David Pesetsky, MIT
“Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories”
Thursday, March 4th, 10:30am
Sometimes it is the oddest facts that provide the best clues to
significant properties of language, because their very oddity limits
the space in which we are likely to search for possible explanations.
In this talk, I argue that the strange behavior of Russian nominal
phrases with paucal numerals (‘two’, ‘three’ and ‘four’) provide clues
of just this type concerning the syntactic side of morphological case.
When a nominal phrase like the Russian counterpart of ‘these last two
beautiful tables’ occupies a nominative environment, the pre-numeral
demonstrative and adjective (‘these last’) bear nominative plural
morphology, and the numeral itself is nominative. The post-numeral
adjective (‘beautfiul’), however, is often genitive plural; and the
noun (‘table’) is genitive singular — a situation that the
illustrious Russian grammarian Peshkovsky (1956) characterized as “a
typical example of the degree to which grammatical and logical
thinking may diverge”.
I suggest that the behavior of these phrases is actually entirely
logical — once one adopts a particular structural analysis of the
Russian DP. and a particular view of the nature of case morphology.
Developing ideas by Richards (2007), I propose that Russian is a
covert case-stacking language in which the realization of out case
morphemes suppresses the pronunciation of inner morphemes — with this
process restricted, however, by the phonological freezing effect of
phase spell-out (Chomsky 1995; 2001). The case affixes themselves —
traditionally classified using case-specific sui generis terminology
(nominative, genitive, etc.) — are actually instantiations of the
various syntactic categories: N, P and V. The interaction of this
proposal with the theory of phases and spellout raises at least the
possibility that there is no special theory of morphological case.