To HAVE or to BE in Russian: An Apology of the Verb imet′

Irina Mikaelian, Universite de Grenoble

From the generally admitted standpoint dating back to the seminal contribution of Isačenko (1974), the verb imet′ is considered as a marginal and even alien element in Russian, which is classified as a typical be-language. The purpose of my contribution is to restore imet′ to its appropriate place within the Russian syntax with respect to the “basic” predicative possessive construction [u YGEN (byt′) XNOM]. In particular, the distribution of imet′- and byt′- is strongly determined by their respective structural properties.

The difference between the two constructions can be considered as a matter of the surface syntax. The [u YGEN] corresponds to the subject of imet′ and the object of the latter corresponds to the subject of byt′: U nego est′ mašina = On imeet mašinu. This generally admitted equation, ascending to Benveniste’s (1966) ideas and reinterpreted within a generative approach (Chvany 1996), reflects the universal character of the possessive relation. However, there is an important structural difference between verbal and non-verbal expressions of the possession. The arguments of the verb imet′ are not specific about their semantic roles and the possessive relation is carried by the verb. In contrast, the prepositional group [u YGEN] encodes the Possessor and can be considered as a real “possessive case” (Garde 1983) insofar as it can mark both the Possessor in the predicative possessive construction and an External Possessor.

The use of imet′ in an independent predicative phrase has semantic and stylistic constraints with respect to the be-construction. The main semantic constraint is linked to aspectual properties of the verb, i.e. the impossibility for imet′ to encode a concrete current situation (aktual′noe značenie): U nego portfel′ (v ruke) vs. *On imeet portfel′ (v ruke); U nego gripp vs. *On imeet gripp. The stylistic constraints are largely known and cannot be considered here.

However, strong syntactic constraints operate in the opposite direction:

1. Imet′ is exclusive within the complex syntactic structures requiring a non-finite verbal form with a non-explicit subject as the: infinitive, gerundial, and participial, while the byt′-construction has a defective morpho-syntactic paradigm. In particular, the infinitive is the most neutral and statistically frequent form of this verb. The only context, where the “possessive” byt′ can be used as a converb, is the context of two modal predicates dolžen and možet which are non-specific about the animacy of their subject: U Peti dolžna / možet byt′ čta kniga.

2. The use of finite forms of imet′ is favored by a number of syntactic factors such as coordinate constructions (On žil odinoko i ne imel druzej) and, more generally, textually determined omission of anaphoric subjects; the length and complexity of the noun group in the subject position, and others.

To conclude, despite the fact that Russian deviates from what has been defined as Standard Average European (König & Haspelmath 1998), in particular with respect to the expression of possession, the use of structural potential of the verb imet′ is one of the manifestations of its basically accusative typological affiliation.