Parameters of quantification in Russian

Alexei Shmelev,

In what follows, I am developing and refining the approach outlined in (Bulygina, Shmelev 1988).

Russian quantifiers assess not only discrete sets, but also uncountable masses (as well as abstract entities). In the former case, the number of elements of the quantified set is assessed (pjat’ jablok, neskol’ko chelovek, ujma krys); in the latter case, the quantifier assesses the “magnitude” of the quantified entity, most often inspected for some measurement: weight, volume, area (pud soli, litr moloka, tridcat’ metrov zhilploshchadi, mnogo vody). The notion of “magnitude” is close to the notion of size; it is not coincidence that bol’she is the comparative both of mnogo and bol’shoj (and men’she is the comparative both of malo and malen’kij). Some Russian quantifiers (e. g. neskol’ko, bol’shinstvo, chislo, kazhdyj) can only apply to discrete sets while the other can apply both to discrete sets and to what is conceptualized as continuous entities. The pronouns skol’ko and stol’ko have different morphological paradigms depending on whether they apply to discrete or continuous entities. (This fact is ignored by the majority of grammatical descriptions including Zalizniak 1977. E.g., they only allow skol’kix as the form of the prepositional case of skol’ko; consider, however, O skol’kom eshche nado pogovorit’!). In the paper, I will also discuss the interpretation of skol’ko in various contexts, e.g. Skol’ko on kopil na kvartiru? (‘How long…) vs. Skol’ko on nakopil na kvartiru? (‘How much…’).

Another parameter of quantification is the distinction between “logical” and “measuring” quantification. The “logical” quantification expresses proportion of the referent of a noun-phrase to the comprehensive whole (kazhdyj chelovek, ves’ xleb, bol’shinstvo lingvistov, nekotorye…, mnogie iz nix) while the “measuring” quantification depends on some unit of measuring (for discrete sets, it is an element of the set, or shtuka), some “known” quantity (stol’ko zhe…) or some stereotype (malo can mean ‘less than one expected’, ‘less than usual’, ‘less than one may need’). The distinction in question accounts for the difference between mnogie and nemnogie. The former expresses “logical” quantification (mnogie prisutstvujushchie lingvisty means ‘a considerable part of the linguists present’) while the latter is used for “measuring” quantification: nemnogie prisutstvujushchie lingvisty would read as ‘the linguists present (which were not numerous)’. The same distinction is relevant for the description of the noun polovina (“logical” quantification) and the numeral pol- (“measuring” quantification); I will give a detailed description of the semantic difference between them.

Finally, the relevance of communicative factors to natural language quantification should be mentioned. Some Russian quantifiers are often considered synonyms or quasi-synonyms (e. g. ves’ and celyj, malo and nemnogo); however they have quite different communicative intent. Consider Ivan vypil vsju butylku vodki (informing the hearer that a certain bottle of vodka no longer exists) vs. Ivan vypil celuju butylku vodki (informing the hearer about Ivan’s lamentable state).


Bulygina, T., A. Shmelev. Mexanizmy kvantifikacii v estestvennom jazyke i semantika kolichestvennoj ocenki. Referencija i problemy tekstoobrazovanija. Moscow, 1988.
Zaliznjak, A. Grammaticheskij slovar’ russkogo jazyka. Slovoizmenenie. — Moscow: Russkij jazyk, 1977.