20 June 2008

Stop! Grammar Time!

Last fall I wrote about an interesting construction in Russian where a preposition appears to govern nominative case:

что за + noun-NOM.

Yesterday I encountered a piece of the puzzle I didn't even think to look for before. In the present tense, this construction lacks an overt verb, since Russian is null-copula in the present (copula refers to the form of the verb to be that connects a subject and complement; null-copula means you leave it out).

However! In the past tense, to be shows up in Russian, and brings verb agreement with it. Yesterday I said:

Я не знаю, что было за задача.
Ya ne znayu chto bylo za zadacha
I NEG know what was-3sg.-neuter PREP task.
"I don't know what the assignment was."

Without even thinking about it, I put was in its neuter form. Russian past tense verbs are marked for gender and number, and the neuter is what you use a) if the subject of the sentence is neuter, like okno "window", and b) in subjectless constructions. In this case, I chose the neuter form to make the verb agree with chto ("what").

But I was soon corrected. Apparently the past-tense verb should get feminine morphology here. That means it agrees with zadacha (f.) "task," not with chto (n.). This is meaningful because nouns that are inside prepositional phrases are not supposed to be able to govern the verb. That is, the verb isn't supposed to be able to agree with them.

Faced with this additional evidence, I'd say it looks more and more like:
a) the prepositional phrase here is actually "za chto," not "za zadacha," but it's been flipped around and become "chto za." Although the preposition coming after the noun is, as far as I know, totally anomalous for modern Russian.
b) za isn't actually functioning as a preposition at all.

I'm not sure which analysis I'm in favor of. The second strikes me as awfully... I don't know, sloppy, or something. The first is so weird, though. However, I have encountered, once or twice, mirror-image noun phrases of the common pattern [noun-NOM noun-GEN], where the genitive is used to denote "of the" or "of a." For example, "apple-GEN core-NOM"/"of an apple the core" instead of "core-NOM apple-GEN"/"the core of an apple." I made that example up off the top of my head and I don't know if it's useable; I haven't encountered this construction frequently enough to really understand where it's used.

(For Russian speakers: I'm not referring to that alternate genitive where you say "мамино яблоко" ("Mom's apple") instead of "яблоко мамы" ("the apple of Mom"). It was definitely the regular genitive, and definitely flipped.)

Also, in certain instances (e.g. on a menu), we encounter noun phrases where the noun comes ahead of the adjective that modifies it: сок яблочный (juice apple(adj.)) instead of the standard яблочный сок (apple(adj.) juice).

The existence of these flip-flops, even if they are only written forms (I don't think I've ever heard anyone say either one), makes me wonder if a flip-flopped "za chto" is possible.

Ugh, in writing this, I really can't believe how much syntax terminology I've just completely forgotten. The concepts are still (mostly) there, but I just don't remember how to talk about them. Maybe I'll re-read my old syntax textbook when I get home.

Despite forgotten terminology, I'm apparently still a language geek, as I had to make myself cut a bunch of irrelevant stuff out of this post: a paragraph on subjectless constructions, a paragraph on various Russian expressions of ownership, a paragraph on the genitive of negation, and a paragraph on gender identity in the GULAG and verbal morphology choices. Good grief, Leslie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Я не знаю, что это была за задача.
Don't forget about это in similar phrases.