Why is it that in many or all Slavic languages e.g. the verbs “need” and “see” mark the direct object with genitive case, whereas the nouns “buy” and “eat” do so with accusative case?

Is it related to the reason that the object of “do not have/see ....” requires a genitive noun but the object of “have/see ....” requires an accusative one?

I wonder if there’s some explanation for this interplay between GEN and ACC.


2 Answers 2


You mix up two notions, subcategorisation and genitive objects. In the case of "need" etc. taking a genitive complement, it's just convention. In Slavic the genitive used to serve as a partitive so some verbs that frequently use partitive objects simply spread the use of the genitive to all objects. The fact that in some Slavic languages the direct object always is in the genitive case when the verb is negated has a similar reason--in the case of negation partitive or other reinforcing particles were often used, but it's a different phenomenon. You can see how the genitive works especially well in Russian where direct objects use the genitive or accusative depending on definiteness.

BTW in which Slavic languages does the verb "see" take a genitive complement (if not negated)?

  • 2
    I would also mention that in Slavic, the masculine nouns distinguish between animate and inanimate, where in the former group the accusative singular case is identical to the genitive singular (while in the latter it is identical to the nominative singular), so it may superficially appear that some verbs with direct object are followed by genitive while in fact it is accusative (and hence perhaps that "genitive" after "see").
    – Eleshar
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 20:52
  • @Eleshar Yes, maybe the genitive/accusative syncretism is the problem here.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 0:07

Because the genitive case expresses also parts, like 'some, any'. I can give you examples from Croatian (BCMS):

Popio sam vode. Drink.perf.past.masc aux.1.sg water.gen.sg I drank (some) water.

Popio sam vodu. Drink.perf.past.masc aux.1.sg water.acc.sg I drank (the) water.

The second sentence implies totality. You drank the water (in the glass). The first one implies some unknown quantity.

That's why in negative sentences, objects were often in genitive in older stages of Slavic, and often still are. You don't have ANY money. The acc would imply you don't have THE money (or A money, but this is not a real option). But gen can be generalized to all objects. In older literature you can read:

Djevojke nije vidio girl.gen aux.neg.3.sg see.past.masc.sg He didn't see any/some (also: the) girl

Why is genitive connected with 'some, any'? There are various hypotheses. It might be Uralic influence, for example, where the partitive case has a similar use.

It also explains 'need' + gen. You often need SOME water, SOME money. From such frequent use of the verb with gen it can be generalized to all objects of 'need'.

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