Unifying Prepositions and Prefixes in Russian: Conceptual structure versus syntax

  • Inna Tolskaya CASTL, University of Tromsø


This paper is an attempt to unify the polysemous verbal prefixes and prepositions in Russian. At first glance, the variety of possible denotations of a given prefix might appear a chaotic set of idiomatic meanings, e.g., the prefix za- may refer to beginning of an action, movement to a position behind an object, a brief deviation from a path, completion of an action, while the corresponding preposition za can mean ‘behind,’ ‘after,’ ‘for,’ ‘in’ (like in ‘in an hour’), ‘at’ (like in ‘at the table’). I will propose a unified analysis, where the differences in meaning are claimed to arise from different syntactic positions, while the lexical entry of a prefix remains the same. The main focus is on the verbs of motion due to the consistent duality displayed by the prefix meanings when added to directional and non-directional motion verbs. It will turn out that many prefixes appear to modify path when added onto a directional motion verb and to refer to movement in time with non-directional motion verbs. This semantic distinction corresponds to distinct sets of syntactic properties, specific for each set of prefixes. These two classes of prefixes correspond to the lexical versus superlexical distinction. However, a tripartite division will emerge in each set, corresponding to source, path, and goal of motion (FROM, VIA and TO) for lexical prefixes and to initiation, process and result for superlexical prefixes. This leads to the suggestion that the syntactic representation of a VP contains at least six distinct nodes for the Russian verbal prefixes, each characterized by predictable semantic and syntactic properties. The same prefix with a consistent meaning, shared with the corresponding preposition, will receive part of its denotation from the syntactic head it attaches to, thus allowing the polysemy to arise from position, rather than from arbitrary homophony. Thus, conceptual structure will be unified with syntax.