TOPIC: Verbal Aspect: Basic Notions
LETTER

Dear RLM,
Most of my teachers have been native speakers and, frankly, they've been a "tad lacking" when it comes to explaining certain grammatical concepts. Where I'm most confused is aspect in Russian. I understand the mechanics - which verbs are which and how to form them. It's the "idea of aspect." Natives get it right every time and don't seem to understand why we students have such a hard time with it. Can you offer some guidance?


MENTOR REPLY

Gentle Linguist,

You bet your aspect! I can offer some guidance, but the key to aspect in Russian, as well as to most other non-English concepts, is exposure. Read! Read! Read! Read Russian texts and read analytically, always asking "why?" - Why is the imperfective being used in this context? Why the perfective in this context?

Having lectured you on reading and exposing yourself, I must say that I can relate to your problem. I had one native teacher, a former philosophy professor, who tried to explain aspect with quotations from Dostoevsky. The lectures went something like this:

"Class, let us read from Fyodor Mikhailovich's The Idiot:

Колумб был счастлив не тогда, когда открыл Америку,
а когда открывал ее.

"What is the innocent youth, Ippolit, his lungs ravaged by consumption, trying to say with this poignant aspectual comparison? What? No one knows? Why it is that the hope and joy that Columbus experienced during his daring journey into the unknown were much greater than the emotions that he felt at his jouney's end, his discovery of America!
"What the dying Ippolit is saying as he struggles for his every breath is that it is the journey of life, the adventure of living, that carries happiness and existential meaning! Death is the end of that process! Any questions on aspect?"

Needless to say, no one in the class had any questions but all of us developed a very negative sense of the perfective. I hope the explanations below aren't as depressing.

* * *

ASPECT

Let's start by trying to get into the head of native Russian speakers. When it comes to verbs or verbal actions, Russians, like English speakers, think in terms of tense: past, present and future, but at the same time they also think in terms of aspect: imperfective/perfective. I use the term "think" very loosely - they really don't "think," they're conditioned by their life's experience to catagorize instantly and divide all verbal actions aspectually into those that are imperfective and those that are perfective. Let's look at these concepts in greater detail.

IMPERFECTIVE

It should be stressed at the outset that to the Russian mind, the imperfective aspect reflects the basic meaning of a verb. In other words, if you ask a Russian, how do you say, "to eat," "to walk," "to swim," and the like. The answer will be the imperfective form: есть, ходить, плавать.
Why? Because imperfective verbs are "pure and unmarked," that is, they denote verbal actions that are continuous, or better yet, actions that have no beginning or end.

PERFECTIVE


The action expressed by the perfective aspect is not "pure or continuous" but somehow "marked or limited," meaning that perfective verbal actions have one of the following "markings or limitations:"

1. A beginning. (Such verbs are termed "inceptive.")
2.An end. (These verbs are called "resultative.")
3. The action is limited by time. (These are called "durative".)
4. The action occurs one time. (The term is "semelfactive.")

* * *

We can illustrate these notions as follows:

IMPERFECTIVE
<--------------->
"no beginning or end"

Где-то вдали кричал ребенок.
"Somewhere in the distance a child was crying."

Когда я ночью жду ее прихода,
Жизнь, кажется, висит на волоске.

"When in the night I wait for her arrival,
My life, it seems, is hanging by a hair."


И действительно, кто будет продолжать реформы, кто будет мирить банкиров и защищать реформаторов?
"And, indeed, who will continue the reforms, who will reconcile the bankers and defend the reformers?"

* * *

PERFECTIVE

1. inceptive: marked by a beginning
|--------------->

Телефон вдруг зазвонил!
"The telephone suddenly rang!"

Я закричу если ты меня тронишь!
"I'll scream if you touch me!"


2. resultative: marked by an end
--------------->|

Она закрыла глаза и упала на пол.
"She closed her eyes and fell to the floor."

Я позвоню ему завтра.
"I'll call him tomorrow."


3. durative: action performed for limited time.
|<--->|

Повздыхали, поплакали, да пошли, у кого еще были силы, мостить дорогу.
"They briefly sighed and wept and then those who still had the strength went off to pave the road."

Куда идешь? Посидим, потолкуем и узнаем, кто что знает.
"Where are you going. Let's sit a while and chat and find out who knows what."


4. semelfactive: "a one time action"

|<-------1------>|


Вдруг полицейский нам крикнул: "Документы!"
"Suddenly the policeman yelled to us: 'Your documents!'"

Оставь меня. Я скоро встану.
"Leave me alone! I'll get up soon."

* * *

TENSE and ASPECT

Now this could cause some serious damage to a non-Russian mind, so listen carefully:

The notions that define verbs as perfectives
are all mutually exclusive with the present tense
.

"What the...?" Okay, let me put it another way: perfective verbs, verbs in which the verbal action is somehow "marked or limited" - by a beginning, an end, by time, or by a one time occurance:

  • Can ONLY take place in the past or future tenses.
  • They CANNOT take place in the present tense!

    And so in Russian:

  • ONLY imperfective verbs can be used to express the present tense.

    * * *

    Think about it:

    Она крикнула!
    "She yelled!"
    Had a beginning, an end and was "one time."

    Она крикнет!
    "She'll yell!"
    Will have a beginning and end, and be one time.

    Can't we say "She is yelling"?

    You bet your aspect ! But "is yelling" denotes a "continuous action with no beginning or end." Thus it is an imperfective notion. That's what was meant by the above statement: only imperfective verbs may be used in the present tense.

    So what have we learned?

    In Russian, aspect is to a certain degree intertwined with tense. Consequently, while Russians do think in terms of tense, they first think in terms of aspect.

    Let's conclude where we started: Read! Read! Read! Read Russian texts and read analytically, always asking "why?" - Why is the imperfective being used in this context? Why the perfective in this context? In time, it will start making sense.

    У меня заболела (inceptive perfective) голова!

    Peace,
    The RLM

    LINKS:

    For more information on Russian Verbal Aspect, see the discussions offered by Professor Robert Beard of Bucknell University ("http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/language/aspect.html"),
    and Professor George Mitrevski of Auburn University ("http://www.auburn.edu/~mitrege/RWT/tutorials/0021aspect-intro.html").
    For those of you who can't get enough of aspect, you may want to read Benjamin Sher's essay "Russian Aspectual Decision-Making" ("http://www.websher.net/srl/asp.html").