Some odd possessive adjectives in Slavonic

For someone who knows some Russian, the 3rd person possessive adjectives in Croatian look odd.  But looking at it more closely, I’ve realised that their Russian counterparts are just as odd, though in a different way.

Russian

Table 1 shows some of the possessive adjectives in Russian. The adjective’s stem depends on the person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) and number (singular or plural) of the possessor. An inflectional suffix attached to the end of the stem marks:

  • the number of the possessed item—and, for a singular possessed item, the gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) of the possessed item. There is only one form for all plural possessed items, of any gender.
  • the grammatical case of the possessed item. Russian has 6 grammatical cases, including nominative, accusative, genitive. For brevity, Table 1 shows only the nominative forms.
PossessorMasculineFeminineNeuterPlural
1st person singular (‘my’)mojmoj-amoj-emoj-i
1st person plural (‘our’)našnaš-anaš-enaš-i
Table 1. Some possessive adjectives in Russian

Notes on table 1:

  1. Throughout this post, I have used only the roman alphabet, not the Cyrillic alphabet. For convenience, I use the common symbol <š> for the sound denoted in English by <sh> (as in ship) and in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) by <ʃ>.
  2. For all examples in this post, a hyphen distinguishes the stem of the possessive adjective from the inflectional ending. (The ending in the masculine singular nominative is zero.)
  3. The 2nd person singular possessive adjective tvoj and the reflexive possessive adjective svoj decline in the same way as moj. Svoj (‘his, her etc own’) refers back to the subject of the clause.
  4. The 2nd person plural possessive adjective vaš declines in the same way as naš.

3rd person possessive adjectives: Russian

Table 2 shows the Russian possessive adjectives for 3rd person possessors.

Person / number of possessorForm
3rd singular, masculine or neuter (‘his’, ‘its’)ego
3rd singular, feminine (‘her’, ‘its’)ejo
3rd plural, any genderix
Table 2. 3rd person possessive adjectives in Russian

Notes on table 2:

  1. As is also the case in Cyrillic, the masculine/neuter singular form is written with a letter that normally denotes /g/, though in these words it is pronounced /v/. As shown below, the corresponding consonant is generally pronounced as /g/ in the other Slavonic languages, even in these words.
  2. The symbol <x> denotes the consonant pronounced as <ch> in loch.
  3. As is also the case in Cyrillic, the transliteration in Table 2 does not show that all 3 Russian forms listed there start with /j-/.
    In some other Slavonic languages, the spelling does show that facet of the pronunciation.

Comments on the Russian forms

The 1st and 2nd person forms, and the reflexive forms are all declinable:

  • they show the number (singular or plural) of the possessed noun.
  • if the possessed noun is singular, those forms also show the possessed noun’s gender.
  • those forms also show the grammatical case of the possessed noun. (For brevity, Table 1 shows only the forms for the nominative case).

In contrast, the three 3rd person forms do not decline. They do not change to show the possessed noun’s number, gender or case.

The three 3rd person forms are identical to the genitive forms of the personal pronouns on / ono (‘he’, ‘it’), ona (‘she’, ‘it’) and oni (‘they’). I discuss below whether it is best to regard each of these pairs of forms (ego, ejo, ih) as:

  • two forms that just happen to be identical; or
  • a single form with 2 functions.

Croatian

Like Russian, Croatian has declinable forms for the 1st and 2nd person forms and for the reflexive form. The possessive adjectives themselves are almost identical to the Russian forms (moj, tvoj, svoj, naš, vaš) and they decline in a similar way (though not identically).

Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian
For simplicity, I refer in this post only to Croatian, not to the closely related varieties Bosnian, Montenegrin and Serbian. For the items discussed in this post, I haven’t come across any differences between Croatian and those other varieties, but I haven’t carried out a detailed search for differences.
For more on these varieties, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/01/bosnian-croatian-montenegrin-and-serbian

3rd person possessive adjectives: Croatian

Croatian also has 3rd person forms similar to the Russian forms, and they are of similar origin: njegov (‘his’); njen or njezin (‘her’); njihov (‘their’). But unlike their Russian counterparts, they decline like short form adjectives, as shown in Table 3, which gives the suffixes for only the nominative case only.
(Unlike Russian, Croatian distinguishes the genders in the plural, and not only in the singular.)

Number of possessed itemMasculineFeminineNeuter
Singularnjegov-njegov-anjegov-o
Pluralnjegov-injegov-enjegov-a
Table 3. 3rd person possessive adjectives in Croatian

To be more specific, Croatian creates the 3rd person forms from the genitive of the personal pronouns, by adding a suffix -ov or -in:

  • Those genitive forms are: njega (‘his’, ‘its’); nje (‘her’, ‘its’); njih (‘their’).
    (There also exist weakened ‘clitic’ forms (ga; je; and ih). Those clitic forms appear only in unstressed positions combined closely with another stress-bearing word. The clitic forms cannot be used in forming the stem of possessive adjectives.)
  • To differing degrees in different languages, Slavonic languages use these suffixes -ov and -in to form adjectives from personal names and from nouns.

Where does the initial /n-/ come from?
Those genitive forms of the 3rd person pronouns start with an initial consonant /n-/. That initial /n-/ arose because some basic prepositions originally ended with /-n/. For example, modern Russian v (‘in’, ‘into’), s (‘with’) and k (‘to’) were at one stage vЪn, sЪn, kЪn, where <Ъ> denotes a weak back vowel (front ‘jer’).

Over time, the vowel dropped out and the /n/ transferred to following pronouns starting with a vowel. In consequence, in all the Slavonic Languages (except Belarusian) that initial /n-/ appears in pronouns that follow a preposition. In the South Slavonic languages (Croatian, Bulgarian—and perhaps also Slovene, though I haven’t found a clear source for this South Slavonic language) the initial /n-/ now occurs not only after prepositions but in all positions (except in clitic pronouns).

According to A Comprehensive Russian Grammar (Terence Wade, 1992), Russian does not use the initial /n-/ after some derivative prepositions governing the dative or genitive cases.

Double genitive?

The fact that the Croatian 3rd person possessive adjectives are declinable has one striking consequence. As Table 4 shows, some genitive forms of those adjectives contain the underlying genitive form twice:

  • one as part of the adjective’s stem (referring to the possessor);
  • once as part of the inflectional suffix (referring to the possessed item).
PossessorPossessed nounForm
Masculine singularMasculine singularnjegov-oga
Feminine singularFeminine singularnjen-e (or njezin-e)
PluralPluralNjihov-ih
Table 4. Croatian possessive adjectives marking genitive twice

Other Slavonic Languages

The following Slavonic languages pattern like Russian in having 3rd person possessive adjectives that are indeclinable: Old Church Slavonic (an early Slavonic language spoken around the 10th century CE); Polish; and Slovak. It seems these pronouns are also indeclinable in standard Belarusian, though declinable in some colloquial varieties.

The following other Slavonic languages pattern like Croatian in having 3rd person possessive pronouns that decline: Bulgarian; Macedonian. Probably also Slovene, but I haven’t found enough information to be sure.

In 2 other Slavonic languages, some of these forms are declinable and some are indeclinable:

  • in Czech, the masculine /neuter singular form (jeho) and the plural form (jejich) are indeclinable, but the feminine singular form (její) declines like an adjective
  • In Ukrainian, the singular forms do not decline, but the plural form does decline.

Possessive adjectives or genitive forms of personal pronouns?

I learnt the Russian 3rd person forms discussed above as possessive adjectives.  

But some authors take a different approach, because the indeclinable 3rd person forms are identical to the genitive form of the related personal pronouns. Those authors argue that the indeclinable forms are not possessive pronouns that happen to be identical to those genitive forms, but are, in fact, those genitive forms themselves.

I don’t think there is much to choose between these 2 analyses. Each of those analyses is simple in one area and more complex in another area.

  • One analysis treats the 3rd person forms as indeclinable possessive adjectives. This analysis is simple because it treats all forms (1st, 2nd and 3rd person) as instances of the same part of speech (possessive adjective). But it is complex because it has to explain that the indeclinable 3rd person forms are unlike the 1st and 2nd person forms, which decline like adjectives.
  • The other analysis treats the 3rd person forms as the genitive form of a personal pronoun. This is simple because:
    (a) the 3rd person forms don’t just happen to be identical to the genitive form, they are, in fact, the same forms; and
    (b) the 3rd person forms are always instances of the same part of speech (genitive form of a personal pronoun). But this analysis is complex because possessive adjectives exist only for 1st and 2nd person forms, whereas 3rd person forms can only be genitive forms of personal pronouns.

Conclusion

I started by saying that both the Russian and Croatian patterns are odd, but in different ways. I describe in this post what is odd about them:

  • the Russian pattern is odd because the item used to describe possession by 3rd persons differs from the item used to describe possession by 1st or 2nd persons. For 1st or 2nd persons possessors, the item is an adjective and declines like other adjectives. For 3rd persons, that item either: (a) is an adjective, though it doesn’t decline; or (b) is the genitive of a personal pronoun.
  • the Croatian pattern is odd because the item used to describe possession by 3rd persons has become declinable, although historically it was indeclinable and still indeclinable in Russian and some other Slavonic languages.

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