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Book review

by Robert Woodhouse

The evolution of the system of long and short adjectives in old Russian
Karin Larsen

Published by Otto Sagner, 2005-04-29
ISBN 9783876909011

The first chapter of this remarkable book contains in its 35 pages a very satisfying, perhaps definitive, illustrated account of the principles governing the distribution of long and short forms of adjectives (LF and SF, respectively in the author’s system) in the earlier Old Russian (OR) chronicles and so does for their language what Michael Flier’s (1974) volume does for Old Church Slavonic (OCS). The remainder of the book is devoted to fulfilling its avowed objective by investigating the shifts of emphasis in the practical realization of these principles in a selection of texts extracted from seven chronicle compilations in such a way as to constitute an essentially continuous chronological band extending over the six and a half centuries that are still fairly frequently referred to as the OR period, i.e. from the mid-eleventh century to the end of the seventeenth.

Several of the distributional factors revealed by the author are found to be similar to those operating in OCS and unashamedly adopted, or adapted, mostly from Flier (1974), e.g. the essentially monoform derivational categories (e.g. possessives, adjectives with the forerunner of the modern suffix -sk-) and monoform semantic categories (e.g. adjectives implying ‘knowness’ by specifying unique or complementary portions of a given semantic field, such as ‘polar opposites’ and the like); but occasionally also from Tolstoi (1957), e.g. adjectives denoting materials. Unfortunately the ÷ used to mark absence of variation is too similar to the + used to mark its presence for this table to be taken in at a glance. But there is much that is new, from the table of OR SF/LF case/number syncretism on page 16, to the concept of ‘modes of presentation’ which is introduced in explication of the curious use of LF in noun and relative adjective combinations belonging to a terminology, such as the various kinds of OR gramoty (22 ff.), and becomes, via an intricate study of coreference and functional sentence perspective (30 ff.), the ‘overarching principle’ behind the partly (and perhaps unnecessarily) mathematical statements of the basic principles of SF/LF distribution (39 ff.). The exposition of the latter also contains a solution to an important problem bearing on ‘predicativity’ raised nearly a century ago by Istrina (1918).

Each of the succeeding seven chapters is devoted to one of the seven chronicle texts examined, presenting an illustrated summary of the behaviour of its adjectives analysed according to the scheme of Chapter 1. Each begins with an account of the manuscript(s) available for the relevant text followed shortly by a table of statistics and a judicious discussion of selected items pertaining to every category represented in the table that supports the general framework of the analysis. (A listing of all the supporting data with indication of sources is presented an appendix on 253–279.) Data not supporting the general framework (highlighted in bold in the statistical tables) are treated in detail under ‘Exceptions’ towards the end of the chapter. Each of these chapters closes with the drawing of general conclusions concerning the behaviour analysed.

The concluding chapter summarizes the results of the preceding chapters and enlarges on some of the conclusions foreshadowed in Chapter 1. The changes in adjectival usage are found not to follow a gradual development over the centuries. Instead there is a relatively sharp cleavage between the fourth of the seven chronicle texts treated (the Moskovskii letopisnyi svod) and the sixth (the Pisarevskii letopisets), the fifth text (the Second Novgorod chronicle) being transitional. The hunt is then on to discover the factors responsible for the cleavage thus revealed, such as the distinction between concrete and abstract nouns in the singular, which seems to be a major factor for the latest texts studied but of no relevance in the earliest group. After a brief demonstration based on Tatishchev’s Istoriia rossiiskaia (c. 1730–1750) that after the seventeenth century the attributive SF is dead leaving only fossil remains, the book closes with a final summary of the developments and a reexpression of them in terms of Jespersen’s attributive ‘junction’ vs. predicative ‘nexus’ and a shift from his predicative presentation towards a predicative position.

Brief assessments of the contributions to the topic of Flier (1974), Tolstoi (1957) and Istrina (1918) are given (13–15) and alluded to in various places elsewhere in the book. Older investigations are roundly ignored, no doubt justifiably, as irrelevant. The bibliography is correspondingly small, and additionally so because it does not record works referred to only once in text and/or footnotes.

There are a number of minor irritations. Here are some from Chapter 1. On p. 37, in the expression “T1 → R1. T2 (= R1) → R2”, the statement “T2 (= R1)” should be replaced by ‘T2 (ε R1)’ (ε = ‘belongs to’, 9). The table (43) containing significant material not from the Primary Chronicle is misleadingly billed as ‘the table below’ and representing ‘...the earliest chronicle text, the Primary Chronicle’ (45). On the translation front it is hard to agree that ‘[its] rays were like bloody’ (44 f.) is a better translation of luche imushchi aky krovavy than ‘[its] rays were as if bloody’ or ‘[its] rays were the colour of blood’. It would be nice if all initial hyphens in examples were of the non-breaking variety; and if numerous instances of the sign ± were replaced with the Cyrillic letter iat′.

The possibility of regional rather than temporal difference is ignored (240) in dismissing an apparent development in the Second Novgorod Chronicle because it is not matched in the two later texts hailing from Moscow; and also in remarking an unexpected increasing use of SFs going from the (originally Kievan) Primary Chronicle to the two recensions of the First Novgorod Chronicle. A more puzzling glitch appears to exist (239): ‘Of 38 non-predicative NPs in the accusative singular, 20 have LFs. This is not, however, a result of abstract nouns, since only one of the NPs with LFs (of a total three) has an abstract referent.’ Inserting ‘nominative singular’ between ‘the’ and ‘NPs’ seems not to be the whole solution.

Nevertheless the book represents an enormous concentration of the most exacting kind of syntactic and semantic analysis in which few stones appear to have been left unturned in the quest for as comprehensive and as rigorous an account of the subject as the considerable body of data will allow.