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While scrolling through a course in Polish, I saw the following sentence:

Wynikiem wyrażenia jest nowa relacja. -- *resultant (of the) expression is (a) new relation

This is not the first time I notice this pattern, where the instrumental is used for the first noun clause instead of the last one. I know Polish word order is somewhat flexible, however my native French and my English are screaming to me that wynikiem wyrażenia is the actual subject of the sentence here (the result of the expression is a new relation).

So what's happening here? Am I being swayed by my other languages, and is nowa relacja the actual subject here? Or is this a construction I'm unaware of?

  • IMO, this question is better asked at Language Learning – jk - Reinstate Monica Jun 30 '18 at 20:54
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    No, it's not the subject. What's happening is that "wynikiem wrażenia" is the topic and "nowa relacja" the focus. It's not a "case inversion", just a marked (inverted, if you wish) information structure. – Atamiri Jun 30 '18 at 21:36
  • I wonder if you could use the nominative here, as in "Wynik wyrażenia jest nowa relacja," cf. "Liczby w danym wyrażeniu są długościami boków trójkąta prostokątnego, a wynik wyrażenia jest równy długości trzeciego boku." Any native Polish speakers here? – Alex B. Jul 2 '18 at 16:14
  • No, you cannot use nominative in the first one, it is improper grammatical structure (zły przypadek) and sounds awful, but in the second case it is ok. If you want to use nominative: "wynik wyrażenia jest nową relacją" or "wynik wyrażenia to nowa relacja" (this one is less commonly used). – Evil May 16 '19 at 5:19
  • I tried adding my own translation, "*resultant (of the) expression is (a) new relation". now it might look as if it was from the textbook. – vectory Oct 5 '19 at 13:29
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TL;DR: Your assumption is correct, "the new relation" is the main subject, while "result of the expression" is the nominal predicate.
It's a remnant of the ancient Essive/Translative grammatical cases that existed in older languages, retained in some modern languages (Uralic family), but is obsolete (converted to Instrumental) in modern Slavonic languages.


What's going on here?

First things first. The entire sentence translates to

The result of the expression is the new relation

For sake of simplicity, let me simplify it to:

{The} result is {the} relation

Thinking in a paradigm of Romance languages, one may think that is here denotes equivalence, hence "result is relation" and "relation is result" are equivalent statements. This happens because the verb to be in English has several essentially different meanings: be_existence, be_location, be_identity/attribute, be_possession, be_to_mean.

Of the listed meanings, we see that only identity/attribute satisfies our need, and the relation is not symmetric: in "light turns red", only light can be the direct subject.

Note: a Nominative-Instrumental switch for nonverbial predicates occurs only with dynamic be_identity verb. Consider this:

  • ona jest nauczycielka — she is a teacher — stative predication (if you really meant to imply that a profession is an integral part of a person) → Nominative;
  • ona jest nauczycielką — she {currently} is a teacher — dynamic predication (over a certain period of time) → Instrumental;
  • she wants to become a teacher — dynamic predication (transition) → Instrumental;
  • she was a teacher — dynamic predication (because it is associated with a certain period of time in the past) → Instrumental;
  • she will be a teacher — dynamic predication (same as above) → Instrumental;

Returning back to the original sentence, "the new relation" is the subject, and "the result of the expression" (a compound nominal predicate) acts as a state from which "the new relation" arises from.

Note: the word order is irrelevant here. IMO, it's just a matter of stylistic: you put the cause first and the effect after.


But why Instrumental, finally?

In all examples above, the subject is (or temporary was, or becomes) in a certain state. Ancient languages had Essive and Translative cases to denote this relation.

Finnish and Estonian have retained it over the course of time, while others, including Polish, have lost these cases, and began using the Instrumental case for encoding the dynamic relation of the Subject and its Nominal/Adjectival predicates.

P.S. I think I should add some references to academic works about the Nominative-Instrumental switch in Polish, but I can't recall any off the top of my mind (TODO).

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    Your answer seems to suggest that an ancestor language had translative and_or essive cases. I don't think that's inherited from PIE though. I you able to elaborate on that history? – Wilson Jul 1 '18 at 14:01
  • Thank you for the detailed and informative answer. I think the confusion mostly stemmed than in English this sentence isn't symmetric and "a new relation" only works as the object (this sentence was about computer science, and is meant to be interpreted as "The result of the (mathematical) expression is a new (database) relation". I'm sorry, that wasn't very clear from the context. But here saying "a new relation is the result of the expression" would sound very foreign to me. – pie3636 Jul 1 '18 at 15:05
  • @Wilson, it must be Proto-Slavic, AD 700 and earlier, not PIE. I definitely will elaborate, as soon as I find some academic papers specific to Polish language. I recall that I read some researches about my native Ukrainian (we have precisely the same phenomenon). Polish is close, yet not the same. – bytebuster Jul 1 '18 at 16:17
  • @pie3636, you can re-formulate this: "an expression causes/builds/makes/establishes a new relation", which sounds natural to me. Translating to Polish, "expression" will be the main Subject (Nominative), while "relation" would be a direct object (Accusative). – bytebuster Jul 1 '18 at 17:07
  • Thanks, that is what I imagined. But then why wouldn't it be "wynik wyrażenia jest nową relacją" instead of the opposite? That's precisely what's bothering me. – pie3636 Jul 2 '18 at 17:48

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