A “special grammatical operation”: what Putin’s use of cases reveals

Putin often avoids words and person’s names. He calls the Russian war in Ukraine a “special military operation”, and his opponent Alexej Navalny “the patient of a Berlin clinic”. But it is much more difficult to avoid grammar. In Russian, all nouns must be in one or another case form. Putin’s use of cases reveals how he sees Russia, Ukraine and NATO. This is the topic of a recent paper in the journal Russian linguistics, published by Laura Janda, Masako Fidler, Václav Cvrček and Anna Obukhova.

They use an innovative method called “Keymorph Analysis”. The main idea is similar to the popular method of keyword analysis in corpus linguistics. The goal is to find out which grammatical morphemes are significantly more or less frequent in a target corpus in comparison with some general-purpose corpus, which is often called the reference corpus. Because Russian cases have many different functions, the authors perform a careful manual inspection of individual examples in order to interpret the numbers.

The paper shows intriguing deviations of Putin’s speeches from the general language use. First if all, Putin uses both ‘Ukraine’ and ‘NATO’ very infrequently in the Dative and Instrumental cases in comparison with the reference corpus. This means that he does not see them as partners (a function of the Instrumental case) and potential subjects with a capacity to act (a very general meaning of the Dative case). When used in the Dative case, Ukraine is consistently portrayed as the undeserving beneficiary of gifts of territory and favours:

… v 1954 godu Xruščëv začem-to otobral u Rossii Krym i tože podaril ego Ukraine.DAT.
‘…in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine.DAT.’

21.02.2022 See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828

Second, ‘Ukraine’ is underrepresented in the Nominative case, which is the canonical way of expressing the Agent.

Third, Putin overuses the Accusative case with ‘NATO’, often talking about Ukraine’s supposed entry into the alliance.

Finally, the Locative case with ‘Russia’ is underrepresented in Putin’s speech. It usually expresses locations, as the name says. In contrast, ‘Ukraine’ is often used in the Locative case. It is not a geopolitical Agent, just a place of the global conflict between Russia and the West.

One may ask, how stable are these semantic roles in Putin’s propaganda? In order to answer this question, I’ve looked at my corpus of Putin’s speeches from 2012 to now.

The figure below shows the proportions of the different cases of ‘Russia’.

There are some fluctuations in the proportions over the years, but the differences are subtle. In particular, the use of the Instrumental case is slightly higher in 2022 than in the previous years. One of the reasons is that Putin often speaks about the ‘choice’ of the people in the annexed territories to be with Russia.

Ljudi prišhli na referendum i sdelali etot vybor – byt’ so svoej istoričeskoj rodinoj, s Rossiej.INS.

‘People came to the referendum and made their choice to be with their historical homeland, Russia.INS.’

30.09.2022. See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69470.

Also, Russia is the country the West is fighting with:

Vot čto proisxodit v dejstvitelnosti – ne žalejut i borjutsa s Rossijej.INS do poslednego ukrainca.

‘This is what is really happening – they will fight with Russia.INS to the last Ukrainian and will not spare anyone.’

27.10.2022. See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695

In contrast, the use of the Locative case is the lowest since 2012. The largest proportion was observed in 2018, when there was the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Janda et al. argue that the relatively low frequency of the Locative case in Putin’s speeches in February-March 2022 is that Putin represented Russia as Agent more often. While this may be true, I also think that Putin is simply less concerned with what is happening domestically. Also, there are no national achievements to boast and no prominent guests to welcome in Russia, with the exception of the Taliban, Iran’s officials and other outcasts.

As for ‘Ukraine’, there are unfortunately not so many uses in the corpus. Only in 2022 and 2014, the year when the Crimea was annexed, is the total number of different case forms of ‘Ukraine’ above 100. The proportions are, again, quite similar, as you can see in the plot below.

One difference is the higher proportion of the Accusative case in 2022. The most prototypical function of the Accusative case is to express the Patient of an action. In Putin’s 2022 speeches, Ukraine is often represented as a victim of Kyiv’s regime and of the West:

Vy davali prisjagu na vernost’ ukrainiskomu narodu, a ne antinarodnoj xunte, kotoraja grabit Ukrainu.ACC i izdevaetsa nad etim samym narodom.

‘You swore the oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people and not to the junta, the people’s adversary which is plundering Ukraine.ACC and humiliating the Ukrainian people.’

24.02.2022. See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843

Also, Putin keeps repeating that Ukraine is not a real country and that it was created by Russia:

Ne mogu ne vspomnit’ o tom, kak formirovalsa Sovetskij Sojuz, kogda Rossija sozdavala sovremennuju Ukrainu.ACC.

‘I cannot help but go back to the time when the Soviet Union was formed, when Russia was creating modern Ukraine.ACC.’ 

30.09.2022. See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69470

The Accusative case also expresses the destination. In Putin’s 2022 speeches, Ukraine is a destination of weapon supplies from the West:

Ves’ Zapad na nas tam obrušilsa, pytaetsa razvalit’ našu ekonomiku, oružije, pojepripasy milliardami postavjaet na Ukrainu.ACC.

‘The entire West has attacked us, trying to wreck our economy. It is supplying billions worth of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.ACC.’

27.10.2022. See http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695

The scarceness of ‘Ukraine’ in the Instrumental case suggests that Putin does not see it as a partner or even as an equal opponent. In Putin’s recent propaganda, Russia is fighting against the collective West and its “pseudo”-values, as I argued in one of my posts. Or even against Satan, according to Medvedev. The stakes are rising, in an attempt to justify this meaningless and stupid war. I’m genuinely curious what comes after the God vs. Satan level.

To conclude, the numbers show that the semantic roles of Russia and Ukraine have been fluctuating, but they have not changed dramatically. In fact, some experts claim that the nationalist conservative turn in Putin’s discourse (and probably thinking) happened many years ago. Unfortunately, the West preferred to ignore this change, and keep buying cheap oil and gas. Ukrainians and the rest of the world are paying the price now.

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