Specificational Copular Sentences in Russian and English


  • Barbara H Partee University of Massachusetts Amherst




The Russian sentence (1), from Padučeva and Uspensky (1979), and English (2) are examples of specificational copular sentences: NP2 provides the ‘specification’, or ‘value’ of the description given by NP1. (1) Vladelec ètogo osobnjaka – juvelir Fužere. owner-NOM this-GEN mansion-GEN jeweler-NOM Fuzhere ‘The owner of this mansion is the jeweler Fuzhere.’ (2) The biggest problem is the recent budget cuts. Williams (1983) and Partee (1986) argued that specificational sentences like (2) result from “inversion around the copula”: that NP1 is a predicate (type ) and NP2 is the subject, a referential expression of type e. Partee (1999) argued that such an analysis is right for Russian, citing arguments from Padučeva and Uspensky (1979) that NP2 is the subject of sentence (1). But in that paper I argued that differences between Russian and English suggest that in English there is no such inversion, contra Williams (1983) and Partee (1986): the subject of (2) is NP1, and both NPs are of type e, but with NP1 less referential than NP2, perhaps “attributive”. Now, based on classic work by Roger Higgins on English and by Paducheva and Uspensky on Russian, and on a wealth of recent work by Mikkelsen, Geist, Romero, Schlenker, and others, a reexamination the semantics and structure of specificational copular sentences in Russian and English in a typological perspective supports a partly different set of conclusions: (i) NP1 is of type and NP2 is of type e in both English and Russian; (ii) but NP1 is subject in English, while NP2 is subject in Russian; and (iii) NP1 in specificational sentences is universally topical (discourse-old), but only in some languages (like English) is that accomplished by putting NP1 into canonical subject position. In other words, both English (2) and Russian (1) move the -type NP1 into some sentence-initial position for information-structure reasons, but in English NP1 ends up as syntactic subject, whereas in Russian, it’s inverted into some other left-periphery position.

Author Biography

Barbara H Partee, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Distinguished Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Philosophy