Unlocking the Mystery of Adverbial-Impersonal-State Predicates in Russian?

Eric S. Komar, Princeton University

This paper attempts to resolve the recurring controversy concerning the status of words in Russian of the type xolodno, skuchno, vredno, vetreno, mozhno, etc. Both the traditional Russian literature and works in the generative framework have acknowledged the following general properties of this class of words which distinguish them as a potentially independent grammatical category:

1) They have the sole syntactic function of predicate.
2) They have the morphological form of adverbs in -o.
3) They have the semantic property of expressing state, either of an environment or of a person.
4) They are impersonal, i.e., the sentences they occur in do not have a grammatical subject in the Nominative (podlezhashchee in the Russian tradition), but an Experiencer logical subject (sub"ekt), normally realized in the Dative.

Several names have been suggested for these words in the literature, none of which have been unanimously agreed upon. Each term suggested captures a different property listed above: "category of state" based on their "predicate adverb" due to their morphological form (point #2), semantic properties (point #3), and "impersonal predicate" on the basis of their syntactic function and impersonalness (point #4). I argue in this paper that the reason a suitable name for these predicates has not been conceived that can incorporate all the above criteria is simply because not all of these words do satisfy all of the criteria. For instance, of the words listed above, only xolodno and skuchno meet both #3 and #4: Mne xolodno; Ej skuchno. However, vredno and mozhno fail requirement #3: they do not have the semantic property of denoting state . Furthermore, vetreno fails #4 because this word cannot be accompanied by an Experiencer in any Case: *Mne vetreno. Vredno fails #4 as well: it can in fact be accompanied by a grammatical subject, either nominal or infinitival: Kuren'e/kurit' mne vredno.

The only requirements that all of the above words do satisfy are #1: they serve as the predicate of the sentences in which they occur, and #2: they have the morphological form of adverbs. But while their predicative status is not controversial, I argue that they cannot be adverbs. I base this on the assumption that adverbs cannot be used predicatively because they do not have argument structure.

Given all of the above facts and assumptions, it is clear that these words, dubbed such names in the literature as "predicate adverbs" and "impersonal predicates" and "category of state", cannot as a group be classified as adverbial, impersonal, or stative. Therefore, since they have such diverse properties, it seems to be an incorrect approach to classify these words as a single grammatical category. Instead, I propose a way to distribute these words into already established parts of speech: I argue that all the above words with the exception of mozhno are simply predicate adjectives. Vredno is personal and its -o morphology in the above sentence is the canonical neuter singular ending used to agree with the neuter noun kuren'e, and to agree by "default" with the infinitival grammatical subject kurit'.

I argue further that, just as Russian has impersonal verbs, xolodno, skuchno, and vetreno are impersonal adjectives. Following such analyses of impersonal predicates as Babby (1989), Babby (1994), et al., I claim that their -o ending is serving as the same morphology found on impersonal verbs. I also assume the presence of a Dative Experiencer is licensed by the lexical semantics of xolodno and skuchno, but not vetreno. Finally, I propose to categorize mozhno among the morphologically diverse class of modals such as nel'zja, with which it shares the same semantic and syntactic properties.

While this treatment of predicates cannot yet accommodate such words as len' and zhal', I believe that the above analysis is a step in the right direction in categorizing the vast majority of "mystery" predicates Russian.