27.5093, Review: Slavic Subgroup; Cognitive Sci; Ling Theories; Semantics: Kagan (2015)

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Subject: 27.5093, Review: Slavic Subgroup; Cognitive Sci; Ling Theories; Semantics: Kagan (2015)

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Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2016 13:47:54
From: Eugenia Romanova [evgeniya.romanova at icloud.com]
Subject: Scalarity in the Verbal Domain

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/26/26-4926.html

AUTHOR: Olga E. Kagan
TITLE: Scalarity in the Verbal Domain
SUBTITLE: The Case of Verbal Prefixation in Russian
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Eugenia Romanova, Institute of International Relations, Yekaterinburg

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Russian verbal prefixes have been a growing field of research in the past
several years. Thanks to this, a lot of facts of their syntax and semantics
have been accumulated; on the other hand, all this knowledge has revealed how
poorly we still understand the nature of this morpheme. Thus, every new work
on the subject is a welcome contribution to the unfolding picture. “Scalarity
in the Verbal Domain” by Olga Kagan is a precious gem in the collection of
linguistic papers on prefixation in Russian.

Most noticeably, the monograph is written in a clear, accessible language, it
is perfectly structured, and the argumentation is thorough and transparent.

The work is based on two semantic approaches: formal and cognitive. This makes
the potential audience of the book fairly large and versatile. 

The book is organized as follows. After the general introduction, where the
author introduces the notions and terms relevant to the research and lays out
main theoretical premises, there are five chapters containing discussion and
analysis of particular prefixes. The semantic characteristics of each prefix
are examined at length, and then a formula is offered revealing its relation
to a degree or an interval on a scale provided. All the formulas are explained
in minute detail so that even a reader with no formal background can get a
coherent idea of their content. 

Several crucial ingredients of the author's Scale Hypothesis are introduced at
the beginning (p. 26, (13)) and used as analytic tools throughout the book:
types of scale (path, property, volume/extent, and time); relations between
two degrees on a scale (<, >, ≥, ≤, =, etc.), which are determined by a
prefix; sources of the standard of evaluation or comparison (one of the
related degrees on a scale), which can be linguistic or nonlinguistic
(provided by the context or the world knowledge). Paths and properties are
typically lexicalized by a verbal stem (verbs of motion and degree
achievements, respectively), volume/extent scales are provided by verbal
arguments, and, finally, the time scale is presumably contributed by the
functional structure of a sentence. In some cases, scales are contextual, and
in others, they are introduced by prefixes themselves (e.g., one of the uses
of pod-). 

One of the main aims of this study is to unify the semantic analysis of
different uses of each prefix under scrutiny. The author excludes
idiosyncratic (non-compositional) uses of prefixes and circumfixes (prefix +
-sja) from the study. The core component of nearly every prefix is spatial and
other sub-components develop through metaphorical extension. The monograph
investigates twenty-one prefixes out of twenty-eight listed in Shvedova
(1982). The prefixes are grouped together on the basis of some common scalar
feature. For example, po-, na- and pro- are related to a degree of change,
whereas do-, nedo- and pri- to the degree achieved at the endpoint of an

The book is closed by two chapters of a more general nature. Chapter 7 deals
with principles and parameters of prefixes and scales. Here, the author offers
a summary of the monograph (tables 7.1, 7.2, 7.3 and 7.4 on pp. 200, 213, 215
and 219) and a number of generalizations falling out of her research. Chapter
8, whose content is partly repeated from the latest book by the author (Kagan
2013), is devoted to the prefixational genitive with the focus on the idea of
semantic incorporation. 

The monograph also contains two useful appendices: 1. Changes along different
scales, and 2. Compositional semantics of prefixed verbs.


Given a messy semantics of Russian prefixes, the author does an impressive job
of systematizing their meaning. Some issues, like unproductive and borrowed
prefixes, have not been addressed in the literature before, to my knowledge. 

The verbal uses of the prefixes po-, pod- and pre- are compared to their
non-verbal uses (pp. 48-52, 118, 183), which opens a prospect for a more
detailed study of prefixes on adjectives, adverbs and nouns. 

Another promising line of research is the investigation of presuppositions
triggered by different prefixes. This monograph lays a solid foundation for
such research.

Different uses of prefixes are parametrized in Chapter 7 through a hierarchy
of scales ((7) p. 203):

1. scales lexicalized by the stem > scales lexicalized by the object > time

The hierarchy determines the choice of a prefix (e.g., (9), p. 205): thus,
scales lexicalized by the stem are paths and properties, scales lexicalized by
the object are volume/extent scales, and a time scale is connected with Tense
or Aspect, according to the author. In most cases the proposal is supported by
the data. 

Thorough analysis of an impressive number of prefixes, and beautiful
generalizations and conclusions made on its basis are obvious strengths of the
book.  Yet, it also has its weaknesses, which I will deal with below. 

In my opinion, in concentrating solely on the semantic aspect of prefixes, the
book demonstrates how important syntax actually is. It is simply impossible to
give a serious account of prefixes without taking structure into
consideration. Thus, on p. 204 in example (8), the author offers two sets of
sentences to show the interaction of the prefix pro- with different scales. In
(8-a), the verb rabotat' 'work' comes with the time scale (prorabotal dva goda
'worked for two years'), and in (8-b), presumably, with the volume/extent
scale lexicalized by its object (prorabotat' vse voprosy 'to work through all
the issues'). The verb rabotat' is intransitive, so it is impossible to say
*rabotat' vse voprosy without a prefix. It looks like it is the prefix that
introduces the object into the structure of intransitive verbs; hence there is
no volume/extent scale prior to prefixation in the case discussed.

The distinction between perfective and imperfective aspects has not received
enough attention. On p.136, discussing the prefix pere- (of excess), the
author mentions a scale of intensity (which, I presume, is a variety of a
property scale), which can only be supplied by verbs with relevant semantics
(try, strain, press, work etc.). In my opinion, the assumption is not quite
right. First, the semantic component of intensity can be found in many more
verbs (gaze, shout etc.), and, second, intensity is best measured on
imperfective verbs. Compare two minimal pairs in (2) and (3):

2. a. pereigrat' PERFECTIVE 'play too much', excess (one of the
interpretations) vs pereigryvat' IMPERFECTIVE 'act too intensely' (about

3. a. nedolubit' 'not experience enough love (in life)' PERFECTIVE vs
nedolublivat' 'slightly dislike sb' IMPERFECTIVE

4. podduvajet 'there is a slight drought', (menja) podtashnivajet 'I am
slightly sick' both IMPERFECTIVE and have no perfective counterparts

The perfective verbs in the minimal pairs above carry prefixes whose
interpretation is predicted in the book, the prefixes on the imperfective
verbs seem to measure the intensity of an activity or a state. In the data
provided by the author there is a mix of perfective and imperfective verbs,
where the latter either have no perfective correspondences (like in (4) above)
or have a clearly different interpretation (e.g., nedojedat' 'starve' (p.85)).
We can see quite a number of verbs used only imperfectively in Chapter 6,
especially with the non-productive prefix pred- referring to some future
event. However, there is no discussion about the scalar nature of outer aspect
or lack thereof.

One issue is connected with the genitive case of arguments, which has even
deserved a separate chapter in the book. Chapter 8 justifies the analysis of
genitive arguments with the help of semantic incorporation along the lines of
van Geenhoven (1998). On p. 231, the author writes (V = verb, NP = Noun
Phrase, gen = genitive): ''As a result of semantic incorporation, the [V
NPgen] constituent becomes indivisible for further semantic operations.
Essentially, we get a new verb milk-give.'' This means that the verb has no
available object, i.e., it can be considered intransitive. Yet, throughout the
book such genitive nominals are analyzed on a par with accusative objects:

5. napech pirogov (gen) 'bake many cakes', pereest' fruktov (gen) 'eat too
much fruit', dochitat' knigu (accusative) 'finish reading a/the book' (p. 199)

On p. 55, the author characterizes the prefix na-, systematically co-occurring
with genitive nominals, in the following way: ''it measures ... the amount of
objects that undergo a change in the course of the event'', and in the formula
in (17) includes an individual. This is confusing, since on p. 228 it is
claimed that ''these nominals denote properties and are of the semantic type

In addition, the semantic incorporation analysis defines another problem for
the theory. If genitive nominals are to be treated as properties that become a
part of the verbal meaning, it is not correct to treat such nominals as
representations of volume/extent scale available to a prefix. Nominals become
inaccessible for further semantic operations. Rather, verb phrases like
milk-give now contain a property scale, and a prefix combining with it
measures this property (along the lines of Romanova 2007 on cumulative na-).

Genitive nominals are also discussed with respect to certain prefixes, for
example do-, nedo- and pere- of excess. While I mostly agree with the analysis
of nominals following verbs with pere- and nedo- (they are basically the same
as with na-), I find it difficult to subscribe to the account of genitive
after do- verbs. First, it is limited to verbs which can assign genitive even
without a prefix: kupit' jablok 'buy some apples' or dat' moloka 'give some
milk'. These verbs are already perfective, and the attachment of do- does not
change the ability of their arguments to alternate between genitive and
accusative cases. Second, the interpretation of genitive nominals after such
verbs is clearly different from semantically incorporated properties with
narrow scope and other consequences of having no separate existence. Kupil
jablok means 'bought SOME apples', whereas nakupil jablok does not. And,
second, do- does not combine with genitive objects after other verbs whose
lexical semantics is reminiscent of that of 'give':

6. *Dodaril igrushek (gen) 'gave more toys as a present'

It is also true that other prefixes do not allow the assignment of genitive
even after the verbs 'buy' and 'give', but this might be an altogether
different story.

Here we enter the subject of different types of predicates and different types
of arguments, for it is important to discern between, say, verbs of creation
and verbs of consumption, verbs of sound emission and verbs of perception and
so on. Each type imposes additional restrictions on prefixation, and when the
author writes about strict incremental themes (p. 149), she only means verbs
of consumption, whereas the prefix under discussion (iterative pere- 're-')
could behave differently with verbs of creation (some of which are also
considered to be incremental theme verbs). The fact that you can not repeat
the event of eating is not so much connected with the incrementality of the
theme as with the type of the predicate. The prefix pro- is said not to be
fully productive (p. 61): it does not attach to such phrases as *prostroit'
dom 'build a full house'. I don't think productivity is an issue here. The
impossibility of pro- in this case is rather explained by certain limitations
found in the semantics of creation verbs and effected objects, which do not
exist at the beginning of the event (vonStechow 2000). 

This returns us to the question of subjectivity of certain assumptions found
in the monograph. It is claimed, for example, that verbs like rezat' 'cut',
rubit' 'chop' and pilit' 'saw' introduce a component of moving along a path
(p. 127), whereas verbs of non-directed motion (indeterminate verbs of motion)
do not contribute a path scale. The description of iterative pere- on pp.
144-153 presupposes world knowledge, which can differ from person to person.
Thus, the author says that the verbs with this prefix entail the rectification
of the unsatisfactory result achieved in the course of the event denoted by
the same verb without the prefix (p. 146). The verbs perestirat' 'pere-wash'
and pereuchit'sja 'pere-study' are offered as illustrations of such a meaning.
However, other speakers' knowledge of the world does not have to coincide with
the assumption here: I can imagine rewashing a dress just in case, and the
verb pereuchit'sja means an altogether different thing to me: it involves the
component of change, which is not mentioned among the uses of pere-. In fact,
the list of my complaints connected with the author's subjectivity is fairly
long. However it is not so interesting to go into their lengthy discussion or
start objecting against some native judgements (see, e.g. (7) and (8) on p.

A much more interesting question is why the author uses different labels for
presumably the same prefixes, like terminative do- and additive do-, when
their interpretations are determined by a verb or a larger context. For
example, the verb dosidet' (do ultra) 'do-sit (till the morning)' (p. 71)
carries terminative do-, whereas dospat' dva chasa 'do-sleep for two more
hours' (p.78) additive do-. If we change the context, we can actually get
dospat' do utra 'do-sleep till the morning'. The example in (11-b) doplatit'
'do-pay, pay more money until the required sum is covered' can only have
additive do-. The same situation is observed with other prefixes (e.g.,
spatial pere-, temporal pere-, iterative pere-, pere- of excess). This seems
to somehow undermine the enterprise of prefix semantics unification. Moreover,
I still cannot understand what comes first: a prefix or a scale. Do we apply
spatial pere- to paths or do paths define the choice of one of several
pere-'s? According to the premises of the theory, the latter must be the case,
but then why classify prefixes into subuses?

Finally, it is not clear to me why one of the most noticeable recent works on
the topic has not been  mentioned in the book, considering a high degree of
subject overlap: the unified analysis of prefixes from the perspective of
scalar semantics. I mean papers by Inna Tolskaya (Tolskaya 2007, 2013, 2015).
I think, the approaches adopted here and in Tolskaya's research are different
enough, and the reader would have benefited from a brief comparison of the

In spite of my questions and criticisms, I cannot but admire a feat of a very
thorough and profound investigation undertaken by Olga Kagan. As I said above,
the book is superbly written and suits a large and diverse audience of
linguists interested in the intricate topic of verbal prefixation in Russian. 


Van Geenhoven, Veerle. 1998. Semantic incorporation and indefinite
descriptions: Semantic and syntactic aspects of noun incorporation in West
Greenlandic. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Kagan,Olga. 2013. Semantics of genitive objects in Russian: A study of
genitive of negation and intensional genitive case. Springer.

Romanova, Eugenia. 2007. Constructing perfectivity in Russian. PhD thesis,
University of Tromsoe.

Shvedova N.J. et al. 1982. Russkaja grammatika, vol. I. Moscow: Nauka.

von Stechow, Arnim. 2000. Temporally opaque arguments in verbs of creation.
Available at

Tolskaya, Inna. 2007. Unifying prepositions and prefixes in Russian:
conceptual structure versus syntax. Nordlyd 2007; Vol. 34 (2) p. 345-370.

Tolskaya, Inna. 2013. In and out of Places, States, and Activities: Russian
Verbal Prefixes and Scales. I: Language Use and Linguistic Structure.
Proceedings of the Olomouc Linguistics Colloquium 2013. Olomouc: Palacky
University 2013 ISBN 978-80-244-4060-6. p. 127-142

Tolskaya, Inna. 2015. Verbal prefixes in Russian: Conceptual structure versus
syntax. Journal of Linguistics 2015; Vol. 51 (1) p. 213-243


Eugenia Romanova holds a PhD from Tromsø University in Norway. Her thesis
deals with the problems of verbal prefixation, event and argument structure
and syntax-semantics interface in the Russian language. At present she is a
lecturer in linguistics in Yekaterinburg, Russia.


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