The Case for Individuation: Accusative and Oblique-case Objects in Czech and Russian

Mark Eliot Nuckols, Ohio State University

Hopper and Thompson (1980) exemplified several criteria for the degree of transitivity of verbs or events, using data from numerous languages of the world, and they further argue that these transitivity criteria are inherently interrelated and likely to co-occur. The present paper uses their theoretical model to build on the work of Timberlake (1975) on the Russian genitive/accusative opposition in negated clauses. Timberlake‘s work focused on hierarchies of individuation, including properties such as concrete vs. abstract, singular vs. plural, and referential vs. non-referential (the first of each pair being the property of higher individuation). This study expands the investigation to Russian and Czech verbs which historically have taken exclusively genitive objects but in many instances can now take accusative objects, namely when those objects are highly individuated. The paper then analyzes verbs which can govern either an accusative or an instrumental object.

Timberlake‘s individuation hierarchies are borne out by the fact that Russian verbs historically governing the genitive, such as ždat’, iskat’, and trebovat’ tend in modern-day usage to have accusative objects when those objects are more definite, e.g. trebovat’ svoju knigu. A number of Czech verbs historically governing the genitive also tend to take accusative objects in the contemporary language when those objects are more concrete: pozbýt platnosti [G] ‘lose validity’ vs. pozbýt majetek [A] ‘lose [one’s] property.’

For verbs governing the instrumental or accusative, the Russian verb švyrjať čem/čto displays the tendency described by Timberlake in the pair švyrjať den’gi/den’gami, where the expression with the accusative refers to literally, concretely throwing bank notes or coins, and the expression with the instrumental has the more abstract meaning ‘spend money recklessly.’ The objects of Czech verbs of saving and wasting display an even more intriguing correspondence between high individuation and the use of the accusative. For instance, if the object of a verb is specified in terms of quantity, such as in the second clause of the Czech sentence Jezdili jsme tam autem a ušetřili jsme celou hodinu ‘We travelled there by car, and we saved an entire hour,’ the object ‘hour’ can only occur in the accusative, and the verb only in the perfective. This tendency stands in contrast with vaguer expressions, such as šetřili jsme časem ‘We saved time,’ which use an instrumental object.

The present analysis also suggests a slight revision to Timberlake’s observations, namely his claim that quantified objects are non-individuated; I argue that the specification of the quantity of an entity involved in an event makes that entity more not less individuated. More generally, however, my data suggest that Timberlake’s individuation hierarchies are valid not only for the genitive of negation, but that they also can be applied rather generally to case government where there is a choice of accusative or an oblique-case object.