Is There a Vocative Case in Russian?

Jan 15, 2015 by

As we’ve discussed in class, Old Church Slavonic (OCS) had seven cases (cf. Lunt 2001: 52-54): the six cases familiar from modern Russian and the vocative, used to address someone. As noted in Lunt (2001: 52), “a separate vocative form exists for most masculine and feminine substantives in the singular; otherwise the nominative is used for an appeal”. In the passage we’ve read from Luke 12, we’ve encountered two vocative forms: duše (cf. the nominative duša ‘soul’) and bezumьne (cf. the nominative bezumьnъ ‘fool’). The vocatives ending in –e (e.g. bezumьne) derive from the separate vocative forms of hard stem masculine nouns in the twofold nominal declension (cf. Lunt 2001: 54). The vocatives ending in –i (e.g. gospodi ‘Lord’; see below) derive from the separate vocative forms of masculine (or feminine) nouns in the simple nominal declension (cf. Lunt 2001: 72). Nouns of the twofold nominal declension that were feminine—and masculine nouns ending in –a, such as vladyka ‘ruler, lord’—had vocative forms ending in –o/–e (cf. duše ‘soul’ above; vladyko ‘ruler’; cf. Lunt 2001: 57).

Does modern Russian have a special vocative case? According to most descriptions of the Russian grammar, there is no separate vocative case. However, there are two sets of nouns that have special vocative forms: the so-called “old vocative” and “new vocative”. The “old vocative” is found with a handful of words that retain a fossilized vocative form from Old Russian, such as Боже! (bože ‘God!’), Господи! (gospodi ‘Lord!’), Иисусе! (Iisuse ‘Jesus!’), отче! (otče ‘Father!’), and so on. Note that the latter is used only as a form of address to God or a priest, but not to address one’s Dad; for example, the “Pater Noster” prayer starts «Отче наш» (otče naš ‘Our Father!’). Some of these vocative forms effectively turned into interjections/exclamations. Recall also Pushkin’s «Что тебе надобно, старче?» (Čto tebe nadobno, starče? ‘What do you need, old man?’), where the “old vocative” is used to make it sound more archaic. Other modern Russian writers use these forms to make the speech sound more Ukrainian-like, as in Gogol’s «А поворотись-ка, сынку!» (A povorotis’-ka, synku! ‘Hey, turn around, son!’). (Unlike Russian, Ukrainian retained the separate vocative case.)

OstromirovoThe separate vocative case began to die out already in the Old Russian period: even in the second oldest dated East Slavic manuscript, Ostromir Gospel (in Russian: Ostromirovo Evangelie; see image on the left), dating from the mid-11th century, the nominative is often used in place of the vocative as the form of appeal. In birch bark documents from Old Novgorod, the separate vocative forms are used only as a form of polite/formal address to God, people of higher social rank or as a sign of respect: gospodine! ‘lord!’, knjaže ‘prince!’, brate ‘brother!’, otče ‘father!’. According to the Russian-language Wikipedia page, by the 16th century, the vocative nearly died out of colloquial speech and was retained only as a form of address to men of religion: otče ‘father!’, vladyko ‘ruler!’. Nonetheless, the vocative was listed in grammars as the seventh case until 1918, a year when the Russian language saw a lot of reforms, including the orthography reform.

The “new vocative” is found primarily in colloquial Russian with words ending in –a/–ja, both feminine and masculine: for the vocative form the ending is dropped, as in Мам! (mam ‘Mum!’), бабуль! (babul’ ‘Granny!’), Петь! (Pet’ ‘Petya!’), Вась! (Vas’ ‘Vasya!’), Лен! (Len ‘Lena!’), Ась! (As’ ‘Asya!’). Note that if the nominative form ends in –ja, the palatalization of the preceding consonant is retained in the vocative. Examples of the “new vocative” can be heard in Vladimir Vysotsky’s song “Dialog u televizora”: Вань! (Van’ ‘Vanya!’) and Зин! (Zin ‘Zina!’). Scholars disagree as to the status of these forms as a separate case: some scholars treat is as a new seventh case, while others do not see it as a fully productive case yet.


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

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