Short-form adjectives in Chernyshevskii
I haven’t posted about an interesting word for a while, and that’s because I’ve gone from one extreme to the other, from Leskov’s rich vocabulary to Chernyshevskii’s. The words that get my attention in What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863) are usually common roots combined with prefixes to make words that aren’t so terribly unusual, but are rare enough in literature that I personally don’t see them often, like урон ‘losses’ from
ронить ронять ‘drop’ [the etymological dictionary entry is under ронить, but of course the modern verb is ронять/уронить – thanks to commenter Nikolai Stavrogin for the correction!] or взвести ‘falsely ascribe a fault to someone’ from вести ‘to lead.’ But one bit of grammar caught my eye, and I wonder if any of you can explain to me how Chernyshevskii’s use of short-form adjectives sounds.
Backing up, there are short- and long-form adjectives in Russian; the short form has been losing ground to the long form over time; but the rules for formal writing were, I think, reasonably stable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The long form had to be used in attributive position (“Those are big shoes”), except in a few set phrases (грабеж среди бела дня). In many cases, either form could be used in predicative position (“Those shoes are big”), with the short form sounding more formal, and native speakers explaining that the long form was attached to an implied noun (Он умный = Он умный человек). When the adjective was restricted (“Those shoes are too big for you”), the short form was preferred even in less formal contexts.
A tricky case for non-native learners is the pronoun вы ‘you (formal),’ when it is semantically singular but grammatically plural. It generally takes a singular long-form adjective (Вы умная = Вы умная женщина), but a plural short-form adjective (Вы очень любезны).
Except when the narrator of What Is to Be Done? is bidding farewell to Mar’ia Aleksevna in chapter 2, section xxiv, he uses both singular and plural short-form adjectives with вы:
Конечно, вы остались бы довольны и этим, потому что вы и не думали никогда претендовать на то, что вы мила или добра […]
Certainly, you ought to be [content], since you never pretended to be agreeable or good.
Конечно, вы беспощадна там, где это нужно для вашей выгоды.
To be sure, you are pitiless when your interest is at stake. (English from Benjamin Tucker’s 1886 translation)
In this same passage, we see the usual plural form with the most common adjectives: вы правы, вы довольны, вы виноваты, вы способны.
A corpus search on ruscorpora.ru confirms that this is odd. There are only 2 results for “вы мила”: this passage and one that doesn’t count, where the name Мила follows вы. That’s not much more than the zero for *“ты милы” and ?*“вы мил,” and much less than the expected forms “ты мил” (23), “ты мила” (16), “вы милы” (18). For “вы добра” all that turns up is the non-standard speech of a foreigner using the short form attributively (вы добра душа) plus two cases where добра is a noun in the genitive singular. There is nothing for *“ты добры” or ?*“вы добр,” and plenty for the expected pattern: “ты добр” (19), “ты добра” (20), “вы добры” (61).
For a moment I wondered if it was a typo, if ты мила и добра had been half-changed to the formal form, but the fact that editors don’t emend мила или добра to милы или добры makes me suspect that’s not the case. I could imagine that it’s a way for the narrator to take a step toward the intimacy of the familiar form without going all the way and switching to ты. It also seems possible that it makes the narrator sound slightly uneducated, or conversely like a pedant. How does it sound to you? And do any other writers use this construction?