[Lingtyp] Perlative and instrumental

Bohnemeyer, Juergen jb77 at buffalo.edu
Tue Oct 16 17:39:00 UTC 2018

Dear all — Another question concerning motion coding, this one on behalf of an advisee of mine:

It seems clear that perlatives are a source of instrumental expressions (broadly speaking, although it seems that European languages generally tend to extend comitatives to tools, which one might suspect are the prototypical instruments). The poster child for this might be the oblique agent prepositions _par_ in French and _por_ in Spanish, which seem to be descendants of Latin perlative _per_ (while Classical Latin used ablative case for instrumental functions such as oblique agents). Similarly, in German, perlative _durch_ ’through' is extended to oblique forces, non-intentional agents, and event nominalizations in the same oblique causer role. Dutch goes one step further and applies to cognate _door_ to all oblique causers including agents. English _by_ is a route path preposition, so its meaning falls in the perlative domain. And so on.

Now, having said all this, it seems that Russian shows some evidence of the inverse direction of semantic transfer, by using bare instrumental case for route path coding. Please see the examples below, courtesy of Anastasia Stepanova, the doctoral candidate exploring these issues:

(1) Floyd arrived by the river - a) Флойд добрался рекой b) Флойд прибыл по реке
(2) The train passed through the tunnel. - a) Поезд проехал тоннелем b) Поезд проехал через тоннель
(3) The bird flew over the mountains. - a) Птица прилетела горами b) Птица пролетела над горами
(4) The dog ran across the field. - a) Собака (при)бежала полем b) Собака (при)бежала через поле
(5) Sally came through the bridge. - a) Салли пришла мостом b) Салли прошла через мост

As you can see, in all cases, there are alternative expressions involving a perlative preposition governing accusative, instrumental, or ‘prepositional’ (i.e., more or less, locative) case.

The bare instrumental uses seem mildly surprising from a cognitive perspective at first sight, given that the instrumental is a fairly abstract case.

Our hypothesis is that the choice between the two strategies depends on information perspective: prepositional coding is used as more of a default, and generally provides more information about the path. Bare instrumental coding is used if the path is discourse-pragmatically in focus, i.e., in response to a question under discussion as to which of a number of alternative possible routes, all of which are treated as known, is the one the figure takes. 

We’d be grateful for any pointers to discussions of this phenomenon in Russian and similar phenomena in other languages. 

Best — Juergen

Juergen Bohnemeyer, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies 
Department of Linguistics and Center for Cognitive Science 
University at Buffalo 

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