The Russian Conjuction A as a Language-Specific Word

Irina Mikaelian, Pennsylvania State University and Anna A. Zalizniak, Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences

The conjunction a is one of the most thoroughly investigated Russian words (Levin 1998, Kreidlin, Paducheva 1974, Sannikov 1989, Yokoyama 1990, Paducheva 1997, Nikolaeva 2004, Uryson 2004, Fougeron 2004). The main types of use of this conjunction have been isolated and described. Correlation with semantically close conjunctions i and no has been analyzed. Specifically, most authors have mentioned particular pragmatic and expressive functions of the conjunction a and its high frequency especially in non formal colloquial language.

It is well known, in particular to teachers of Russian as a foreign language and translators, that in Western languages there exists no direct equivalent to the Russian conjunction a, while two other main coordinative conjunctions i and no have standard correspondences in all these language: cf. English and and but, French et and mais, Italian e and ma, German und and aber.

There are four possible ways to deal with this problem: depending on the context, one can translate the construction with a using a conjunction meaning ‘and’, using a conjunction meaning ‘but’, using another lexical unit (e.g. English yet, Italian invece, French pourtant) or whatever appropriate linguistic device (e.g. intonation, word order); finally, the conjunction can be not rendered at all. In any case, the specific semantic features of the utterances with the conjunction a are either lost or distorted. This is due, in particular, to the fact that the conjunction a as a grammatic element is characterized by highly implicit semantics. On the other hand, the absence of a standard equivalent for the a in Western languages creates a still greater problem because it serves, in Russian, as a basis for a number of discursive strategies.

Thus, the conceptual domain served by three different items in Russian (i, a, no) is divided between two items in Western languages. Such cases are observed in different spheres of the abstract lexicon, e. g. three Russian words sčastliv, rad, dovolen correspond to two French words heureux et content. Usually it points to the presence of a language-specific component in the semantic structure of at least one of these words. On the other hand, the absence of a word encoding a specific fragment of a given conceptual domain indicates that the corresponding conceptual configuration is not relevant to this language or, at least, doesn’t belong to salient concepts which deserve a specific designation (Wierzbicka 1992: 123).

In our paper we will refine the semantic description of the conjunction a and demonstrate that the language-specific component which determines its above-mentioned properties corresponds to one of the key ideas of the Russian “semantic universe”, namely the idea of unpredictability of the world present in many Russian words and constructions (Wierzbicka 1992: 123, Shmelev, Zalizniak 2003).


Shmelev, A. and Anna A. Zalizniak “Russian Language-Specific View of the World.” AATSEEL 2003 presentation. San-Diego, 27-30 December, 2003.

Wierzbicka, A. Semantics, Culture, and Cognition. Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. N.Y., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.