from the prescriptive perspective is the lack of subject—in the above example, who has finally arrived? That does not mean, however, that all participial constructions in English must have an overt subject: besides the absolute constructions, we also find subject-less participial constructions that are not “dangling”, as in Having arrived early, we were told our booked room was not yet ready. Such sentences are analyzed as having a zero-subject in the participial construction, which syntacticians call “PRO” (for “pronoun”). It is not said out loud, but its interpretation is said to be “controlled”, or determined, by the subject of the main clause: in the above example, by we. In other words, “we” arrived early and the same “we” were told such-and-such. In contrast, in the dangling cases the subject of the participle is not the same as the subject of the main clause: in Having finally arrived, the party started, it is clearly not “the party” that has arrived.

Going back to the absolute constructions, regardless of which case they might feature in any given language, they typically denote “various types of attendant circumstance” (Lunt 2001: 149). In our passage, ‘it being Herod’s birthday’ explains why Herodias’ daughter was dancing. In Like 20:1, učęštu emu ljudi vъ crьkъve … sъstašę sę arxierei ‘as he taught the people in the temple … the chief priests gathered’, the dative absolute učęštu emu ljudi vъ crьkъve (subject emu ‘him.DAT’ + present active participle učęštu ‘teaching.DAT’) denote an co-temporal event. For further examples of the dative absolute in OCS, see Lunt (2001: 148, section 18.5e).




Lunt, Horace G. (2001) Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter.

Moro, Andrea (1995) Small Clauses with Predicative Nominals. In Anna Cardinaletti and Maria Teresa Guasti (eds.) Small Clauses. Syntax and Semantics 28. New York: Academic Press. Pp. 109-132.




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