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Reviewed by:
  • Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories by David Pesetsky
  • Jacek Witkoś*
David Pesetsky. Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2013. 192pp. ISBN 9780262525022.

1. Introduction

In his Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories, David Pesetsky addresses core questions of Case Theory and proposes an entirely new program of research into the grammar of case. The program rests on two pivots: first, one should treat case as a signature property of a given grammatical category rather than its descriptive feature, and, second, one should build the theory of case on the basis of grammars that show a lot of morphological case rather than on those where case morphology has undergone substantial attrition (e.g., Russian and Lardil rather than English and French). In the process of forming his novel approach, Pesetsky was able to cover numerous major topics in the grammar of Russian and solved a number of outstanding problems, including the Paucal Genitive and the Genitive of Quantification. Only a fraction of these problem areas can be touched upon in a brief review.1

I insist on using the term “program” with reference to Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories, as I see this publication as a promising beginning of a watertight theory of case. Below, I will try to explore both certain ready-made solutions as well as certain less-welcome consequences of this proposal. Thus I believe that the general idea of this New Program for Case Theory (henceforth NPCT) is a captivating one and set in a truly reductionist spirit, yet its application to many grammatical phenomena in Russian and closely related languages (e.g., Polish) still requires clarification and further development. [End Page 405]

2. The System

The core assumption of the radical system in Pesetsky’s monograph is that particular grammatical categories bear certain cases as their signature property:2


  a. N = GEN

  b. D = NOM

  c. V = ACC

  d. P = OBL(ique)

These categories assign their case feature to all dependents they subcategorize for and merge with in line with the following principle:3

(2) Feature assignment (p. 99):4

  a. Copying: when α merges with β, forming [α α, β], if β has satisfied its complementation requirements and α is designated as a feature assigner for β, its prototype α* is immediately merged with β, forming [α α [β α* β]].

  b. Realization: A prototype x* is realized adjacent to the smallest element dominated by its sister.

In the oblique-case environment, the relevant structure and history of derivation look as follows:






[End Page 406]

In examples (3–4) locative is a concrete spell-out of the more general oblique case, and it applies to the entire nominal sister constituent to P. In the process it overwrites previous cases resulting from both internal and external merge: nominative on D (cf. 4b) and genitive on NP (cf. 4a). The case on every constituent that was merged earlier is overwritten by subsequent applications of Feature Assignment (FA) unless a given constituent undergoes Spell-Out and is transferred out of the narrow syntax.

Part (b) of the definition in (2) is particularly inspiring and elegant, as it captures the extent to which case morphology spreads over the complement domain to the feature-assigning head. The morphological realization of case is subject to parametric conditions of PF set differently in individual grammars. Thus in French and English the realization stops at the XP level of the complement introduced by of or de for genitive, whereas in Russian (and Polish) the realization of case consists in spreading it across the entire nominal dependent down to the phase boundary.5

Pesetsky endorses the notion of the derivational phase as a constituent within which particular features have been checked and valued, so that this constituent can be transferred out of narrow syntax to the interfaces. The author recognizes the fact that the point of Spell-Out is flexible (pp. 88–89):

(5)   Timing of operations relevant to Spell-Out of a phase Φ



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