Deriving Pedagogical Strategies from Research on the Conceptual Structures of Russian: The Case of the Genitive Case

Case is a remarkably powerful conceptual apparatus. In Russian, case says to us, take an entity, any entity, and imagine it in a relationship with anything else, any relationship. Now carve up all of the relationships one could possibly perceive, and conceptualize each one as belonging to one or more of a closed set of six cases. The cognitive complexity marshalled in this austere and fabulously efficient, elegant little system is literally mind-boggling. It’s no surprise that for our students case is a major stumbling block. As instructors of Russian, we need to find the means to convey both the essence and the versatility of the cases to our students. This paper will suggest a conceptual structure for the genitive case that can be presented in an accessible way to students. This presentation is based on over a decade of research in case semantics and cognitive linguistics. The goal is to utilize the findings of this research to create pedagogical tools that will help students achieve near-native proficiency. This example illustrates some of the complexity of the genitive case:

Fidel′ Kastro na pjatom s"ezde svoej kompartii govoril bez umolku šest′ casov i sorok tri minuty, čto dostojno rekordov Knigi Ginnessa.

‘At the fifth congress of his communist party, Fidel Castro spoke without pause for six hours and forty-three minutes, an accomplishment worthy of Guinness’ Book of records.

Here we see six uses of the genitive case in a single sentence, one that is not even particularly long or unusual. If there were an entry for Russian case use in the Guinness Book of World Records, the genitive case would walk off with multiple honors, among them: 1) The genitive is the most used case in Russian. The likelihood of finding sentences with six uses of any other case is relatively small. 2) The genitive is used with over one hundred prepositions (forty simple prepositions and over seventy complex ones), vastly more than all the other cases combined. 3) The genitive is the only case that forms chains of consecutive uses, as in our example above: dostojno rekordov Knigi Ginnessa, literally “worthy of the records of the Book of Guinness.” 4) The genitive is probably the most complex case in Russian, and the basic idea of the gentive is perhaps the hardest to grasp.

These might look like formidable hurdles, but our strategy is to tackle the last item on the list, the meaning of the genitive. After that, all the other problems will become opportunities for easy success.

The uses of the genitive will be described in terms of four categories: genitive: a source, genitive:: a goal, genitive:: a whole, and genitive:: a reference. The four labels used here hint at both what the basic meaning of the genitive is and why it is so hard to make sense of it. The genitive is by nature an elusive beast, a sort of back-seat driver that is always handing off the responsibility of focusing attention to something else. When we say that something comes from a source, we generally aren’t as interested in the source as we are in the something that comes from it. The same goes for goals; while a goal is important, what we really care about is the person or thing that is headed for it. In the genitive:: a whole use, there is always another item that plays the role of the part, and of course when we are talking about something that is part of a whole, we are focusing our attention on the part more than on the whole. A reference point is something we use to locate something else, and in its genitive:: a reference use, the genitive serves as a mental address for other things. Rather than turning focus to the item it marks, the genitive deflects our focus away from it. It is this habit of retreating into the background that makes the genitive so hard to pin down. Passing the buck, by the way, also makes the chaining of genitives possible, allowing focus to bounce from one item to the next.

This paper will explain the four categories of the genitive, how they are related to each other, and how they motivate all of the specific uses of the genitive case.