Is Fish “Who” or “What”?

Jun 22, 2015 by

boaI was asked today whether ryba ‘fish’ in Russian is a “who” or a “what”. Fascinating question, as it turns out! “Who or what?” is a question of animacy, a feature that is both semantic and grammatical (morphological) in Russian. From the point of view of the meaning, animates are alive and inanimates are not: boys and dogs are animate, while books and stones are not.

Grammatically, things are a bit more complicated. Animacy plays a role in several different grammatical phenomena, such as gender assignment and case forms. As mentioned in the previous post, non‑declinable nouns (usually loanwords) are assigned to grammatical gender according to animacy: animate nouns are masculine and inanimate ones are neuter. For example, boa the snake is masculine and boa the scarf is neuter. This gender assignment is reflected in attributive and predicative agreement; hence, Dlinnyj boa ležal… ‘A long boa-snake was lying…’ but Dlinnoe boa ležalo… ‘A long boa-scarf was lying…’.

Whether a noun is animate or not also affects its case forms, but this is true only for masculine nouns (more precisely, declension 1a nouns, that is masculine nouns ending in a hard consonant). For example, mal’čik ‘little boy’ and pal’čik ‘little finger’ rhyme in the nominative (e.g. subject), but not in the accusative (e.g. object): Ja vižu ‘I see’… mal’čika but pal’čik. More generally, animate nouns in this class have the same form for accusative and genitive, different from the nominative form, whereas inanimate nouns have the same form for accusative and nominative, different from the genitive form.

ANIMATE ‘boy’ mal’čik mal’čika mal’čika
INANIMATE ‘finger’ pal’čik pal’čik pal’čika

Note, furthermore, that the semantic distinction (“dead or alive?”) does not match precisely with the grammatical distinction described above. For example, pokojnik ‘the deceased’ is not alive (semantically inanimate) but grammatically it is animate: the accusative form pokojnika is the same as the genitive form, not the nominative (pokojnik). In this respect, pokojnik ‘the deceased’ is different from trup ‘cadaver’, which is both semantically and grammatically inanimate: its accusative form (trup) is the same as the nominative, and the genitive is different, trupa. Another word for a dead person, mertvets patterns with pokojnik: it is grammatically animate, with the accusative and genitive mertvetsa, distinct from the nominative. Note that this grammatical distinction actually corresponds to a slight difference in meaning between the nouns: although all three denote someone who is dead, dictionaries list pokojnik and mertvets as synonymous, whereas trup is synonymous with telo ‘body’. Moreover, a forensic team at a murder site would examine a trup, while a funeral party would speak of the personal qualities of a pokojnik. A ghoulish scene at a cemetery may be described as Mertvetsy vosstali iz mogil ‘The dead rose from the graves’, but not #Trupy vosstali iz mogil (the hashtag is used to indicate semantic incongruity rather than ungrammaticality). Derivational possibilities are also different: note trupovozka ‘a vehicle that removes a dead body to the morgue’ (literally, ‘dead-carrier’) versus pokojnitskaja and mertvetskaja ‘hospital morgue’. (There are two other Russian words for the dead, both past participles: umeršij and usopšij—but enough morbidity for one post!)

Another example where semantic and grammatical animacy do not correlate is the word korol’ ‘king’: as expected, when meaning a male royal, it is grammatically animate. More unexpected, however, is that it retains its animacy even referring to a chess piece or a type of card. In these uses too one would say On sprjatal korolja ‘He hid the king’, with the genitive-like accusative form ending in -a.

The above-mentioned pattern also allows us to decide which living creatures are “alive”, as far as Russian grammar is concerned. Plants, for example, are not: dub ‘oak’, podsolnux ‘sunflower’, mox ‘lichen’ and other masculine nouns denoting plants have the same form for nominative and accusative, not accusative and genitive. As for animals, tigers and bears are animate, as are ants and spiders, but microbes can be either animate or inanimate. When the animal dies, it remains animate, just as pokojnik does.

Going back to the original question, the Russian word for ‘fish’, ryba, is a feminine (declension 2) noun, so it does not show the same pattern summarized in the Table above. Yet, speakers know which question to ask, “who” or “what”: it depends on whether the fish is… alive. Thus, Kto plavaet v akvariume? ‘Who swims in the fish bowl?’ but Čto ležit na bljude ‘What lies on the platter?’ Although the grammatical animacy of ‘fish’ is not reflected in the choice of case forms, there is another aspect of the grammar where it plays a role, and it is the count/mass distinction: animate nouns are typically count, whereas inanimate nouns can be either count (‘stone’, ‘book’, ‘language’) or mass (‘water’, ‘sand’, ‘rice’ and ‘beans’). Fish that are alive are count nouns (witness Tri ryby plavali v akvariume ‘Three fish swam in the bowl’), whereas fish-as-food is a mass noun. Thus, Na bljude ležali tri ryby (lit. ‘on platter lay three fishes’) can mean only that there were three kinds of fish (or possibly three fish that were still alive). Similarly, one would say V supe plavalo mnogo ryby (singular ‘fish’!) ‘In the soup floated much fish’ but V ozere plavalo mnogo ryb (plural ‘fish’!) ‘In the lake swam many fish’. (Note that Russian uses the same verb for ‘float’ and ‘swim’.)

fishSo far, we have seen that ryba ‘fish’ can pattern either with count animate nouns like korova ‘cow’, svinja ‘pig’, and telënok ‘calf’ or with mass inanimate nouns like govjadina ‘beef’, svinina ‘pork’, and teljatina ‘veal’. (Note that Russian has a dedicated morpheme -ina for “flesh of X”.) What of particular types of fish? Let’s consider fishes whose names are masculine nouns in Russian: losos’ ‘salmon’, ugor’ ‘eel’, xek ‘hake’, paltus ‘halibut’, morskoj okun’ ‘sea perch’, arktičeskij golets ‘arctic char’, karp ‘carp’, som ‘catfish’, mintaj ‘Alaskan pollock’, skat ‘skate’, polosatyj lavrak ‘striped bass’, osëtr ‘sturgeon’, tunets ‘tuna’, sig ‘whitefish’—are their accusative forms like nominative or like genitive? My own intuitions vary from fish to fish and from situation to situation (real live fish, picture of whole fish, whole fish-as-food, chopped up fish-as-food), but I would be curious if any Russian-speaking readers have clearer intuitions than my own. Please chime in in the comments section below.



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