Expressing Possession in modern Russian—and Related Issues

Jan 22, 2015 by

The situation in modern Russian is quite similar to what has been described for OCS in the previous post, that is, possessors can be expressed by one of two constructions: possessive adjectives or genitives. Due to their typical position in relation to the noun, possessive adjectives are sometimes referred to as “prenominal possessives”; in what follows, I will use both terms interchangeably. According to Babyonyshev (1997), prenominal possessives can be formed from nouns that denote proper names, kinship terms, professions/titles, or animal names, as well as from pronouns. Proper names that can form prenominal possessives include full forms (e.g. Ivanov ‘Ivan’s’), hypocoristics (e.g. Vanin ‘Vanya’s’), and even complex names consisting of first name and patronymic (e.g. Ivan Ivanovičev ‘Ivan Ivanovich’s). Interestingly, prenominal possessives can also be formed from a combination of kinship term and name, as in djadi Kolin ‘uncle Kolya’s’. Babyonyshev (1997) also discusses certain morphological and lexical restrictions on the formation of prenominal possessives. In addition to these restrictions, prenominal possessive must be formed from grammatically and semantically singular nouns; therefore, *ljudiny bolezni ‘people’s illnesses’ is ungrammatical (but okay meaning ‘Luda’s illnesses’), and deduškiny fotografii ‘grandfather’s photos’ can only be interpreted as ‘photos of a/the grandfather’, not ‘photos of (the) grandfathers’.

Бабушкины средстваAs in OCS, prenominal possessors in modern Russian must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number, and case, but unlike other adjectives, prenominal possessors introduce a referent that can be picked up by a pronoun: e.g. sosedkin rasskaz o svoix problemax ‘the neighbor’s story about her own problems’ vs. *sosedskij rasskaz o svoix problemax ‘a neighborly story about her own problems’ (Babyonyshev 1997: 203). In this respect, prenominal possessives pattern with genitive possessors: rasskaz sosedki o svoix problemax ‘the story of the neighbor about her own problems’. However, as noted in Trugman (2007), possessive adjectives do not always introduce a referent: she draws a distinction between referential possessives that do and modificational possessives that do not. The contrast between them can be illustrated by such minimal pairs as babuškiny tufli ‘grandma’s shoes’ (referential) vs. babuškiny sredstva ‘folk remedies’ (modificational), or by mamen’kin načal’nik ‘Mommy’s boss’ (referential) vs. mamen’kin synok ‘mama’s boy’ (modificational). Only the modificational possessives can become idiomatic, as in babuškiny sredstva ‘folk remedies’, or sizifov trud ‘Sisyphean labor’, anjutiny glazki ‘pansies’ (lit. ‘Anyuta’s little-eyes’), etc.

The two types of prenominal possessives also differ as to their position with respect to other adjectives (e.g. babuškiny francuzskie tufli ‘grandma’s French shoes’ vs. russkie babuškiny sredstva ‘Russian folk remedies’) and compatibility with the approximative inversion: as noted Trugman (2007: 451), only referential but not modificational possessives are compatible with approximative inversion. Compare, for example, On pročital knig pjat’ Vaninyx ‘He read approximately five of Vanya’s books’ with the ungrammatical *On pereproboval sredstv pjat’ babuškinyx ‘He tried approximately five folk remedies’. However, both Trugman’s description of facts and her analysis are not undisputable. First, the grammaticality of referential possessives with approximative inversion is questionable: is On pročital knig pjat’ Vaninyx ‘He read approximately five of Vanya’s books’ indeed better than *On pročital knig pjat’ interesnyx ‘He read approximately five interesting books’ (cf. Yadroff & Billings 1998, Yadroff 1999)? Second, as I have shown elsewhere (Pereltsvaig 2006), approximative inversion is an instance of Head Movement; hence, the non-blocking effect of the referential possessives is incompatible with their structural analysis as Determiners (as proposed by Babyonyshev 1997). However, an alternative explanation for the incompatibility of modificational possessives with approximative inversion emerges in terms of the dispreference for splitting idiomatic expressions.

While at least some prenominal possessives (i.e. those of Trugman’s referential type) share referential properties with genitive possessors, there are also some intriguing differences between them. As noted in Babyonyshev (1997: 200), in intensional contexts prenominal possessives can only have the de re interpretation, while genitive possessors are open to both de re and de dicto interpretations. Thus, Vanya xočet ženit’sja na aktrisinoj dočke ‘Vanya wants to marry the actress’s daughter’ implies that Vanya has a specific actress in mind, whereas Vanya xočet ženit’sja na dočke aktrisy ‘Vanya wants to marry the daughter of an actress’ can also be said if Vanya does not have a specific actress in mind but think that marrying into a theatrical family would have its benefits. Interestingly, non-possessive adjectives can have only the de dicto interpretation; for example, the  Vanya xočet ženit’sja na general’skoj dočke ‘Vanya wants to marry a general’s daughter’ cannot be said if Vanya has a specific general in mind (Babyonyshev does not note this, although it is compatible with her claims).

Another intriguing difference between prenominal and genitive possessors, noted by Lyutikova (2014), concerns their interpretation with argument-taking nouns. Consider first the class of the so-called picture-nouns. Both prenominal and genitive possessors can have a range of interpretations if they are the sole argument of such a noun: e.g. portret Pupkina ‘Pupkin’s portrait’ can denote a portrait owned by Pupkin (where Pupkin is the “Possessor” in a narrow sense), drawn by Pupkin (where Pupkin is the “Agent”), or one of which Pupkin is the subject (or “Theme”). Similarly, Vanin portret can denote a portrait owned by Vanya, drawn by him, or one of which he is the subject. But if the two types of possessors are combined, as in Vanin portret Pupkina, only one interpretation is possible: the prenominal possessor denotes the Possessor or the Agent (here, owner or artist), whereas the genitive possessor denotes the Theme (i.e. subject of the artwork). In other words, this phrase must denote a portrait depicting Pupkin drawn or owned by Vanya, but not a portrait depicting Vanya drawn or owned by Pupkin. Neither are prenominal and genitive possessors interchangeable with process-denoting nouns: kritika Vani means Vanya is being criticized, while Vanina kritika means he is the one criticizing (someone or something).

The topic of Russian prenominal vs. genitive possessors with argument-taking nouns (both picture-nouns and process-denoting nouns) is far more intricate that can be described in a brief post—and is the subject of my current research, so stay tuned!



Babyonyshev, Maria (1997) The Possessive Construction in Russian: A Crosslinguistic Perspective. Journal of Slavic Linguistics 5(2): 193-230.

Lyutikova, Ekaterina (2014) Russkij genetivnyj possessor i formal’nye modeli imennoj gruppy. [= Russian genitive possessor and formal models of the noun phrase]. In: Ekaterina Lyutikova, A. V. Zimmerling, M.B. Konoshenko (eds.) Tipologija morfosintaksicheskix parametrov 2014: Proceedings. Moscow: MGGU. Pp. 121-145.

Trugman, Helen (2007) Possessives within and beyond NPs. In: Richard Compton, Magdalena Goledzinowska & Ulyana Savchenko (eds.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 437-457.

Yadroff, Michael (1999) Formal Properties of Functional Categories: The minimalist syntax of Russian Nominal and Prepositional Expressions. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University Bloominton.

Yadroff, Michael and Loren Billings (1998) The Syntax of Approximative Inversion in Russian (and the general architecture of nominal expressions). In: Željko Bošković, Steven Franks and William Snyder (eds.) Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. The Connecticut Meeting 1997. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 319-338.

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