The Morphology and Syntax of the Old Russian Participial System as Seen in Groznyj’s First Epistle to Kurbskij

The formation of the participial system as it exists in Contemporary Standard Russian (CSR) is the result of a long process in which two competing morphological forms, one South Slavic in origin, the other native to East Slavic, found themselves in competition with one another for primacy within the developing Russian Literary Language (RLL). The native East Slavic form, over time, did give way, for the most part, to the South Slavic form. Seemingly reluctant to abandon the East Slavic participial form altogether, the RLL, via the process of grammaticalization, preserved them in various parts of speech, primarily as gerunds (govorja, želaja), but also as adverbs (nexotja, molča—with accent on first syllable) , adjectives (gorjačij, letučij), conjunctions (xotja) and parts of prepositional phrases (nesmotrja na).

This paper will attempt to present a sixteenth-century snapshot of this process as it is represented in Ivan Groznyj’s first epistle to Kurbskij, a text which widely employs both South Slavic and East Slavic participial forms. Descriptive grammars of Old Russian are of limited value to us since they tend to focus on Old Russian either at its earliest stages, or at a stage in the language’s development wherein the grammar has stabilized. The language of the Groznyj text, however, offers no such grammatical stability. Rather, what we see is a synchronic slice of this language at what is clearly an intermediate stage in its development in which many of its grammatical components, certainly to include the participial system, are in a state of flux.

The analysis of the Groznyj text’s participial system will comprise three sections, the first of which will be a short overview of some of the problems inherent in analyzing the grammatical features of an Old Russian text. Syntactic phenomena such as the presence of the Dative Absolute and other instances in which the participle, in the absence of a finite verb form, is forced to carry the full predication of a phrase will be touched upon, as will problems of case assignment and the identification of a given participle’s syntactic head. The second section will suggest a dominant participial paradigm for this particular text, and will attempt to assess the factor or combination of factors which motivates the choice of either the South Slavic or East Slavic participial form. The third section will discuss the implications of this analysis, both practical and theoretical: practical to the extent to which it can play a role in dating the writing of a text, and theoretical in that it can shed light on the latent abductive character of an Old Russian text, i.e., not only the insight that this text provides on the development of the RLL up to this point, but also on this same text’s subsequent status as a literary monument in its own right with the concomitant potential to influence the direction of the RLL’s development. This last point figures not only in the grammaticalization process which brought us from the two competing participial systems seen in Old Russian to the separate participial and gerundial systems existing today in CSR, but is also relevant in assessing the nature of the relationship now in place between the participial and gerundial systems of Modern Russian.