It's Alive!: The Expansion of the Category of Animacy in West Slavic

Tim Riley

In all Slavic languages which retain nominal inflection, animacy is expressed in masculine singular nouns by a syncretism between the Acc and Gen cases. However, in the West Slavic languages this syncretism continues to spread to referentially inanimate nouns. Swan (1988), working with Polish, collected over 800 such nouns and tested over 300 for their occurrence in the Gen-Acc case. This phenomenon is slowly causing the demise of animacy as a natural sub-gender based on transparent extralinguistic features to a grammatical gender where 'animacy' is becoming less predictable. This phenomenon will be referred to as 'grammatical animacy', based on the term 'grammatical Gender' which likewise is often unpredictable from extralinguistic features.

In Polish 'grammatically animate' nouns fall into seemingly unrelated categories such as certain types of fruit, mushrooms, playing cards and chess pieces, games, dances, monetary units, car models, tobacco and alcohol products, physical contact, body parts, dreaded diseases and skin afflictions, nursery language, certain set expressions, reified mental states, brand-name articles and appliances, etc. (Swan 1988) Although most research on this phenomenon has been conducted for Polish, my research (1996-98) exhibits a remarkably similar situation in all the West Slavic languages. There are even similarities in some Native American languages, especially those of the Algonquian family, such as Ojibwa.

'Grammatical animacy' is a relatively new phenomenon whose origins are not entirely clear because it is most prevalent in the spoken language and rarely mentioned in grammars and dictionaries. The scant attention paid to 'grammatical animacy' has consisted primarily of fairly conservative word lists with little or no attempt to explain its origin, its present range, or its future.

The best explanation to date for this phenomenon is provided by Janda (1996). Based on Johnson's (1987) Figure/Ground distinction, Janda correctly defines 'grammatically animate' nouns as belonging to the category of Figure. Unfortunately not all Figures tend to be 'grammatically animate'. Based on Westfal (1956), Johnson, and Janda, I have developed a cognitive analysis which explains and unites almost all of these categories of 'grammatically animate' nouns and predicts with a reasonable degree of Accuracy which Figures take a Gen-Acc. The term "Personal Space Nouns" will be introduced. "Personal Space Nouns" represent concrete, three-dimensional objects (Figures) which are often directly in front of, or come in direct contact with our faces or bodies. Such nouns tend to be grammatically animate, especially when they are seen as possessing some element of power or organic quality. The term "Personal Space Nouns" unites most of the categories listed above. Exceptions will also Accounted for on the basis of androzoocentrism.

I am currently testing this analysis in Poland, The Czech Republic, and Slovakia through surveys of native speakers. I will present some of these results as well as depict the spread of the 'grammatical animacy' to other grammatical cases, in particular to the dative singular. Finally, based on the current direction of the expansion of the grammatical category of animacy, I propose some predictions for the future of this phenomenon and its likely ultimate affect on the West Slavic languages.


Janda, L. BACK FROM THE BRINK: A Study Of How Relic Forms In Languages Serve As Source Material For Analogical Extension. Newcastle, Lincom Europa, 1996.
Johnson, Mark. 1987. THE BODY IN THE MIND. Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press.
Swan, O. FACULTATIVE ANIMACY IN POLISH. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, 1988.