Expressing Possession in Old Church Slavonic—and Related Issues

Jan 21, 2015 by

In Old Church Slavonic (OCS), there were two ways to express possession (loosely defined)—and modern Russian, as we shall see in the following post, is not very different.

herodantipasThe first way of expressing possession in OCS involved the so-called possessive adjectives, formed by adding a suffix –in/-ov, for example: tektonovъ synъ ‘carpenter’s son’ (from tektonъ ‘carpenter’). Like other adjectives, possessive adjectives agreed with the nouns they modified in gender, number, and case. For example, in Matthew 14:1, uslyša irodъ tetrarxъ sluxъ iisusovъ ‘Herod the Tetrarch heard (of) Jesus’s fame’, iisusovъ ‘Jesus’s’ is accusative masculine singular, agreeing with sluxъ ‘fame’. The entire noun phrase sluxъ iisusovъ is the direct object of uslyša ‘heard’, of which irodъ tetrarxъ is the subject (see image on the left).

Note that the nominative masculine plural of the possessive adjective is easily confused with the alternative dative singular of certain masculine nouns denoting persons; thus, -ovi in učenici ioanovi ‘the disciples of John’ is the possessive adjective suffix –ov plus the nominative masculine plural ending –i, whereas in i ugodi irodovi ‘and (she) pleased Herod’ (from Matthew 14:6), ‑ovi is the alternative to the regular dating singular masculine ending –u. One could also say in OCS, as in modern Russian, i ugodi irodu. Other OCS nouns that alternated between –u and –ovi for their dative singular ending include synu/synovi ‘sons.DAT’ and vraču/vračevi ‘doctors.DAT’. For a more detailed discussion of this alternative ending, see Lunt (2001: 56). Moreover, certain masculine nouns also had the ending –ove/‑eve for nominative plural (alternating with the regular –i): e.g. syni/synove ‘sons.NOM’, which gives us the modern Russian synovja ‘sons.NOM’ (its regular counterpart would be syny, now perceived as archaic; note Pushkin’s Syny otečestva! ‘Sons of the Fatherland!’). The classes of nouns that took the alternative dative singular –ovi and those that took the alternative nominative plural –ove/-eve are not the same, however: nouns in the former class denoted persons, while those in the second class had to be monosyllabic, yet need not denote persons. Hence, in addition to synove ‘sons.NOM’ and vračeve ‘doctors.NOM’, we also find domove ‘houses.NOM’, volove ‘oxen.NOM’, gadove ‘vermin.NOM’, grozdove ‘grapes.NOM’, grexove ‘sins.NOM’, etc. (Lunt 2001: 56).

Going back to possessive adjectives, there were two conditions on which possessors could be expressed by an adjective: they had to (1) denote a person or animal, and (2) not be modified or complemented by anything. The possessor ‘Jesus’s’ in the above cited Matthew 14:1 satisfies both of these conditions. In contrast, in Matthew 14:3, radi ženy filipa bratra svoego ‘for the sake of the wife of Philip his brother’, the possessor ‘Philip’ is further modified by an appositive ‘his (own) brother’; therefore, it cannot be expressed by a possessive adjective. Thus, one could have radi filipovy ženy ‘for the sake of Philip’s wife’, but not radi ženy filipovy bratra svoego ‘for the sake of the wife of Philip his brother’. Similarly, in John 11:1 (which we’ll read in the week of February 9), otъ gradьca mariina i marty sestry eę ‘from the city of Mary and (of) her sister Martha’, ‘Mary’s’ is expressed by a possessive adjective, but since ‘Martha’ is modified by an appositive ‘her sister’, it cannot be expressed by a possessive adjective.

Possessors that could not be expressed by possessive adjectives appeared as genitive nouns (or noun phrases); e.g. duxъ otьca vašego ‘the spirit of your father’ (the possessor is modified by a possessive pronoun), čašejǫ studeny vody ‘with a cup of cold water’ (the possessor is modified by an adjective), člověkъ eterъ dobra roda ‘a man of a certain good family’ (the possessor is modified by two adjectives), gospodinъ xrama ‘the master of the house’ (the possessor does not denote a person or animal). Note that as shown by the example from John 11:1, possessors expressed by an adjective and those expressed by a genitive nominal could be coordinated. The same is further illustrated by the following example: silojǫ xristosovojǫ i arxangela rafaila ‘by the power of Christ and the archangel Raphael’ (Lunt 2001: 147).



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



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