Variation in the Gender Assignment of Inanimate Indeclinable Nouns in Russian: The Moscow Experiment

Dianna Murphy, Ohio State University

Declinable inanimate nouns in Russian are assigned gender according to membership in morphological (declensional) classes. Indeclinable inanimate nouns, however, are assigned gender based on semantic criteria: inanimate indeclinables are neuter (animate indeclinables are masculine or feminine). Most analyses of gender assignment in Russian agree with descriptive grammars in allowing few exceptions to the neuter assignment of inanimate indeclinables: Corbett (1982) states that exceptions are "extremely rare;" the Academy Grammar lists only a handful of exceptions, including the well-known masculine kofe.

There is considerable evidence, however, that non-neuter assignment of such nouns is more common than these analyses suggest. A survey by the author of over ten dictionaries of modern Russian reveals that over 30% of all indeclinable inanimate nouns are assigned to one or more of the non-neuter genders. This is confirmed by studies of changes in the literary norm (Gorbadzhevich 1978, Skvorcov 1984) and of exceptions in Russian (Dimitrova 1994), which cite the gender assignment of inanimate indeclinable nouns as an example of potential variation in the modern language.

This paper presents the results of an experiment on gender assignment conducted in Moscow in March-April, 1998. Loosely modeled after the "Leningrad Experiments" by Andrews, et. al. (Andrews, Staddon, St. John Zaiim, and Borchardt 1993), the "Moscow Experiment" surveyed one hundred adult native speakers of Russian from Moscow. The written questionnaire elicited the gender of seventy-five inanimate indeclinable nouns by requesting respondents to select agreement forms; respondents also indicated their familiarity with each item. The goals of the experiment are to test a number of hypotheses about the gender assignment of inanimate indeclinable nouns in modern Russian: 1) there is considerable variation in the gender assignment of such nouns; 2) the gender assignment of inanimate indeclinable nouns is related to their phonological shape; 3) for such nouns, there is a direct correlation between familiarity and the assignment of gender.