“Name-calling: The Russian ‘New Vocative’ and its Status”
Laura A. Janda
UiT. The Arctic University of Norway
Henning Andersen (2012) points out that the Russian “new Vocative” (e.g., мам! ‘mama!’,
Саш! ‘Sasha!’) presents a series of unusual behaviors that set it apart from ordinary case
marking. Andersen argues that the Vocative should not be considered a declensional word
form of nouns. The Russian Vocative is certainly an uncommon linguistic category, but does
this entail setting up a new transcategorial derivation? Similar restrictions are found in other
markers that are generally recognized as case desinences. The pragmatic use of virile vs.
deprecatory nominative plural markers in Polish and lexical and morphophonological
restrictions on the “second Locative” in Russian. The restrictions found in the Vocative are
certainly unusual, but no single one of them can be said to exclude a marker from being
identified with a case, and one must ask what we gain by inaugurating new derivational types.
Keywords: Vocative, transcategorial derivation, speech acts; Russian, Polish, North Saami.
1. Introduction: What is a Vocative?
This section sets the backdrop for discussion of the Russian “new Vocative” of the type мам!
‘mama!’, Саш! ‘Sasha!’, by broadly classifying the linguistic investigation of the Vocative.
Linguists can be said to form two major groups in their approach to the Vocative, according
to the part of speech they attribute to the Vocative. There are scholars who treat the Vocative
as a case form of nouns, and others who suggest that the Vocative is better classed as a verbal
form. Andersen (2012) stands apart from both groups by asserting instead that the Vocative
constitutes a transcategorial derivation.
In their introduction to an anthology devoted to Vocatives across a range of languages,
Sonnenhauser & Hanna (2013: 3) make the point that despite the important role of Vocatives
in communication and first language acquisition, linguists have paid surprisingly little
attention to Vocatives.
Kiparsky (1967) argues that a Vocative is a case because, like a case, it can have a
distinct morphological form, and in many languages the Vocative can be replaced by a
Nominative form, which no one would class as anything but a case form. Syntactic evidence
for this interpretation is offered by Abuladze & Ludden (2013), Hill (2014), and Julien
(2014). For example, in some languages the Vocative can show agreement within a noun
phrase and can be syntactically integrated via a Vocative Phrase. However, there is also no
question that the Vocative stands out as unusual among case forms, and this is pointed out
even by those who support the view that the Vocative is a case form. Motivated by the
Vocative’s non-prototypical behaviors, Daniel & Spencer (2009) call the Vocative “an outlier
case”. Dissenters from the case-form interpretation of the Vocative argue that it is not
syntactically integrated into the clause (cf. Isačenko 1962: 83), or, like Andersen, point to
numerous peculiar restrictions associated with the Vocative (see Section 2). A further
argument against the Vocative as a case form might be gleaned from diachrony, since
Vocatives often behave differently than other cases. The Slavic languages provide at least two
indications that the Vocative is on a different historical path than other cases: In some
languages (for example Russian and Slovak), all the cases inherited from Common Slavic
were preserved while the Vocative was lost (with some Vocatives reinterpreted as Nominative
forms in Slovak), while in other languages (such as Bulgarian and Macedonian), the Vocative
has persevered as the only form to be marked on nouns while all other cases have been lost.
While there are some merits to the proposal that a Vocative is a verb form, this
alternative has fewer adherents and would require us to posit some very defective and unusual
verbs with only one form each. Vocatives do mark Second Person reference, and thus share
some characteristics with Imperative forms, with which Vocatives often co-occur. This point
is made by Fink (1972), Jakobson (1971), and Greenberg (1996). More recently, Julien (2014)
has described Norwegian possessive predicational Vocatives such as Din idiot! [your idiot]
“You idiot!” as equivalent to a copular predication such as Du er en idiot [You are.INDC.PRS
an idiot] “You are an idiot”. However, this semantic equivalence to a copular verb
construction does not require us to interpret the Vocative as a predicate. Andersen (2012)
does not pursue the predicate option in any detail, but focuses instead on refuting the
suggestion that the Vocative is a case form.
Andersen (2012) presents a third option: reanalysis of the Vocative as the product of
transcategorial pragmatic derivation. This reanalysis is based on a long list of peculiarities
that I will examine in detail in Sections 2 and 3. My aim is to ask whether these peculiarities
justify such a reanalysis of the Vocative.
Establishing a new transcategorial derivation may seem to be a convenient solution for
a “problem child” like the Vocative, however it comes with a price. If we suggest a new
category for something because it does not fit neatly into existing part-of-speech categories,
we risk creating a category that lacks a positive definition because it is based on negative
values. Ideally, a part of speech should have both a clear semantic basis and a coherent set of
formal behaviors. Already among existing, mostly agreed-upon parts of speech, there are
items that are problematic, such as “particles”, which Zwicky (1985) argued should be
eliminated from linguistic analysis given their poor theoretical basis (see also arguments
against “particle” as a Russian part of speech in Endresen et al. 2016), and even “adverb”,
which Herbst & Schüller (2008: Chapter 3) and Faulhaber et al. 2013 find to be far too
heterogeneous to justify its use as a classification. From a practical perspective, a part-of-
speech category (or a new derivational type within such a category) should be shown to
improve, rather than complicate, classification tasks. One such task is Natural Language
Processing, which is already plagued with part-of-speech disambiguation errors (Manning
2011), and the establishment of a new underspecified category would add to the existing
challenges rather than reducing them. Finally, perhaps the biggest cost in setting up a new
category is the fact that assigning Vocatives to a new transcategorial derivation necessitates
changing their connection with the nouns that they are transparently related to. We must ask:
Is the Vocative really so different from other case forms, does its identification as a separate
transcategorial derivation buy us something that is worth the price of distancing it from other
wordforms of nouns and further complicating classification?
2. The Russian “New Vocative” and Its Peculiarities
Andersen (2012) neatly details the oddities associated with the Russian “new Vocative”,
which also motivate his establishment of a separate transcategorial derivation. In his own
words, “it is subject to restrictions that are totally alien to case forms” (Andersen 2012: 154). I
will give only a brief review of Andersen’s much more comprehensive observations here,
which pertain to the domains of pragmatics, lexicon, syntax, morphophonology, and
2.1. Pragmatic Peculiarities
Unlike other linguistic elements that direct the joint attention of the hearer and the speaker to
some referent, with a Vocative “the speaker directly engages the addressee” (Andersen 2012:
135). Andersen distinguishes conative Vocatives that summon the hearer to participate in a
verbal exchange with the speaker from phatic Vocatives that maintain verbal contact in an
ongoing exchange, and observes that the Russian “new Vocative” serves both conative and
phatic functions. Indeed, the main (perhaps even the sole) purpose of the Vocative is to
express pragmatic (as opposed to syntactic) content.
2.2. Lexical Peculiarities
The Russian “new Vocative” is formed only from names and other nouns that can be used as
forms of address, and similar to English (cf. Zwicky 1974), some kinship and common nouns
in this group are more likely to appear as Vocatives than others. Andersen identifies these as
primarily hypocoristics and diminutives of first names like Свет! (< Света), Ваньк! (<
Ванька), patronymics both with and without first names like (Нин) Николаевн! (< Нина
Николаевна), kinship terms like пап! (< папа ‘father’), тёть! (< тётя ‘aunt’), and common
nouns that can be used in place of a name, like девушк! (< девушка ‘girl’). This Vocative can
be extended to some extent to names of pets and inanimate objects (particularly when they
can be used to refer metaphorically to people). The “new Vocative” is typically singular, with
a few exceptions such as ребят! (< ребята ‘guys’).
2.3. Syntactic Peculiarities
Like any Vocative, the “new Vocative” of Russian does not engage in any syntactic
relationship to a predicate or argument or any other part of a clause. It is not syntactically
integrated into a clause. The Vocative is clause-independent and can function even without
any other words.
2.4. Morphophonological Peculiarities
The Russian “new Vocative” is largely limited to words ending in -a with penultimate or
prepenultimate stress (cf. examples in 2.2, all of which conform to this constraint).
2.5. Phonological Peculiarities
Andersen (2012) asserts that the Russian “new Vocative”, as opposed to other case forms, is
formed by truncation. Alternatively, one could classify this as the use of a bare stem, or as a
zero-suffixation, although Andersen prefers to label it truncation due to the lack of vowel
insertion in resulting word-final consonant clusters and lack of devoicing in final consonants,
as in девушк! above and Серёж! (< Серёжа). However, this last feature, the lack of final
devoicing, seems to be fading, as these forms tend more and more to conform to the
phonotactics of modern Russian, as documented by Danièl’ 2009, a fact that Andersen also
3. Similar Peculiarities Elsewhere in Russian and Slavic
The purpose of this section is to challenge the claim that the peculiarities of the Russian “new
Vocative” are “totally alien to case forms” as Andersen asserts. Here I will cite phenomena
from Russian and other Slavic languages to show that these peculiarities are not entirely
unknown in case forms. They remain unusual, but not unattested.
3.1. Pragmatic Peculiarities
Andersen has not claimed that ordinary case cannot combine with pragmatic factors, but he
has set apart the Vocative as being unusual in this way. However, there are at least two
examples of other case forms in Slavic that can serve primarily pragmatic purposes rather
than syntactic ones: the Polish Nominative Plural and the Czech Dative.
Polish nouns with virile (male human) reference such as profesor ‘professor’ admit up
to three Nominative Plural endings: an honorific form as in profesorowie, a neutral virile form
as in profesorzy, and a deprecatory form as in profesory. The difference among these forms is
largely a matter of what pragmatic relationship to professors the speaker wishes to convey. If
the speaker finds professors to be noble and exemplary, the honorific form can be used; by
contrast, the deprecatory form quite literally “demotes” professors to the status of females,
animals, and inanimate objects (Janda 1996).
Ethical datives likewise express pragmatic relationships. While Russian makes some
use of ethical datives in phrases like Кто-то наступил мне на ногу ‘Someone stepped on
my foot’, these tend to overlap in meaning with the expression of possession. Czech, for
example, presents a more extensive use of ethical datives, including ones that cannot
reasonably be interpreted as possessive uses, as in this example (cf. Janda 1993: Chapter 3,
Janda & Clancy 2006: 96):
(1) Pustila jsem dceru na hory a ona ti si mi zlomila nohu!
‘I let my daughter go to the mountains and dammit, I’m telling you she broke
her leg, and boy does this spell trouble for me!’ (lit.: she you-DAT self-DAT
me-DAT broke leg)
This sentence has three ethical datives, only one of which, si ‘self-DAT’, expresses
possession. The other two have purely pragmatic import. The second person ti ‘you-DAT’
engages the speaker in a way not unlike the phatic use of the Vocative, conveying something
like ‘I’m telling you this, can you believe it?!’. The first person mi ‘me-DAT’ serves the
pragmatic function of a complaint, conveying approximately ‘Just imagine what this means
for me, how I’m going to suffer for this!’.
Of course, both the Polish Nominative case and the Czech dative case primarily serve
syntactic, not pragmatic functions. However, they give evidence that case forms can have
pragmatic functions, and that these can even take precedence in some contexts.
3.2. Lexical Peculiarities
One does not have to look further than Russian to find evidence of lexical restrictions on case
forms: both the “second Locative” and the “second Genitive” have lexical restrictions that are
at least as strict as those for the Vocative. The second Locative, as in в снегý ‘in the snow’ is
a case form restricted to about 150 nouns that designate concrete locations (“жесткая
локализация” according to Plungjan 2002, also Janda 1996). The second Genitive, as in
выпить чаю ‘drink (some) tea’, is largely restricted to nouns referring to quantifiable
substances (Worth 1984; Janda 1996). Although the second Genitive is productive (admitting
both extension to new substances like анилин ‘aniline’ and metaphorical extension to
concepts that are perceived of in terms of mass nouns like пафос ‘pathos’), it is available
only to about 1% of masculine inanimate nouns.
3.3 Syntactic Outliers
The two ethical datives cited as expressing pragmatic functions in (1) are also not
syntactically integrated into the sentence. Both ti ‘you-DAT’ and mi ‘me-DAT’ can just as
well be removed from the sentence without disturbing its syntactic structure in the least. Here
we must admit that being removable is not the same as being independent of the sentence, and
that neither of these ethical datives can stand on their own in the same way that a Vocative
does. But there are also examples of uses of case that are relatively independent of a sentence,
such as кому как (lit. who-Dative how) ‘to each his own’, кто кого (lit. who-Nominative
who-Accusative) ‘who will get who?’, and лыжню! (lit. ski-track-Accusative) ‘Clear the
track, coming through!’
3.4 Morphophonological Outliers
To find precedence for morphophonological restrictions on case forms, we can return to the
Russian second Locative, and further cite the Russian Nominative Plural in stressed -á.
The second Locative is primarily restricted to monosyllabic masculine animate nouns
with mobile stem stress. There are, in addition, ten nouns with polysyllabic Nominative
Singular forms that can have a second Locative case form, but most of these nouns are
derived from monosyllabic stems: via pleophony (bergъ > берег, берегý ‘river bank’),
diminutive formation (бок, бокý ‘side’ has diminutive бочок, бочкý), or prefixation (cf.
порт, портý ‘port’ and аэропорт, аэропортý ‘airport’) (Janda 1996).
The Nominative Plural in stressed -á, as in берег, берегá ‘river bank’, is possible only
for nouns with accentual patterns that permit end stress in the Nominative (and Accusative)
Plural as opposed to stem stress in the Singular. There are only two exceptions to this rule:
two nouns with fixed end stress: рукав, рукавá ‘sleeve’ and обшлаг, обшлагá ‘cuff’. Like the
second Locative, the Nominative Plural in stressed -á is also restricted largely to words that
result from pleophony. In addition, this case form can be used with words that partially
imitate the segmental phonology of pleophonic forms (such as потрох, потрохá ‘entrail’;
соболь, соболя ‘sable’) (Worth 1983, Janda 1996).
3.5. Phonological Outliers
Russian case forms are also known to defy the usual rules of Russian phonotactics. For
example, Bethin (2012) notes that “[r]eduction of unstressed /o/ and /a/ to [ɐ] or [ə] after non-
palatalized consonants and to [ɪ] after palatalized ones in Contemporary Standard Russian
(CSR) is systematic. But in certain inflectional suffixes [ə] occurs instead of the expected [ɪ]
after palatalized consonants.” For example, the last vowel in дядя ‘uncle’ should be [ɪ], but it
is [ə], despite the fact that this runs counter to prevailing иканье in Contemporary Standard
Russian. Vowel reduction is an otherwise immutable fact of Russian phonotactics, on a par
with final devoicing of obstruents, which is sometimes violated by the “new Vocative”.
Another issue is the creation of word-final consonant clusters that are not broken up
by vowel insertion, especially the following: -шк, as in девушк! (< девушка), Машк! (<
Машка); -ньк as in Ваньк! (< Ванька); -вн, as in Николаевн! (<Николаевнa); and -йк as in
хозяйк! (< хозяйка ‘hostess’). However, it would be strange to require an innovative form to
invoke vowel insertion eight centuries after the fall of the jers. Furthermore, all of these
consonant clusters are attested word-finally in the Russian National Corpus, and while
Andersen (2012: 155-156) also acknowledges the presence of similar word-final clusters,
further examples are presented here. Word-final -шк is found in numerous toponyms like
Кушк, Гиришк, Хараврешк, Деришк. Onomatopoeic words for metallic sounds like дзиньк
and треньк give independent justification for -ньк. In addition to the word фавн ‘faun’, we
find final -вн in королевн, an alternate Genitive Plural form for королевна ‘princess’ (attested
alongside the more frequent королевен), and toponyms such as Фредериксхавн and
Якобсхавн. Popular English borrowings provide ample examples for final -йк in words like
лайк ‘like (on Facebook)’, кофе-брейк ‘coffee break’, ремейк ‘remake’, стейк ‘steak’, фейк
‘fake’, and шейк ‘sheik’, in addition to the toponym Клондайк. These four word-final
consonant clusters are furthermore not so exceptional, since Russian admits numerous other
clusters of two, three, and even four clusters in word-final position, both in native and
borrowed words, such as: жанр ‘genre’, жизнь ‘life’, мысль ‘thought’, цифр ‘number’, кедр
‘cedar’, букв ‘letters (Genitive Plural)’, вопль ‘shriek’, цилиндр ‘cylinder’, фильтр ‘filter’,
ансамбль ‘ensemble’, мертв ‘dead’, центр ‘center’, оркестр ‘orchester’, текст ‘text’,
спектр ‘specter’, монстр ‘monster’, государств ‘governments (Genitive Plural)’,
достоинств ‘virtues (Genitive Plural)’, удобств ‘conveniences (Genitive Plural)’,
богатств ‘riches (Genitive Plural)’ (cf. Holden 1978).
The final item on our list is truncation, which could also be classed under
morphophonology, and which, as mentioned above, could alternatively be interpreted as the
presence of a bare stem or as a zero suffix. Floricic (2011) finds that the formation of
Vocatives via truncation is a widespread phenomenon typologically. Note that Andersen
(2012: 154) accepts the idea of zero suffixes, but rejects the idea that the Vocative has a zero
suffix. However, we find such forms routinely in the Genitive Plural of Russian nouns that
have Nominative singular in -a/-я or -o. In fact, for some nouns (particularly common nouns
that can be used as forms of address), the “new Vocative” and Genitive Plural are
homonymous, as in мам (< мама) and пап (< папа), and both Vocative and Genitive Plural
forms are robustly attested for these nouns in the Russian National Corpus. Under Andersen’s
interpretation, these forms are inherently distinct, since he would class the Vocative мам as a
truncated bare stem (a stem followed by nothing), but the Genitive Plural мам as a stem with
a zero-ending. However, it is hard to argue that these homonymous forms are indeed
perceived distinctly in this way by native speakers. If so, that point would need to be proven.
In sum, yes, the “new Vocative” does present a lot of unusual behaviors for a case
form. However, none of these behaviors is without clear parallels in other case forms. From
this perspective, the difference between the “new Vocative” and other cases is more a matter
of degree than essence. The “new Vocative” has more unusual features than a typical case
form, but no features that can be totally excluded from what we can expect to find among case
forms. Furthermore, the diachronic peculiarities are not as clear as might be presumed either.
It is not really true that vocative was preserved while all other cases were lost in Bulgarian &
Macedonian, since the vocative is marginal and optional in both Bulgarian (Girvin 2013) and
Macedonian (Friedman 1993). The diachronic facts show a lot of variation that does not
necessarily tell us anything about whether or not the Vocative is a case.
4. The Emergence of a “New Vocative” in North Saami
North Saami is a Uralic language spoken in Northern Scandinavia. Like its distant relative
Finnish, North Saami grammar has traditionally included possessive suffixes that attach to the
noun. Without the possessive suffixes, the paradigm of a noun has thirteen cells defined by
case and number, and due to syncretisms, there are a total of ten unique forms, as shown in
Table 1: Paradigm of noun guoibmi “partner” without possessive suffixes (NOM =
Nominative, GEN = Genitive, ILL = Illative, ACC = Accusative, LOC = Locative, COM =
Comitative, ESS = Essive, SG = Singular, PL = Plural)
If we include the possessive suffixes, which also interact in complex ways with the
morphophonemics of both the noun stem and the case endings, we add 81 more unqiue forms,
as in Table 2, and the total number of slots in the paradigm rises to 130.
Table 2: 81 additional unique forms for noun guoibmi “partner” with possessive suffixes (DU
= Dual, 1 = First Person, 2 = Second Person, 3 = Third Person)
Under normal conditions, such morphological complexity is neither problematic nor unusual
(McWhorter 2007, 2011). However, morphological simplification is expected under
conditions of contact pressure, especially when a significant portion of the population is made
up of adult learners (Dahl 2004, Bentz & Winter 2013). North Saami is an endangered
minority language spoken by survivors of decades of discriminatory language policies with
heterogeneous connections to their linguistic heritage. Virtually all speakers are fluent in at
least one of the contact languages: Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish, and many of these
speakers have reclaimed or even learned the language as adults. Janda & Antonsen (2016)
document an ongoing change in North Saami in which possessive suffixes are being replaced
by an analytic possessive construction consisting of a reflexive Genitive pronoun (inflected
for Person and Number) plus the noun (without the possessive suffix, as in Table 1). They
show that the timing of this language change coincides with the history of contact pressure
and repression of the language. With the exception of a few fixed expressions, the forms in
Table 2 are not being propagated by the younger generations of North Saami speakers.
However, there is one use of the North Saami possessive suffix that survives, even in
the youngest generation of speakers, namely the use of the First Person Singular possessive
suffix on Nominative Singular nouns that are either proper names or can be used as forms of
address, as highlighted in the shaded box in Table 2 and illustrated in example (2):
(2) Gula, máná-ž-an.
‘Listen, my little child.’
(IMP = Imperative, DIM = diminutive, POSS = possessive)
Unlike the more typical traditional anaphoric use of the possessive suffix, in example (2), we
see an exophoric use depending entirely on the pragmatic relationship of the speaker
addressing the hearer. As is common for a Vocative, this use of the possessive suffix co-
occurs with both a diminutive suffix (-š which becomes voiced -ž intervocalically) and an
Imperative verb form. Such exophoric Vocatives in North Saami “are restricted to kinship
terms, names, metaphorical names for people, and names or words for animals that are
addressed as if they were people” (Janda & Antonsen 2016: 357). Janda & Antonsen (2016)
argue that the interpretation of (–ž)-an [-(DIM).NOM.SG-1SG.POSS] as an emerging Vocative
case marker in North Saami is in line with the interpretation of other productive forces in the
language, such as –ráigge [-‘hole’] as a “prolative” case marker in examples like uksa-ráigge
[door.GEN-hole] ‘through the door’ and bálgges-ráigge [path.GEN-hole] ‘along the path’
(Ylikoski 2014). The reinterpretation of the remaining possessive suffix as a Vocative case is
part of the overall loss of the complex portion of the noun paradigm represented in Table 2,
with the remaining form being “recycled” into a new role as a case marker (cf. similar
examples of “recycling” of linguistic forms over time in Lass 1990 and Janda 1996).
Andersen (2012) has provided us with a meticulous inventory of the atypical behaviors of the
Russian “new Vocative”. While this list is certainly impressive and there is clearly no other
case in Russian that displays so many unusual features, none of the peculiarities of the “new
Vocative” are entirely without precedent in Russian and Slavic case systems. This means that
we can interpret the divergence of the “new Vocative” from other case forms as a matter of
degree rather than principle. Floricic (2011) argues that the clearest characteristic of
Vocatives is their marginal status in the case system, and that it is natural for a case system to
have both central and peripheral members. Janda & Antonsen (2016) have detailed how the
emergence of a Vocative can be understood as part of the life cycle of the case system of a
language, even one that is under extreme contact pressure.
There are some clear advantages to keeping the Russian “new Vocative” in the family
of case forms. On the theoretical level, this preserves the relationship between the Vocative
form and the noun that anchors the paradigm. Recognizing the Russian “new Vocative” as a
case form makes it possible to avoid proliferation of categories among parts of speech, which
are problematic in practical tasks, such as Natural Language Processing. For example, when
confronted with a form like мам, our task is easier if we have only to distinguish between a
Vocative and a Genitive Plural, without the possibility of also making an error at the level of
the part of speech. This interpretation is also in line with that of the majority of scholars as
well as the authors of the Russian National Corpus.
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