RUSSIAN ASPECTUAL DECISION-MAKING
by Benjamin Sher
[See Appendices for Specific Issues]
[Latest version: 10-25-2005]
So how does a Russian make an aspectual decision?
We will consider a specific example in a moment. But before we do that, let’s look at an analogy from English.
A hostess at a dinner party is welcoming her guests. There is a knock at the door. It’s Mr. Smith. The hostess opens the door. The following exchange takes place:
HOSTESS: “Good evening, Mr. Smith. Please remove your coat.”
GUEST: “Good evening, Madame. I’ll be glad to take off my coat.”
Now consider the reverse:
HOSTESS: “Good evening, Mr. Smith. Please take off your coat.”
GUEST: “Good evening, Madame. I’ll be glad to remove my coat.”
Naturally, there are two more options:
HOSTESS: “Good evening, Mr. Smith. Please remove your coat.”
GUEST: “Good evening, Madame. I’ll be glad to remove my coat.”
HOSTESS: “Good evening, Mr. Smith. Please take off your coat.”
GUEST: “Good evening, Madame. I’ll be glad to take off my coat.”
We may omit discussion of Options C and D for the purposes of this discussion. It is Options A and B that concern us and that I hope will shed light on how the Russian aspects work.
Few of us who are native speakers would ever have occasion to stop and mull over such distinctions as “Please remove your coat” and “Please take off your coat”. Such a distinction has been hard-wired into us as children. Yet, such a distinction not only exists and presents a serious hurdle to a foreigner learning English. As a matter of fact, I was totally unaware of this distinction on an analytical level until I heard a Russian repeatedly misuse it in speech. Only then did I realize that there was a problem.
I’d like to suggest that the distinction between “take off your coat” and “remove your coat” is an aspectual one. It may not be quite the same as the distinction between an aspectual pair of Russian verbs. But, for our purposes, that is, to help the student get a handle on this absolutely crucial feature of Russian, it will more than do.
As I read it, “Please remove your coat” focuses on the empirical event (known in most Russian textbooks by the misleading term “result of the action”), while “Please take off your coat” focuses on the action, that is the pure action irrespective of result or empirical circumstances. We could therefore argue that “remove your coat” is perfective (empirical) and “take off your coat” is imperfective (transcendental). Please see below for a full discussion of these terms. Thus, in our example above, when the hostess says: “Please remove your coat”, she is thinking of the inappropriateness of wearing a coat indoors. On the other hand, when she says: “Please take off your coat”, she is no doubt thinking of the action itself. This becomes quite apparent if she notices that the guest is having a problem with his coat and offers to help him: “Please let me help you take off your coat.” Naturally, she could also say: “Please let me help you remove your coat.” But, most likely, the context would favor the “imperfective” “take off your coat”.
This rough analogy helps us to understand that when dealing with a Russian aspectual pair, we usually have the option of going with one or another aspect, that this choice is determined by the context and, finally, that this “context” is NOT arbitrary any more than the choice between “remove your coat” and “take off your coat” is arbitrary. It is subtle, often extraordinarily subtle, both as to morphology and usage, and, while “natural” to a native, it demands an analytical approach on the part of a student of Russian to process it properly as a reader and listener. Of course, to also master it as a speaker or writer is a much taller order simply because language is not mechanical: there are many cases where a specific option, i.e. perfective or imperfective, is possible theoretically but not in actual practice. The ultimate reason is that a language may be considered essentially one seamless idiom. And this idiom is only partially governed by the rationality of grammatical rules. The rest is “irrational” or “arational”, accounting for innumerable “exceptions”, in Russian as in every language. Yet, the “logic” of these “irrational” exceptions can still be understood better if we understand them in terms of the underlying principles of aspectual usage and the aspectual morphology with which it is inextricably bound up.
Now let’s look at a classic example of aspectual usage: a passage from Panteleev’s short story “Chestnoe slovo”. The narrator walks into a park, where he sees a little boy standing and crying. The narrator asks him why he is crying and what he is doing there in the first place. The boy says that he had been playing war games with some older boys, who told him that he was a sergeant and made him swear not to abandon his post until told to do so by his superior. He had given his word of honor that he would not abandon his post under any circumstances. Then, the older boys forgot all about him and went home. But, mindful of his duty and oath, he would not go home. He stayed there in the dark, cold and hungry. The narrator told him to go home, but the boy refused, arguing that he was a civilian and thus had no authority to order him to do so. So, wishing to help the boy, the narrator went out into the street to look for an officer. For a long while, he could not find one. But at last, catching a glimpse of a man in a military uniform, he rushes back with him into the park.
Ya uzhe KHOTEL [perf: zakhotel] nesolono khlebavshi VOZVRASHCHAT’SIA [perf: vernut’sia] v sad, kak vdrug uvidel -– za uglom, na tramvainoi ostanovke -– zashchitnuyu komandirskuyu furazhku s sinim kavaleriiskim okolyshem. Kazhetsia, eshche nikogda v zhizni ya tak ne RADOVALSIA [imperf], kak OBRADOVALSIA [perf] v etu minutu. Slomia golovu ya pobezhal k ostanovke. I vdrug, ne uspel dobezhat’, vizhu -– k ostanovke podkhodit tramvai, i komandir, molodoi kavaleriiskii maior, vmeste s ostal’noi publikoi sobiraetsia PROTISKIVAT’SIA [perf: protisnut’sia] v vagon.
[Frustrated, I was about to return to the park, when suddenly I saw –- out of the corner my eye, at the tram stop -- the peaked hat of a commanding officer. Its color was khaki and it was fringed by a blue cavalry cap-band. I had never in my life, it seemed, been so happy as I was at that minute. I ran at breakneck speed to the tram stop. And, suddenly, before I had even reached it, I saw a tram approaching. And I saw that the commanding officer, a young cavalry Major, was about to push his way onto the tram along with the rest of the passengers.]
Note the changes of aspects and the fact that the aspectual decision-making is determined more by the speaker creating a context than by the context itself. I have indicated the optional choices in italics and in brackets.
I. KHOTEL — The imperfective of “to want”, would, in this case, be best translated as: “was about to” or “intended to”. If the speaker had wanted to indicate a specific, formed, crystallized desire, an empirical “event”, which one could call a mental “thing”, he would have used “zakhotel”. This common switch from imperfective to perfective and back depends less on a given context than on the speaker’s attitude. As his attitude changes, so does the context. By choosing the imperfective “khotel“, the speaker wishes to express an unformed desire or intention, pure volition, that is, the speaker creates a context just as much as he accomodates an existing one. It’s a dynamic give and take. And that is why in actual real time conversation, we’ll often hear Russian speakers switching aspects in a way that seems to make no sense to us. Our challenge is to see the action from the point of view of their mind (cause), not from the point of view of their utterances (effect). Of course, the choice of “zakhotel” would have consequences for the rest of the sentence. That again would depend on the point of view of the speaker. In other words, “zakhotel”, like “khotel” could be followed by either the perfective or imperfective infinitive.
By way of digression, every Russian textbook will tell you that the perfective is limited to the past and future. But how misleading and wrong this is! No doubt even an inquisitive first semester student of Russian will notice that aspectual choices are not limited to just the past and future but also to the present in the case of helping verbs. So, in addition to the exceedingly complex business of the morphology of verbs in the finite and infinitive we also have to deal with the matter of aspectual choice for all voices and all tenses. This is such a common and all-pervasive phenomenon that no one seems to notice it. What aspect should follow “khotel”? Perfective or Imperfective? What about “zakhotel”? Perfective or Imperfective? And there you have the answer. The fiendishly difficult task of tuning in to aspectual usage, of making or, more likely, intuiting aspectual decisions if only as reader or listener, is just as true in the present tense as in the other tenses when dealing with helping verbs like “khotet’/zakhotet’”, “pomogat’/pomoch’”, “sobirat’sia’/sobrat’sia’”, “pytat’sia/popytat’sia” etc. And, in each case, the speaker not only has to choose between a perfective and an imperfective infinitive as an object for that helping verb (“Ya emu pomog eto sdelat’”, “Ya emu pomog eto delat’”) but also between the perfective and imperfective aspects of the helping verbs themselves (“Ya emu pomog eto sdelat’/delat’”, “Ya emu pomogal eto sdelat’/delat’”. (See examples below). And, once again, the answer to understanding aspectual usage is not a formula, not a static list of contexts but an actual intuitive grasp of how aspects work behind the scenes, i.e. in the mind of the speaker. It may seem automatic for the native in the sense that it has been wired into him since he or she first learned to speak or even before (just as using tenses and articles is true for English users), but for us foreigners the task is to retrace the steps by reenacting the mental process involved. Only then can we deal with ANY AND ALL aspectual situations, i.e. be able to process them in terms of principle of binary choice.
II. VOZVRASHCHAT’SIA – Both vozvrashchat’sia (imperfective) and vernut’sia (perfective) are possible. You can say: “khotel vozvrashchat’sia” and “khotel vernut’sia”. In fact, one would expect the latter because the speaker seems to have the specific act of return clearly in mind: he was about to give up and return to the park. Thus, the empirical “event” of returning seems to have already crystallized in his mind. So, why is the narrator resorting to the imperfective infinitive object of “khotel”: “Ya uzhe khotel vozvrashchat’sia v sad”? This is the kind of situation that is a key to understanding how aspectual decisions are made. By situation I do not mean a static context, a formula, an entry in some vast encyclopedia of aspectual situations. None of this will work. Why? Because the real reason the speaker uses the unexpected imperfective here is that he is indicating that the “return” is, at this point in the action, merely a possibility, a pure, mental state. You could also interpret it to mean that the return is seen as an activity rather than a result. The speaker is essentially saying that he was about to engage in the pure activity of returning, i.e. that he was contemplating it in his mind rather than undertaking a specific, pre-defined plan of action. But, since both aspects are possible and the perfective is normally more likely, the use of the imperfective is best explained as a deliberate change of perspective on the part of the speaker. That is, the speaker is not merely responding to a given situation or context. He is creating it himself and forcing the listener or reader to follow him. If the reader fails to tune in, fails to catch this nuance, that is a loss for him. But, you might say, why bother? Isn’t the distinction really trivial? Well, in my opinion, no linguistic distinction is ever trivial except to foreigners. We all know the joke about the English translator who caused a scandal by translating the French “Je demande” as “I demand” instead of the obvious “I request”. Same difference here.
III. RADOVALSIA vs. OBRADOVALSIA.
This is another classic example of aspectual switching and right in the same sentence. This should not be difficult to understand. The use of radovalsia is mandated not by the situation itself as such as by the speaker’s viewpoint. He compares the concrete, empirical joy he feels upon finding the officer (kak obradovalsia v etu minutu) with the pure experience of joy, expressed in the negative (nikogda tak ne radovalsia). But, once again, we could think of the following sentence: “Ya ni razu ne obradovalsia etomu ran’she, a teper’ ya radovalsia.” Please note that the aspects have been reversed in this optional case: the “if” clause now uses the perfective, while the subsequent “then” clause uses the imperfective. Once again, we see how rich and complex aspectual usage is in practice. Only by going to the source, to the speaker and his point of view, can we tune in properly to the way aspects express his or her linguistic effects. It is the speaker who determines how he will play the rules of the game. He may not be able to change certain basic rules (such as the morphology and syntax of the words in question) but he determines, based on his intention and point of view, how to use them as he sees fit.
IV. PROTISKIVAT’SIA vs. PROTISNUT’SIA
The speaker tells us that the officer was about to board the tram or rather push his way onto it (maior sobiraetsia protiskivat’sia v vagon). However, once again, the speaker could have used the perfective form of the infinitive (protisnut’sia) for the object of his auxiliary verb (sobiraetsia): “maior sobiraetsia protisnut’sia v vagon”. So, what’s the reason for making such a switch? How does this fit in with our general explanation? What’s really going on here? Here is my guess: I believe that the Major himself would have just said: “Ya sobirayus’ protisnut’sia v vagon” because he would most likely have not dwelt on the activity, but the narrator is probably focussing on the difficulties of climbing onto the tram due to the crowds, in which case it would be too late to keep the Major from boarding.
As if this is not enough, one could also switch to the past tense, which would result in the following combinations of verbs:
Maior sobiral’sia protiskivat’sia v vagon.
Maior sobral’sia protiskivat’sia v vagon.
Maior sobiral’sia protisnut’sia v vagon.
Maior sobral’sia protisnut’sia v vagon.
Once again, the key to understanding what is going on is to follow aspectual usage to its source, that is, to the speaker’s intention. The speaker will move from context to context and, where necessary, create new contexts. Since humans are not robots mouthing formulas, the only way to follow this kind of subtle, creative usage is to follow the speaker’s purpose and not the context itself. The only way to follow the kaleidoscope of Russian aspectual usage is to go behind the scene and imagine the kaleidoscope, so to speak, from the point of view of the speaker “projecting” it, to see him or her manipulating the aspects in terms of his or her larger purpose. Only then does the whole thing make sense. See also Appendix F: “Irak ne zakhotel razoruzhat’sia”.
Is aspectual decision-making a question of morphology? Yes, to some extent, but it is something fundamentally different, unique. It is this that so often mystifies us.
Is aspectual decision-making based on some sort of Imperfective-Perfective continuum? Is it based on number (single or frequentative)? Is it based on verbal mood? Is it subjective or does it obey iron-clad grammatical laws? Or does it depend upon the weather?
We have all agonized over this fascinating but profoundly elusive distinction, and yet the question remains: how does a Russian implement an exceedingly complex aspectual system (conditioned by morphological, grammatical, semantic, syntactic and stylistic variables) with such instantaneous and commanding certitude? And not once but several times in each sentence? And, of course, entirely intuitively.
So much so that when we ask Russians (as all of us no doubt have) just how they do it, they will usually, after some prodding, throw up their arms in despair and say: “Who knows?” A Russian’s attempt to explain his aspectual decision-making is just as clumsy and misleading, I believe, as a native English speaker’s attempt would be to explain his decision-making relative to articles (not just a choice between two articles, that is, “a/n” and “the” but in fact a choice between three options (see below). We make these distinctions perfectly but do we really know why? I would like to offer my modest contribution to this pivotal question of Russian aspectual usage in the form of this brief theoretical/practical essay.
This is an attempt to get to the heart of Russian aspectual decision-making from the point of view of a foreign, i.e. non-Slavic, student. Though I am not a professional linguist (in the sense of the specialized field of linguistics), I am offeing this essay as the fruit of over two decades of reading, translating, listening and research in Russian. I was originally inspired by Rassudova’s study of Russian aspects, which, however brilliant in its detail, seems, in my opinion, to lack philosophic focus. Finally, this essay contains much repetition, hopefully combined with much variation. While this may be regarded as a defect in a scholarly paper, I hope you will see this as more of a feature in this brief study that is designed more as a handbook for Russian students.
As a Russian scholar and translator, I have been profoundly dismayed to discover fundamental misconceptions about Russian aspectual usage by students, faculty and scholars alike. All too often, they are only dimly aware of the true complexity of aspectual usage or they equate a command of aspectual morphology with a command of aspectual usage or else they provide inadequate derivative theories about aspectual usage without confronting the philosophical issue from which these theories spring. A good illustration of this naivete is provided by Michael Girsdansky, who in his otherwise intelligent discussion of Russian aspects in The Adventure of Language writes:
“We have dwelt at such length on the idiosyncrasies of the Slavic verb because it has become an article of faith among many who have been badly burned while trying to learn Russian or one of its cousins that the action-words of Eastern Europe represent an all but insuperable obstacle to learning. A glance at Latin, Greek, French or Spanish grammar should be enough to call that statement into question. With few exceptions, the Slavic verb is a simpler creature than its Western counterpart, and should present no surpassing difficulty provided the student masters the principle of aspect.” (p. 207).
To which the proper response should be, in my opinion: provided the student masters BOTH the principle of aspect AND its implementation. Without a firm grasp of the principle of aspect (concept), implementation would be a chaotic nightmare. Similarly, without the long and torturous experience of implementing the aspectual principle (percepts) in all of its morphological and syntactical richness, a mastery of the principle of aspect would lead nowhere. If it were merely a question of learning a principle, like a mathematical equation, surely the best and the brightest of American and British Slavicists would not have felt a need to refer to the “all but insuperable obstacle to learning” that Russian verbs, that is, Russian verbal aspects, present.
There is a famous saying about the difficulties of playing Mozart’s music: “It’s a piece of cake for a child but supremely difficult for an adult.” This applies — with an ironic twist — no less to a student of Russian aspectual usage, even when applied only to the “passive” mode of reading or listening.
Let us continue by asking: What is the difference between the following two aspectual versions of one of the most ordinary of Russian questions:
Chto nam delat’? (Imperfective) — What are we to do?
Chto nam sdelat’? (Perfective) — What are we to do?
Obviously, by virtue of being words, the verbs “delat’” and “sdelat’” are concepts to be distinguished from the thousands of other aspectual pairs of the Russian vocabulary. In this case, they are in the infinitive mode instead of the finite, participial or gerundive, etc. If we cannot understand the basic principle governing aspectual decision-making here, we assuredly never will elsewhere. So what’s the bottom line?
The fundamental philosophical distinction, as I see it, is that “delat’” in the above example is a concept that refers to both everything and nothing: that is, it refers to nothing but itself. The speaker asks: “What are we to do?” That is, of the infinite possibilities before us, which are we to choose? The question is asked as pure possibility, and the answer given is one of pure or hypothetical or general possibility. No reference is made to real situations or empirical circumstances or conditions as they pertain to “doing” anything specific as such, whether a single occurrence or multiple occurrences. Of course, the speaker or his interlocutor might respond with either the imperfective (“Nyriat’ v vodu” — We ought to dive into the water) or the perfective (“Nyrnut’ v vodu” — We ought to dive into the water). Both may be translated alike into English.
But, precisely because it can mean “dive” anywhere or nowhere, all the time or never, “nyriat’” allows us to focus on the notion of “diving” itself.
This “emptiness” of the concept “nyriat’” is what makes it possible for us, philosophically and practically speaking, to employ the verb, among others,
A) As pure action, known also as pure fact (rather than as an empirical fact). You could even compare the imperfective to an absolute idea or Platonic form in contrast to its material realization. All other uses of the imperfective are built on or derivates from this fundamental concept. See Appendix C for a full discussion.
B) To indicate a pure process (diving as an activity that cannot be apprehended by the senses but that we nevertheless assume to somehow exist) as opposed to an empirical activity that involves change (diving as a series of empirical “snapshots,” where each snapshot can be considered a change of state). This is usually called “process” and is indeed imperfective but it does not encompass the whole of the imperfective’s uses but only one part of it. Many people confuse it with the whole of the imperfective and therefore find themselves thoroughly confused by other uses of the imperfective.
Sometimes a “movie” is contrasted to the empirical “frames” that make up the “movie” of perception. Technically speaking, though, the movie itself, that is, the process projected onto the screen of our minds is as much an empirical experience as the snapshot “frames” of which it is composed. What is not empirical is the imagination that “projects” them. It is the imagination that makes it possible for us to experience this “process” as if it were an activity rather than a sequence of frames put into motion by the mind.
Constructions such as “on delal” (he was doing) or “on pel” (he was singing) are empirical in their content but ultimately transcendental in their nature. That is why they demand the imperfective aspect. They are imperfective not in the sense that they are “incomplete” but, on the contrary, in the sense that they are absolutely complete, an act of pure mind, of pure imagination that connects and bridges them. That is a key reason why the aspects are not part of a continuum but rather mutually exclusive binary categories, and it is this on/off switch, I believe, that is wired into the Russian from early childhood and must be recreated empathetically by the Anglo-American students of Russian.
“On spel pesniu” (“he sang a song” – perfective) indicates a single act of singing seen by the narrator as one individual, separate event in a narrative of other events (we remember the act of singing after it has ended as an event), while “on pel pesniu” (“he sang or was singing a song” – imperfective) indicates a unitary experience of singing, i.e. experiencing it not as an event but as a process. The same is true in the plural: “on spel pesni” (perf) allows us to see the acts of singing as discrete events (say, at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 p.m. on Friday, 12 noon on Saturday), while “on pel pesni” allows us to see all these experiences as if they formed one whole unitary process. In reality both aspects are fictive categories. On that see below.
C) To indicate attempted action, e.g., imperfective ob”iasnial (“he tried to explain”) vs. action as event, e.g., perfective ob”iasnil (“he explained”). See Appendix I for a full discussion.
D) To indicate habitual action (imperfective frequentative) as opposed to recurring but non-habitual empirical actions viewed as events at certain specific times and places (empirical frequentative). In other words, “delat’” does NOT imply any empirical data or sensation or perception at all, whether referring to a single occurrence or plural occurrences. Similarly, “sdelat’” always implies empirical sensations, perceptions, situations and circumstances, whether referring to a single occurrence or to multiple occurrences.
There are many uses of the imperfective (as there are of the perfective). I have mentioned above only some of the major one. My purpose in doing so was to show that all these uses, even the odd or “illogical” ones, embody or implement the basic concept of the imperfective as pure action, as a transcendental act of the imagination opposed to the material, empirical perfective.
I do not wish to make too much of the Platonic analogy hinted at earlier. But it is fruitful to consider the relationship between the aspects in Platonic terms. The Platonic philosophy has often been called a two-storied world, one consisting of pure absolute and timeless ideas, the other consisting of empirical perceptions. One of the great questions raised by scholars of Plato is how the two worlds, the two spheres interact. Let us confine ourselves in this analogy to one simple observation: namely, that whatever the ultimate relationship between the two aspects, they each inhabit a different world, one a world of absolutes, the other a world of perception. And to live in this world and to know it one must make use of both. In this respect, aspect is most likely a feature of languages in general even if some or most do not articulate this distinction in the universal and morphologically complex way that Russian does.
The distinction or conflict or choice between the aspects is mutually exclusive. It is a binary choice, much as 0 and 1 are the basis for the infinitely complex structures of computer operations. (See below) Thus, “On khorosho pel pesniu” (singular imperfective) or “On khorosho pel pesni” (He sang the song (or songs) well — Impf) are distinguished by number alone. They remain identical as far as aspectual usage itself is concerned.
Similarly, “On khorosho spel pesniu” and “On khorosho spel pesni” (Perf) are also identical as far as aspectual usage is concerned. Number itself, contrary to popular belief, has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with aspect as such. Rather, “On khorosho pel pesniu (pesni)” refers to singing as a pure concept, both everything and nothing, and allows us to use it to represent the many subtle meanings associated with the imperfective. Similarly, “On khorosho spel pesniu (pesni)” always implies perceptions, situations, empirical sensations, in short, empirical change.
Now let’s complicate the matter a bit:
1a) Chto nam delat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchit’ zarplatu?
1b) Chto name delat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchat’ zarplatu?
2a) Chto nam sdelat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchit’ zarplatu?
2b) Chto nam sdelat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchat’ zarplatu?
This looks considerably more complex than our initial example, yet actual Russian aspectual usage, based on an exceedingly complex morphological foundation and including within its compass the secondary “aspectual” system of the verbs of motion, is infinitely richer and more subtle still. It is, to boot, all-pervasive and involves morphological, semantic, syntactical and stylistic features that demand immediate aspectual decision-making in nearly every phrase, clause or sentence of Russian speech or writing.
Yet, whether the distinction is simple or subtle, it all flows from the same basic principle: that aspect is a unique, philosophical and grammatical phenomenon that must never be mistaken for any other equally unique phenomenon (such as tense or mood or part of speech). The second, purpose clause of each of the above sentences follows the same logic as the main clause: “poluchat’ zarplatu” (to receive one’s salary — Impf) or “poluchit’ zarplatu” (to receive one’s salary — Perf) are distinguished fundamentally in accordance with the same basic principles that distinguish “delat’” and “sdelat’”.
Please note that the explanations below are grouped according to the aspect of the purpose clause: the first pair (1a and 2a) focus on the Perfective “chtoby…” purpose clause, while the second pair (1b and 2b) focus on the Imperfective “chtoby…” purpose clause.
1a) “Chto nam delat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchit’ zarplatu?” asks: Which of the many possible, theoretical or general options available to us by which we may, in a real, practical sense, receive our salary, shall we choose from?
2a) “Chto nam sdelat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchit’ zarplatu?” asks: Which of the many empirical, practical options available to us by which we may, under these specific, empirical circumstances, receive our salary, shall we choose from?
1b) “Chto nam delat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchat’ zarplatu?” asks: Which of the many possible, theoretical or general options available to us by which we may, in a habitual, general or pure sense, receive our salary, shall we choose from?
2b) “Chto name sdelat’ dlia togo, chtoby poluchat’ zarplatu?” asks: Which of the many empirical, practical options by which we may, in a habitual, general or pure sense, receive our salary, shall we choose from?
The important thing is not only to understand the principle of mutually exclusive, binary choice at the heart of aspectual usage but to IMPLEMENT it in one’s reading and listening and writing. There is no way that one can just make an intuitive leap from the principle to actual usage (unless, of course, you are lucky enough to have learned this principle as a Russian child) if for no other reason than the need to perceive these distinctions in the kaleidoscope of Russian morphological, semantic, syntactic and stylistic usage. To try to skip this step, even if it takes many years of arduous and meticulous observation and study, is tantamount to a pianist, who, though not endowed with perfect pitch, tries to perform a complex sonata by watching the master play without actually doing it in practice.
I would like to suggest a theoretical solution to the elusive problem of the Russian aspects by considering the Russian language from the standpoint of an artistic rather than a scientific model.
A merely conversational approach, I’m convinced, is woefully inadequate to our understanding of the aspects.
No less inadequate, I believe, is a scientific, especially, statistical methodology.
To isolate the basic philosophical problem in question, I’ve chosen to ignore other elements of Russian grammar such as morphology, semantics, syntax, sub-aspects and quasi-aspects, verbs of motion, special negative constructions, moods, tenses, modes (infinitives, gerunds, etc.), prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc.
Finally, one has to always bear in mind that aspectual usage in Russian is all-pervasive, that it affects not only the principal verb but also the infinitive complement of an auxiliary verb, as in the following typical example: “On (za)khotel sygrat’(igrat’) russkuyu pesnyu” ["He wanted to play a Russian song"].
I’ve also ignored analogous phenomena in English, especially relative to the perfect tenses, where an “aspectual” character can be discerned in certain situations, e.g. “I have done” (Perf) vs. “I have been doing” (IMPF).
While these factors obviously influence aspectual usage, they cannot in themselves help us understand a feature unique to the aspects alone.
In her well-known work on the aspects (Aspectual Usage In Modern Russian, Moscow: Russkii Yazyk, 1984), Prof. O. Perf. Rassudova considers the lexical/ semantic context in terms of the speaker’s aspectual choice. She demonstrates the subtle nature of that choice by isolating, for instance, the following pairs of distinctions (where Perf stands for the perfective and IMPF for the imperfective):
The concrete/factual Perf vs. the concrete/processual IMPF.
The specific factual Perf vs. the general factual IMPF.
The sporadic repetitive Perf vs. the regularly repetitive IMPF.
Prof. Rassudova points out brilliantly, for example, the wonderful (and maddeningly subtle) distinction in negative constructions, where the concrete factual “Ya ne spel” (Perf—”I didn’t sing”) is ever so close in its meaning to the general fact “Ya ne pel” (IMPF—”I didn’t sing”). It is customary to consider these negative sentences, like their affirmative counterparts, as occupying two points on an aspectual continuum.
I firmly disagree.
No matter how inconsequential the distinction between “Ya ne spel” and “Ya ne pel” may seem, no matter how arbitrary its usage may appear to be, never shall the twain meet.
These two sentences, I submit, are no closer to each other than two planets that appear to overlap during an eclipse. That is so because these two sentences travel along fundamentally different aspectual (as well as, of course, morphological) orbits.
Of course, any Russian text or conversation is always dynamic, not static. A Russian will switch from one aspect to another depending on the context. But, once again, this does not mean that it is merely the context that determines the choice of aspect. If this were so, you could just learn a whole set of contexts and apply the aspects mechanically, that is, statically. But not only would such a list of contexts have to be vast, it would also completely miss the point.
The Russian speaker switches from one aspect to another much as English speakers switch from one tense to another, i.e. not simply because of the context but because of his or her rhetorical purpose. That is, not only does context determine the speaker’s aspectual choice, but the speaker’s orientation similarly and more decisively determines the choice of aspect for any given context. Therefore, the reader or listener must not so much try to detect the context as try to grasp the principle of aspectual choice that lies behind that context. That is why we often see a speaker switch from one aspect to another in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. The context remains the same, but the speaker’s purpose, orientation changes and therefore he or she will apply the basic binary principle of aspectual choice differently.
For instance, the change from “sdelat’” to “delat’” or vice-versa may originate not only from a changed context but from the speaker’s changed attitude to the same context. The decision is binary and exclusive, but it can originate as much with the speaker as the context. In fact, ultimately, you could even say that the switch always reflects the speaker’s change of attitude, i.e. that the principle of aspectual choice precedes its actual use. In other words, aspectual choice is a dynamic affair, not a static one.
The evidence for this is overwhelming in the sense that in almost every case, the speaker can switch aspects if he or she wishes to. You can take almost any page of Russian text and see numerous instances where you could change the aspects, e.g., from “vyshlo” to “vykhodilo” (it so happened that), from “Ya pytalsia pomoch’ yemu” to “Ya pytalsia pomogat’ emu” or to “Ya popytalsia pomoch’ yemu” or “Ya popytalsia pomogat’ yemu (I tried to help him). These suble variations, though, generally speaking, translated identically, are NOT interchangeable and offer a supreme test for the student. Of course, these choices can be made authoritatively only by a native speaker. He or she alone knows how to express his or her aspectual purpose IDIOMATICALLY. As foreigners, we should always be sensitive to changes as they are made and never assume that they are arbitrary or, even worse, that the changes are really insignificant or trivial. They are NOT. But, most importantly, the Russian native will switch aspects not necessarily in response to a particular given context but by creating a new context. We, as readers and listeners, tend to see the process of aspectual decision making backwards. We see the effects and try to infer the causes. That is a static and ultimately doomed approach. Instead, we should try to see the causes first and then try to understand the effects generated by them. Since human beings are not robots, the speaker/writer comes first and the context comes second. The speaker/writer can always change the context and rewrite the text. That is why understanding the use of aspects requires us to understand the speaker’s aspectual attitude before we try to understand the consequences.
A speaker can usually switch, for example, from using a verb as an event, as an empirical action (“ubrat’ igrushki” – to put toys in order , i.e. a specific toy or number of toys) to using it to describe a pure action (“ubirat’ igrushki” – to engage in the activity of putting toys in order) and back again. In short, the speaker comes first, the context second. That is why all the “evidence” for aspectual context in the sense of an encyclopedia or database of specific situations will never get you very far.
Why? Because, I think, by focussing on the RESULTS of aspectual decision rather than the PRINCIPLE of aspectual choice you are bound to run into “contradictions”, i.e. uses of the aspects that seem to contradict what your “database” says. Instead, I’d suggest that a better way is to follow aspecual decision making from “behind the scenes”, so to speak, from behind the user’s podium rather than in front of it, from the point of view of the dynamic “puppeteer” (the speaker) rather than his static puppets (the actual verbs chosen by him). Only then do the aspectual decisions make sense. And only then do we realize that any and every aspectual decision is ultimately an expression of the fundamental principle of binary choice as implemented by the “puppeteer.”
Omitting for the sake of simplification the various sub-aspects (such as “zakhodit’” or “pokhodit’”) as well as the separate aspectual business of verbs of motion, I’d postulate further that the two major aspects are themselves based on two mythic and mutually exclusive faculties of the mind.
Adopting a terminology well known from the philosophy of Kant, I would call these faculties the Empirical (Perfective) and the Transcendental (Imperfective).
By positing such irreducible and mutually exclusive faculties or operational fictions in our aspectual decision-making, we can, I believe, bring out the relationship between the bewildering complexity of aspectual situations and the simple, intuitive act operating in and through them.
But how can simple intuition make what is often an excruciatingly subtle choice under very complex conditions?
It is, I think, only natural to see the aspects in terms of a Perf/IMPF continuum, where the perfective concrete/factual “demarcates” and “exhausts” (in Prof. Rassudova’s words) the imperfective concrete processual. The latter is considered an “un-marked,” “weaker” version of the perfective.
This, I submit, is a monumental and fatal delusion. In my opinion, next to confusing the aspects with other categories or features of Russian grammar, the concept of an aspectual continuum is the single greatest obstacle to a student’s understanding of Russian aspectual usage. This is the prevailing view of most (but not all: see below) Russian textbooks and Russian scholars, including Girsdansky in the above-mentioned Adventure of Language. Learning Russian aspectual usage this way is like learning to play the piano with wrong fingering: it will cripple your understanding of this fundamental feature of Russian and, as if Russian aspects weren’t formidable enough, will be next to impossible to correct in the future.
Another common misconception is that the aspects have something to do with number, that is, with single or frequentative (or even iterative) occurrence. This is simply not the case, as the most cursory examination of any extended body of Russian prose or poetry or conversation will clearly and unequivocally show. Both aspects have a frequentative. Both aspects are used in single and multiple occurrences. The real distinction between the aspects lies decidedly elsewhere.
What exactly is this distinction between empirical and transcendental, this dialectical “incompatibility”?
By “empirical” (perfective) I mean a fictive, logical-intuitive faculty which allows us to perceive a world of delimited phenomena. In actual practice this faculty allows us to organize our external and inner world of percepts. This includes time as external perception, that is, as change. That is, I believe, why the perfective covers both concrete (external and internal) as well as abstract actions (“sdelat’”, “pochuvstvovat’”, “podumat’”).
By “transcendental” I mean a fictive, logical-intuitive faculty which allows us to perceive or construct absolutely nothing at all. That is, this faculty can never be perceived (inwardly or outwardly) or known as such. lt can only be assumed a priori. This “nothingness” applies to both concrete (inner and external) as well as abstract actions (“delat’”, “chuvstvovat’”, and “dumat’”). This includes time as a logical-intuitive assumption.
The imperfective does not exist in the “knowable” world at all. Rather, to use Prof. Rassudova’s own word, it “dissociates” from the past, etc. I would add, further, that this transcendental faculty dissociates not within the sphere of the concrete (whether past, present or future) but from it.
The IMPF just is. Or rather it subsists as a logical-intuitive faculty serving as a noumenal ground for un-delimited, un-bounded “perception” (such as of inner or external movement or process or of unperceivable states of being or of pure time or of pure, abstract habitual action or, perhaps toughest of all, of a single occurrence, e.g. the infamous general fact “On delal” (“He did”—once and only once and not as process but as pure state). But, such “perception” is not grounded in experience but, rather, our experience of such undefined states and actions is based on noumenal assumptions which allow us to intuit such non-perceptual experiences. The reverse is similarly true for the Perfective, whose perception is grounded in the empirical changes that such an aspect by its nature highlights.
In other words, we may speak of knowing, of literally grasping, an empirical action or state. We see it as something marked, bounded in space and time, occurring at such and such a real time and place. In fact, the Perfective can and is used to express not only single acts or states but frequentative ones as well. This is the Perfective Frequentative I mentioned above — e.g. “Prestupnik soznalsia v tom, chto iznasiloval piaterykh zhenshchin”. Obviously, there is no way in the world that this action could be interpreted as a single action. This extreme example illustrates unequivocally the futility of talking about the Perfective as being restricted to a single, completed event. What may escape many is the obvious fact that Russian abounds in such Perfective Frequentatives on every page and in every conversation, work of scholarship or literature. However, we do see each of the rapes in question as a three-dimensional empirical action. That’s why the Perfective is used here.
On the other hand, “V techenie mnogikh let prestupnik nasiloval zhenshchin nashego goroda” calls for the Imperfective because the action is expressed noumenally, that is, habitually, purely, without any reference to real perception. Therefore, we can not speak of knowing, understanding an Imperfective action or state, only of assuming it, that is, of intuiting it as habit or process or pure fact. Unlike the empirical, it has a pure, transcendental quality. It is a fictive “nothing”, an assumption that liberates us from the restrictions of the Empirical Perfective and allows us to speak of actions in ways that we intuit to be true but that we can never really “know”, that we have no empirical evidence for. Finally, the Imperfective can be used both for single actions (or states) as well as the more expected frequentative ones (“Ona vchera vecherom plokho chuvstvovala sebia”). Of course, strictly speaking, both aspects are ultimately fictive, one expressing the fiction of “reality”, the other the fiction of “non-reality”. Without these fictions, we could not talk about the world at all. (See below).
As for pure time, I have in mind a seamless, temporal continuity (“Ya [ne] pel” -”I was [not] singing”). We can never “know” continuity or action in itself or the Imperfective verbs in which such continuity is grounded. We can only assume it.
What we can and do know are the delimited, segmented, unitary empirical perceptions (known as “ideas” by Locke, Hume and the 18th century Empiricists) which the transcendental IMPF has been “dissociated from.” Only by assuming continuity do we have a world of action at all. The general fact, progressive and regular frequentative action of IMPF verbs are not, at bottom, perceptual. They are noumenal. And they must be apprehended by the speaker’s aspectual mind, not by his senses.
Thus, while the fictive empirical gives us the illusion of inner and outer space (including perceived time), the fictive transcendental gives us the illusion of continuous, unbounded space (including pure time).
That is, both aspects involve time: the Perf gives us empirical time (both inner and external, concrete and abstract), that is, time perceived, time familiar to us as temporal change, while the IMPF gives us noumenal, pure time, time presupposed, time as pure, unchanged state.
This distinction of “nothingness” vs. “discrete event” has been brilliantly analyzed by Boris Gasparov in his “Notes on the ‘Metaphysics’ of Russian Aspects” in Nils B. Thelin’s comprehensive anthology Verbal Aspect in Discourse (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Publishers, 1990). In his conclusion he says:
“To sum up, it is necessary to emphasize once again that the principal, most basic difference in the meanings of Perf. and Imp. consists neither in the character of the situations represented with their help, nor in the content of the narrative story as such, but rather in two fundamentally different world views projected onto the content of what is said, be it a single statement or a story. The category of aspect offers to the speaker a formal instrument with the help of which the speaker is able to place two fundamentally different and mutually complementary points of view onto human experience. These two Weltanshauungen present the world as consisting either of events or of existential experiences.” (P. 209)
It is binary exclusivity, I believe, that makes possible the instantaneous intuitive calculations by the Russian native.
A brief digression. The same intuitive faculty is at work in the definite/indefinite article decision-making in English, where the actual choice always consists not of two but of three options: the definite article “the” (“The Russian approach towards literary criticism”), the indefinite article “a(an)”(“A revolution in Russian literary criticism”) and nothing at all, that is, the zero option (“Russian literary criticism has suffered from a lack of focus.”). Or, in short, one says in contemporary American English: “to catch a cold,” but “to catch the flu.” Finally, if you really get sick, you “catch pneumonia.”
However, if we need an analogy to aspectual decision-making, we are much more likely to find one in the use of tenses in English, specifically, to the subtle differences between regular and perfect tenses: “I ate breakfast”, “I have eaten my breakfast”, not to mention the option of “I was eating my breakfast”. “Did you make your bed?”, “Have you made your bed?” Etc.
The other day we were leaving our apartment, when I decided to check the door to make sure it was locked. My wife, whose English is excellent and who has been in the United States for over a decade, noticed a sudden change in my use of tenses and wondered out aloud: “Benjamin, when is it preferable to say: “Have you locked the door?” rather than “Did you lock the door?” What’s the exact difference?” Well, I was as startled and dumbfounded as any Russian would be when asked to justify his or her aspectual decision in a similar situation.
We were both perfectly aware of the distinction: the regular past is clearly in the past, while the present perfect relates the past action to the present situation. That’s not the issue. The question is: “Since either sentence is perfectly permissible (given the obvious subtle difference) in this particular situation (locking the door and checking afterwards), which one would a native speaker prefer to use? That’s the crux of the matter, and this is where both idiom and cultural context and personal preference come into play.
The native speaker just knows from experience what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s permissible and what’s not permissible, what’s optional and what’s not optional. But he or she is not likely to understand how or why it works the way it does. It usually takes an educated foreigner to notice the hidden patterns and explain how things actually work even if they themselves cannot, by virtue of being outsiders, actually make the perfectly idiomatic decision themselves.
Now to return to our theme. The many uses of the IMPF are thus not so much “concrete” experiences (of whatever kind) as pure a priori, intuitive feelings. This is so regardless whether we consider affirmative or negative, “concrete” or “abstract” sentences, all of which presuppose this fundamental distinction. They are pure feelings dissociated in principle from all concreteness as such.
The rich variety of aspectual situations is held together theoretically by the backbone of “incompatible” binary aspects. Without this incompatibility no real distinctions would be possible. In short, aspectual decision-making would flounder in hopeless subjectivity.
A construction such as “Ya [ne] pel” (“I was [not] singing” or: “I sang/did not sing”) represents absolutely nothing. And that’s the whole point: It is the negation of all that is empirical (the “I”, the implicit “song” and the world of phenomena in general) that makes it possible for the mind to “construct” or rather “assume” temporality (as change) and action by grounding the percepts of the perfective in the transcendental category of the IMPF.
Calling the aspects perfective and imperfective tends to blur the fundamental philosophical incompatibility of the aspects, their exclusivity. It fosters the illusion that the aspects are part of a continuum and, therefore, that aspectual choice is a subjective affair. It isn’t subjective, whether considered from the standpoint of student or native, though to the despairing student it may often appear so. Of course, this statement must be qualified by considerations of style: the speaker, whether using Russian in ordinary speech, as a scientist or as a poet, may use the aspects subjectively, though, of course, never arbitrarily, for stylistic effect.
Of course, there is a sense in which aspectual usage is subjective, and this is the exception that proves the rule. Every writer (or speaker) will shape the language in accordance with his peculiar world-view and linguistic tendencies. In this respect, a writer may “tilt” the language towards either the IMPF or the Perf or he/she might have a preference for certain of the sub-aspects or certain of the verbs of motion quasi-aspects, etc. In this respect, he does not/cannot violate the objective structure and edifice of subtleties that is the Russian language any more than he can alter the basic structure of verbal conjugations or noun declensions. In this respect, the writer does indeed express himself subjectively but, mind you, through, not in spite of, the linguistic structures. He operates through the great labyrinth of the Russian language, not in defiance or ignorance of it.
One of the most outrageous but effective illustrations of this can be found in a little known prose poem by the Russian émigré writer Pyotr Balakshin, who came to San Francisco from Russia by way of China after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In his “Spring Over Filmore Street” (published by Sirius of San Francisco in 1951 under the same title) there is the utterly astonishing, nearly ubiquitous use of the IMPF, that is, the Transcendental where–I emphasize–the Perf, the Empirical, would be expected. The Perf does not even appear once until the middle of page 2, and the Perf in general is used very sparingly.
Naturally, I was taken aback, in fact, I was utterly dumbfounded by this. I knew my aspects very well, I thought, and now this.
Yet, the more I looked at the text, the more I began to admire the writer’s stylistic “chutzpah.” The point is that the soaring, light-weight, dematerialized texture created by the Transcendental/Imperfective aspect, the description of the city as if seen from above by a figure from a painting by Chagal floating through the sky, is extremely effective. After checking with a number of émigré friends, I was happy to discover that my conjecture was right. They found it equally “outrageous.” It was supposed to be.
I mention this episode because it represents an artistic extreme that nevertheless remains within the objective system of the aspects. Balakshin deviates from and artistically “distorts” the rules he has inherited as a Russian (as every original writer should) but he never breaks them, for to do so would amount to breaking his neck. He stretches accepted usage but never acts arbitrarily. Every deviation from the expected Perf aspect is part of a whole pattern of Romantic flight (quite literally) that is firmly rooted in the basic noumenal, non-perceptual nature of the IMPF.
This revolutionary use of the Imperfective was already evident in Chekhov, where the traditional narrative founded mainly (as a point of departure) on a succession of perfective events (single or multiple Perf) gives way to the spatio-temporal unbounded states of feeling and being (single or multiple IMPF) so prevalent in Chekhov, as for example, in Lady with a Dog. This is the subject of an extraordinary essay by Peter Alberg Jensen entitled “Narrative Description or Descriptive Narration: Problems of Aspectuality in Chekhov” (Verbal Aspect in Discourse, pp. 383-409).
As a matter of fact, this Transcendental/Empirical binary system also holds true, I submit, for the adjective, whose short and long forms (as they are crudely and opaquely called in most textbooks) are simply variations on verbal aspects. In my opinion, both verbal and adjectival aspects may be considered as manifestations of the same source (due allowance made for modifications appropriate to a different part of speech).
If this is so, then “glubokaya,” the long form of the adjective, as in the predicative “reka glubokaya” (“the river is a deep one”), or the attributive modifier “glubokaya reka” (“the deep river”) may be considered the adjectival analogue for the perfective verb aspect (Empirical), while “gluboka,” as in “reka gluboka” (“the river is deep”) may be considered the adjectival analogue for the imperfective (Transcendental) verb aspect.
The predicate short form (“reka gluboka”—”the river is deep”) is a concept of the pure imagination. It does not so much exist as subsist in a logical, non-empirical reality all its own. Similarly, the predicate long form (“reka glubokaya”— “the river is a deep one”) exists in an empirical domain unique to itself (that is, the “real,” perceivable world of the senses, both external and internal). The attributive adjectival modifier “glubokaya reka” (“the deep river”) is, of course, similarly empirical. [See discussion of verb aspects above].
“Reka gluboka” [or, for that matter, the negative "reka ne gluboka"] is not, I believe, a description of the real world so much as a logical/intuitive concept applied to what is, in principle, an indefinable experience. Like the verbal “Ya pel” (or “Ya ne pel”), the predicative is a way of symbolizing what by nature can never be symbolized, that is, a pure, a priori act of cognition. We “know” or assume we know what is essentially an unknowable experience. To sum up, “reka glubokaya” (or the modifier “glubokaya reka”) describes the river empirically, while “reka gluboka” posits an intuitive experience of the river dissociated from all concreteness.
Here, too, there is no continuum! We make our choice between two incompatible aspects, and this choice is only possible precisely because they are mutually exclusive: phenomena vs. noumena, perception vs. nothing. Otherwise, as I’ve already said, we’d flounder in a sea of hopeless indecision.
The above holds true also for participles (past and present, active and passive), for gerunds and for verbal nouns.
Possession and Aspects
The Russian binary aspectual system may even be discerned in the peculiar way the Russian language expresses possession:
“U menya na stole ptitsa lezhit” (“A bird is lying on my table”—Transcendental) vs. “Na stole moyom ptitsa lezhit” (“A bird is lying on my table”—Empirical) is an extension by analogy of the binary system of the verbs and adjectives to the pronouns.
As further examples, let me point to “U menya iz karmana . . . ” (Transcendental) vs. “iz moego karmana . . . “(Empirical) or “U menya serdtse bolit” vs. “Moyo serdtse bolit.”
It was Heidegger who once asked the famous question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The student of Russian aspects often feels like asking similarly: Why are there aspects rather than nothing?
Naturally, any answer at this point would be mere speculation. However, let me hazard a brief, hopefully tantalizing theory.
Of the two verbal aspects, the Perf (the Emp) basically transforms pure actions and states into nouns and substantive clusters (noun phrases and clauses, etc.). The whole notion of a verbal action being delimited, defined and perceived (i.e. with a beginning and an end) is profoundly paradoxical (a kind of “verb-noun”, not to be confused with a verbal noun, i.e. a gerund).
It is as if the Russian language were driven in that direction by some elemental force, though, statistically, the ratio for aspectual usage is about 50-50. The IMPF (Transc.) would seem to be the undertow of this process of substantive-formation, as if it were a relic of an earlier pre-aspectual linguistic structure or else a philosophical residue that could not be given shape and form by the substantive process of the Empirical (for how could the non-perceptual ever be given shape and form by the perceptual?).
Thus, one could say that of the two great aspects, the Empirical is the “real” aspect insofar as it permits us to perceive reality by delimiting it, but the Transcendental is the “true” aspect because it alone gives us the verb as a pure verbal state or action.
So, you might ask: which aspect is the tonic and which the dominant? Which aspect should one consider the default and which the deviation? Which one does one begin with and which one does switch to?
Theoretically, both aspects can be considered as the starting point or the switching point for actual usage. But in practice, it is wise to choose one or the other but not both or they will quickly become, never mind their morphological distinctions, interchangeable and blurred in your mind. Personally, when reading or listening to Russian, I always “begin” with the empirical (the perfective) and move, as the actual text dictates, to the transcendental (imperfective) and then return again to the empirical. The perfective is the tonic key for me. Take, for instance, the following sentence: “Ya ei soobshchil, chto ya pytalsia razobrat’sia v ego namereniiakh”(“I told her that I had been trying to analyze his intensions”). Naturally, since this sentence begins with a perfective verb, the reader pretty much has to begin with the perfective. But even if this sentence were to begin with an imperfective verb, I would still consider the imperfective a “dominant” key, which eventually, at some point, however distant, would return, so to speak, to the perfective home key. After “soobshchil”, I quickly switch to the the imperfective “pytal’sia”, then return once again to the perfective verb “razobrat’sia”. Naturally, if the writer or speaker had said: … popytalsia razobrat’sia v ego namereniiakh”, I would stay with him/her in the perfective aspect throughout (much the way a motorcycle passenger has to move in perfect sync with the rider) or until it came time to make a sharp turn, so to speak, to an imperfective verb.
My practice is much the same for adjectives. Take, for instance, the following sentence: moia staraia koshka bol’na (my old cat is ill). Here I would consider the empirical adjective moia staraia to be my starting point, my tonic key (whether in the nominative or in any of the other five cases such as moei staroi koshki), while boln’na is my switching point or dominant key. The syntactic order has nothing to do with it. What matters is settling on one aspect or another as your home port.
And, finally, I follow the same practice in the case of possessive pronouns, as explained above.
Once again, one could just as easily start with the imperfective as tonic and switch to the perfective as dominant and back home to the imperfective. What really matters is NOT to confuse the two aspects, and the whole purpose of this kind of tonic/dominant/tonic technique is simply to help the reader/listener keep the two aspects apart in actual experience, to switch between them in the proper exclusivist, binary method of 0,1,0, etc. Russian cannot exist without both aspects, but to understand both we must first understand each as a unique mode of knowledge (reflecting its role as the unique expression of our dual universe of body and mind, empirical and transcendental, perfective and imperfective. Only then can we juggle these two complementary principles. Of course, since we are not natives, we can never really juggle them idiomatically ourselves. But we can observe this mysterious interplay as we read and listen to the ordinary miracle that is Russian.
I hope the reader is indulgent enough to forgive the wild surmises in this last section. They are meant only as a philosophical tease, as an attempt to understand what may, in the final analysis, be forever beyond our reach.
It is my firm conviction that the Empirical Aspect (Perfective) represents “perceptual reality” (single mode or sporadic frequentative mode) while the
Transcendental Aspect (Imperfective) stands for pure reality (the merely factual, the progressive, or regular frequentative mode). While one could consider either aspect as the point of departure in actual usage (with the other aspect being its binary “alternative”), I prefer to begin with the Perfective and make the binary switch to the Imperfective whenever necessary. I do this because the Perfective is the aspect of empirical narrative (in all its many uses). I thus see the Imperfective alternative when its many uses are brought into play. The switch from Perf to IMPF is an exclusive binary one, made necessary by the change in aspectual world-view required by the grammatical or semantic or stylistic context, i.e. from Empirical to Transcendental. One could, of course, also consider the IMPF, i.e. the Transcendental, as the point of departure and then, when necessary, make the exclusive binary switch to the Empirical. That is a matter of personal preference. However, one should choose one aspect or another as a basic point of departure, like the tonic and dominant in music. As you navigate aspectually through the Russian “text” (written or spoken), you always begin with the aspect of your choice, switch to the other aspect and return to your original aspect, and so on, each time driven by the binary exclusivity of aspectual usage.
If this is so, how are we to explain this phenomenon?
Perhaps, the Empirical and the Transcendental both issue from some ultimate universal archetype that is the source for both logical-intuitive concepts. If this is so, then we, the bearers and users of language, may be instruments in the hands of a higher god, who calls His shots, aspectually speaking, through us.
In the examples below, I’ve sought to show how aspectual decision-making works in conversational Russian. I assure you that, proper allowance made for differences of genre, it works in a fundamentally similar way in literature, on the radio and in film.
Appendix 1: Prince Myshkin’s “s chelovekom tak nel’zia postupat’”
Can we even conceive of navigating through the labyrinth of the Russian language without a firm, unambiguous yet simple chart of Russian aspectual usage?
If we drown ourselves in the infinite variety of derivative aspectual choices (temporal, moral, social, psychological, emotional) without a central aspectual model underlying this diversity, what have we gained except a chaos of details that cause us to flounder and grope in the dark?
Who can forget Prince Myshkin’s moving comment on the practice of guillotining: “S chelovekom tak nel’zia postupat!” (“No one ought to treat another human being like that!” The Idiot, Part I, Chapter 2)?
What a magnificently simple indictment of the evil that lurks in us all. Yet why “postupat’” (imperfective, i.e. transcendental) and not “postupit’”? What’s the reason for Dostoevsky’s aspectual choice? We know that “tak nel’zia postupit’” is impossible here, but why?
Does the answer lie in a distinction between a “moral IMPF” and an “amoral Perf”? Or in a “process IMPF” vs. a “result Perf”? Or in an “unlimited IMPF” vs. “(de)limited Perf”? Or between a “habitual/frequentative IMPF” vs. a “single occurrence Perf”? Or between an “unstable IMPF” and a “stable Perf”?
In my opinion, all of the above explanations lead nowhere but to the insane asylum: Not only are they wrong in themselves. They fail to grasp the fundamental philosophical, logical and intuitive distinction involved and why Dostoevsky must use the imperfective in this case.
My answer is that Prince Myshkin (i.e. any Russian speaker) is faced between two aspectual options: an empirical moral aspect (“postupit’”) and a transcendental moral aspect (“postupat’”). Both aspects involve morality. Metaphorically speaking, we may say that the Perf “tak nel’zia postupit’” is a circumstantial statement that transforms the verb into a 3-Dimensional object-verb embedded in perceived reality, while the IMPF “tak nel’zia postupat’” expresses a kind of 2-Dimensional pure moral sensibility that is by definition beyond all perception.
I think many will say: “So what else is new? I have known that for twenty years. Why all the fuss?”
The heart of this distinction lies in the fact that the moral difference (pure moral quality vs. empirical moral quality relating to some circumstance) reflects, expresses and flows directly from two incompatible world views that are related only morphologically. Deep down, the Russian user intuitively makes a binary decision that automatically demands one aspect or the other (depending on the context, of course) but not both.
That’s the crucial point: The aspectual decision is not arbitrary. It is not on a continuum. For this reason, in my opinion the very terms “imperfective/ perfective”, implying just such a continuum, are a dead end because they create the false impression in the mind of the foreign student that a Russian is agonizing over an aspectual choice between two points. This is no doubt similar to the illusion of a foreigner that a native speaker of English “agonizes” over the choice of articles (see above).
Appendix 2: A Few More Examples
I’ve tried to show above how a simple switch from the empirical “on postupil” (“he acted” — Perfective, single or frequentative) to the transcendental “on postupal” (“he acted” — Imperfective, single or frequentative) presupposes a binary logic, and how the circumstantially moral “postupil” is opposed to the purely moral “postupal.” Furthermore, I suggested that these two moral modes of action (an empirical verb vs. a verb of pure non-perception (“nothingness”) flow logically from two incompatible world views that are morphologically — but not, fundamentally speaking, aspectually — related.
For how could a pure moral, psychological, social or emotional experience (grounded in the pure spatio-temporal state or action of the Imperfective” — delal”, “chuvstvoval”, “dumal”) be compatible with or lie somewhere on a continuum that includes a circumstantial moral, psychological, social or emotional experience (grounded in the Perfective’s temporal change and sense perception — “sdelal,” “pochuvstvoval,” “podumal”)?
What is true of these basic imperfectives and their empty perfective counterparts is, of course, also true of compound pairs, including the verbs of motion which, while presenting us with a new set of Imperfective aspectual options unique to them (determinate, indeterminate) still obey the basic logic inherent in the general aspectual model.
1) “ostat’sia vs. ostavat’sia”
I believe that intuitive aspectual decision-making is possible only because of this binary incompatibility. Otherwise, we would all go mad from sheer uncertainty, doubt and psychological agony. The foreign student of Russian may need to continue learning the nuances of aspectual usage (as everything else) all through his life. In this respect there is a continual accumulation of new impressions, new situations, new discoveries. But I firmly believe that being able to make the aspectual decision between “postupil” and “postupal”, etc. is not fundamentally a matter of experience but of an intuitive binary yes/no, 0/1 logical decision-making. One has to take the philosophical bull by the horn. One has to feel, that is, to intuit, the distinction between “ya ostalsya v Parizhe” (“I remained in Paris” — a single empirical event or set of such sporadic events) and “ya ostavalsya ego drugom” (“I remained his friend” — a pure, timeless state of permanence).
Similarly, “vyidite!” (“leave!” — an empirical command presupposing situational obstacles of some sort) and “vykhodite!” (“leave!” — a command issuing from the subject’s pure desires or wishes, irrespective of any empirical obstacles whatsoever.) For a fuller discussion of this verb, see below.
2) “mne nado uiti/ukhodit’”
The Perfective construction “mne nado uiti” (“I have to leave)” means that certain empirical moral social, psychological or objective considerations force me to leave: my daughter is ill, circumstances demand that I go because I have an appointment with my wife to discuss our plans for buying a new car, I have a headache.
On the other hand, the Imperfective “mne nado ukhodit’” (“I have to leave)” means that certain purely psychological or moral or emotional considerations force me to leave: I have an appointment with my wife to discuss our plans for buying a new car and moral duty commands me to keep it.
3) “sluzhit’/posluzhit’ tsaryu”
The Perfective “ya gotov posluzhit’ tsaryu” means that the speaker is ready, empirically speaking, in any given number of sporadic, real situations to serve the Tsar while the Imperfective “ya gotov sluzhit’ tsaryu” means that the speaker is ready, in a timeless moral and social sense, to serve the Tsar on any and all hypothetical occasions.
4) “ya khochu vykhodit’/vyiti” (e.g. iz avtobusa)
You are on a bus and you want to get off:
“Ya khochu vyiti” (Perfective) is an empirical statement implying some sort of obstacle: Perhaps somebody is standing in front of you and is in your way. You ask him/her to move aside so that you could get out. Or perhaps you are feeling nausea or some other difficulty and the bus is still in motion. Whatever the specific reason, you ask the driver to stop.
“Ya khochu vykhodit’” (Imperfective) means that the bus has arrived at a stop, the door is open, there is no obstacle in your way, your desire to leave the bus is in no way conditioned by any empirical need or situation, neither external or internal. The door is open, you can stay or leave. You decide to get off the bus because of a pure, timeless desire or wish on your part. Or else you know that you are about to get out at the next stop, that the door will open, etc.
The IMPF verb “vykhodit’” (here, of course, an object of an auxiliary verb, which itself also demands an aspectual choice in the past or future: “khotel” vs. “zakhotel”) expresses a pure state of being. The specific choice between the two is thus not a function of some inherent social or psychological distinction between the aspects as such (“one is temporal, the other is one of result,” and such other nonsense) but of the underlying aspectual logic which guides the user and demands one aspect or the other. The user’s decision is intuitive, binary. He obeys the underlying “law” of the aspects as surely as he obeys the law of gravity.
By the way, I discussed the bus example at length with my wife, a native of Moscow. She said that this was the first time she had ever understood why she was making this aspectual choice. And, believe me, she is as brilliant as they come. She, like other educated Russians, is my authority for the what or the how of Russian (I never quarrel with reality), but it does not necessarily mean that the Russian will understand the why any more than we Anglo-Americans would ever really understand or need to understand the “why” of certain fundamental patterns of English grammar such as the matter of article decision-making (see above).
If we forget the basic binary principle at work, we’ll get lost in a myriad of derivative situations (temporal, moral, psychological, social, etc. , each of which can normally assume either aspect). It is not morality, psychology or time or social setting or adverbial syntax or particles in themselves that determine aspectual choice but rather the basic binary principle itself that “tilts” the particular aspectual situation or context now towards the perfective and now towards the imperfective. The solution to the problem of the aspects is right under our noses, in the aspects themselves, and not in some other variable such as tense, mode (infinite, gerund, etc.) or mood or whatever that is usually confused with it.
Naturally, a choice between aspects is conditioned by the context. That’s elementary. But aspect is aspect and can be understood, I believe, only by, to paraphrase William Blake, seeing not with the aspects but through them.
Without this proper orientation, no solid foundation for aspectual understanding (and actual usage) is, in my opinion, possible. Without this dialectic of incompatibilities, with its resulting semantic and syntactic and stylistic distinctions, the student will find himself hopelessly dangling on the high wire of an endless continuum, unable to act, to make decisions. And, what is worse, he will assume that a Russian native is equally wracked by such deep psychological conflict, when, of course, the Russian is blithely unaware of the “aspectual crisis” or, indeed, of the aspects themselves (in any but the most obvious morphological sense).
With a binary model built on mutually exclusive modes of cognition and action, the student of Russian can concentrate on the infinite variety of situations while automatically (at first gradually and with difficulty, of course) making intuitive decisions, so to speak, from behind the scenes, by seeing and acting through the binary model which lies behind the rich and complex and elusive diversity of specific aspectual situations.
To sum up, it is not that the binary theory of the aspects has given us all the answers. It is rather that this binary model offers us a solid, unshakable, fundamental philosophical and practical point of departure. It makes possible the meaningful exploration and understanding and use of aspectual subtleties that otherwise would remain a mere chaos of arbitrary situations and decisions, that is, in the final analysis, mere guess-work.
Appendix 3: “on (ne) delal vs. on (ne) sdelal”
I abandoned the continuum theories on the aspects many years ago, but not for any arbitrary reason. On the contrary, I wanted to believe in them. I clung to them until I finally came to see that maybe they were valid up to a point, like Euclidean geometry, but that they were hopelessly incapable of elucidating any of the critical and sometimes even the most basic sentences: Let’s look at a pure factual statement like: “on (ne) delal” (affirmative or negative, single occurrence or frequentative. Number has nothing to do with aspect!).
It is precisely this and other such inconvenient, disturbing, tormenting exceptions that made me finally realize that this whole continuum business can lead only to an insane asylum. The difference between “on (ne) delal” (IMPF, single or frequentative) and “on (ne) sdelal” (Perf, single or frequentative) is a fundamental, conceptual distinction, the difference between “pure nothingness” and “empirical perception.”
That’s the whole point.
In my opinion, this simple sentence involves the single most difficult aspectual decision for a foreign student of Russian to make, for it demands that he/she confront the need to intuit the fundamental logical-metaphysical distinction between incompatible modes of being and knowing. Of course, it must be intuited through experience, in context (only a fool would spin endless theories that are not grounded in the evidence of actual linguistic usage), yet nonetheless it must be intuited, not merely experienced.
“On (ne) delal” and “on (ne) sdelal” are those planets I referred to in my essay. They travel along fundamentally different orbits, even if they seem only miles apart. That’s the whole point. That’s why everybody, or almost everybody seems to get this wrong. They try to fit it into their procrustean bed, to compare apples with oranges, to look everywhere for an explanation for the aspects, in tenses, in moods, in grammatical modes, in adverbs and adverbial phrases, in particles, in what have you, when the answer is right under their nose, in the intrinsic, binary logic of the (mutually exclusive) aspects themselves.
Can a theory of aspects explain both the infinite complexity of actual aspectual situations and the intuitively simple process of (fact of) aspectual decision-making? That’s what counts. Both must be addressed. Anything less than that is a dead end.
Other binary theories have been proposed for aspectual decision-making. Some, on the surface, may seem to resemble mine. That is, these theories contend that aspects are distinguished by a “limited/unlimited” or “stable/unstable” dichotomy. The perfective, according to this type of theory, represents a kind of “limit” to the action, while the imperfective represents an “unlimited” perspective. Or else, the perfective represents a “stable action” while the imperfective an “unstable action,” etc.
I contend that, essentially, these binary theories still assume a continuum, and, for that reason, are, at bottom, ineffectual. That is, that they are fundamentally kindred ways of viewing the action. It’s just that one aspect completes the action (the famous “result” effect), while the other just keeps going endlessly. In other words, “on sdelal” (Perf) completes, that is, “limits” an action which “on delal” would otherwise continue ad infinitum.
I reject this binary version of the continuum theory. Why? Because of the all-important fact that the perfective limits the verb or delimits (bounds) it not only at the end but also at the beginning (in normal perfectives). That’s the whole point.
Let me elaborate on this for a moment:
If the perfective and imperfective are on a continuum, then the only real difference between the two aspects is that the IMPF has no limits while the Perf has limits (at the end of the action, I presume). The very use of this kind of terminology as, for example, “limited vs. unlimited” or “perfective/imperfective” is, in my opinion, a terrible mistake. It leads nowhere.
The difference between the two aspects is not merely a matter of limits, of whether one ends and the other does not. It is a fundamental conceptual, logical, binary difference which demands on the part of the foreign student an act of empathetic imagination (as does so much else having to do with Russian). This is why it is so difficult.
As I tried to explain in my essay above, I have in mind not merely a binary system. My model is a binary system based on mutually exclusive modes of operation. That’s the key part. It is a rejection of a binary system based on a continuum in favor of a binary system based on a distinction between “pure nothingness” (the logical ground for such imperfective functions such as process, habitual action, pure moral and psychological states, pure time, pure fact, etc.) and empirical facts or events (the logical ground of all perfective functions such as temporal change, historical narration of discrete or sporadic events, etc.).
This is my model. It is precisely these mutually exclusive modes of operation (related dialectically on a morphological level) that make possible the unconscious, intuitive aspectual decisions that Russians make. It demands the same discipline to master this that is demanded of a concert pianist (for the foreigner only, of course). First we must understand the model, then implement it.
We non-Russians may make aspectual mistakes in the heat of actual, rapid-fire Russian speech, but, with a solid aspectual model to guide us, we will nearly always understand why we failed, sometimes correcting ourselves right on the spot.
If all that was required to master Russian aspectual decision-making (assuming one has already mastered the morphology, though this problem begins with day one of Russian 101), if all that was required was a continuum model, then any student would quickly master it and the world of Russian would be his. This is not the case. The real challenge is to see that.
If the aspects were something familiar, any intelligent sophomore could get a handle on it in no time. No, it is essentially alien to us, and because it is all-pervasive, because it is the keystone of Russian grammatical usage and, paradoxically, because it is intimately relational in its intricately structured morphology, it demands the greatest concentration and dedication, just as mastering the piano does. There is no short cut. Intuiting aspectual choice may hit you suddenly like lightning (or you may grasp its elusive meaning only after long and patient study), but implementing the model will always take years of meticulous, laborious work.
The student can pretend it is some weird exception to a continuum theory or he can open the door to true understanding of the aspects by unlocking this key. It is a difficult matter, but true knowledge and true liberation will follow. All other paths lead to perpetual uncertainty, doubt and final defeat.
Appendix 4: “ne slomai igrushku!”
The solution to the aspects can never be an accumulation of massive evidence, of specific solutions, no matter how vast and comprehensive because the problem is a logical-conceptual one, not a psychological or social or historical or anthropological one. It’s the cart before the horse business: This vast mass of evidence presupposes the basic logical binary principle at work intuitively behind the scenes. That’s how and why, as I understand it, Russians make their aspectual decisions. The historical and sociological explanations of how Russians (or we or anybody) actually learn our native language is a secondary, derivative matter. Still, it does influence and to a certain extent determine, in actual practice, how we apply the basic philosophical model (binary or otherwise).
Consider, for instance, the famous problem of double (and triple) negative constructions in English, condemned by every traditional English grammar book but perfectly proper in Elizabethan English. Or the obsolete use of “which” in the King James Bible, where it is used to refer to people as well as things, as in the Lord’s Prayer, where we read: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” This does not, I think, affect the deep structural “laws” of our language, only the surface, only the historical moment.
To sum up, I emphatically reject a) a quantifiable approach to aspectual usage (aspectual decision-making whether as a speaker or reader or writer or whatever) and b) a chronological-historical approach with a massive accumulation of “evidence” to support a certain empirical hypothesis. The evidence is absolutely essential but not as proof for or against a theory of aspectual usage or as a basis for actual aspectual decision-making, which must be intuitive and instantaneous and unconscious. Rather, this empirical evidence is necessary as a way of guiding you to an understanding of the intuitive decision itself. The evidence helps you to fine-tune the specifics of the binary model, but aspectual decision-making, I submit, is not an empirical matter as such.
For example, in negative sentences of purpose or commands such as “ne slomai igrushku!” (“don’t break the toy!”), the use of the perfective has come (perhaps historically), in actual usage, to be restricted to the sense of “inadvertence” (that is, “watch out you don’t accidentally break this toy!”). This is a much more restricted use of the potential meanings of the empirical perfective as used almost everywhere else in Russian. If you want to imply that you don’t want the child to break the toy in the sense that this is your policy or pure wish, you would naturally say: “ne lomai igrushku!”. That’s clear enough.
However, “ne lomai igrushku!” can also mean that the child may be a trouble-maker, may be trying to break the toy. What is the explanation for this strange use?
The answer, I believe (and I have discussed this very example at length with Anna, my Russian wife) is that the normal binary distinction between “empirical” circumstances and pure states or actions has been displaced by actual usage: the negative imperfective (“ne lomai igrushku!”) has, so to speak, usurped this function of the perfective (that of expressing circumstantial obstacles, external or internal, in this case, the child’s attitude, reaction, behavior), leaving only the weaker, more limited sense of inadvertence for the negative perfective (i.e. “be careful, don’t break the toy accidentally!”). Naturally, when I say “usurped” I am not speaking as a historian, only metaphorically. For a full discussion of this anomaly, see Forbes’s Russian Reference Grammar.
This is a perfect illustration of how actual, idiomatic usage may deviate from the binary model but can be understood and used only as a deviation from this model. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes an agonizing mess. The hundreds and thousands of specific instances of aspectual usage are guided by or are variations on or deviations from this rigorous (but, in practice, admittedly, historically conditioned) model. Perhaps at some point in the distant future, Russian will restore such negative perfective purpose and imperative sentences as “ne slomai igrushku!” to their full aspectual value, that is, to their full status as Perfectives within the binary system of aspectual usage. This, of course, is mere speculation.
What is possible theoretically is not necessarily possible in reality, that is, in the idiomatic use of actual linguistic practice. The negative perfective of “ne slomai igrushku” could theoretically have had the full force of the perfective, that is, not only the sense of “inadvertence” but also that of “empirical content” (obstacles, situations or circumstances). However, in actual practice, the negative perfective in purpose clauses and commands is reduced to mere inadvertence. Yet, this diminished use of the perfective does not contradict but rather conforms to the general purpose and meaning of the empirical aspect.
It is important for us non-Russians to keep this in mind because we often encounter situations where a particular aspectual use may be theoretically possible but is in fact non-existent, inactive, dialectical or archaic in contemporary Russian. As an example, let me cite a hypothetical case: a Russian woman asks her non-Russian husband to guess a secret. Being impatient by nature, he says: “Ya ne postarayus’ vypytat’ sekret iz tebya!” (“I won’t try to worm the secret out of you!”). The woman immediately corrects him, adding that the perfective, while theoretically quite possible, is not, in actual fact, used. Instead, the imperfective “Ya ne budu starat’sya vypytat’ sekret iz tebya” should be used.
There is no need to agonize over usage here. Actual usage does not contradict the logic of the aspects. It simply limits it, fine-tunes it, in certain situations. And, of course, historically speaking, aspectual usage may have been quite different in the past and may change in the future. And aspectual usage may differ from one Slavic language to another. Similarly, if a foreigner were to say to an English-speaking native: “I don’t feel like to go shopping today,” the latter is likely to respond: “Well, you could theoretically say that, but in actual practice we say: “I don’t feel like going shopping today.” If the foreigner persists and counters with the example “It’s all right for her to go shopping today,” you would probably answer: “This is a matter of idiom. What you are saying is perfectly possible. It conforms to English grammar but is in fact idiomatically incorrect, i.e. not used.”
To sum up, then, Russian aspecutal usage, in my opinion, is based on binary exclusivity, and it is within this framework that all aspectual decisions, often several times in a single sentence, are made. The principle of aspectual “incompatibility”, of either/or exclusivity is the basis for the Russian’s intuitive ability to make these choices, a skill a Russian acquires in childhood and usually “forgets” (theoretically speaking) as an adult, just as we do with articles in English.
Bottom line: Without a solid grasp of this intuitive principle, a foreigner may be able to read and speak Russian but will always find himself or herself groping in the dark without an aspectual compass. With an understanding of this intuitive principle and its implementation in the infinite variety of actual Russian usage, one has a trusted guide to show the way through the kaleidoscopic richness of aspectual situations. One may still make mistakes, because learning correct aspectual usage involves not only grasping the intuitive principle underlying usage but also actively implementing it in one’s reading, listening, speaking and writing. The mistakes will then make sense as unique, unusual or idiomatic manifestations of this intuitive principle of aspectual exclusivity, of either/or binary choice, rather than as exceptions that are a mere dead-end. Or, if they are exceptions, then they are exceptions within the framework of intuitive aspectual decision-making and not outside of it.
Appendix 5: “chtob konverty ne rassypalis’”
Some time ago, my mother-in-law dropped by on a visit. She was carrying with her a sheaf of ten envelopes for a project that we were working on. When we completed our work, I returned the envelopes to her. Alas, she did not have a large bag to hold them securely in place and was worried that she might lose them. So she turned to me and said: “Net li u Vas veryovki? I khochu perevyazat’ konverty chtoby oni ne rassypalis’ po doroge (“Would you happen to have a piece of rope? I would like to tie the envelopes so that they won’t scatter on my way home.”).
I was startled that my mother-in-law would use “rassypalis’ (IMPF) instead of the expected “rassypalis’ (perf). The morphological distinction between aspects in the case of this verb is simply that of shifting the stress. But the distinction of aspectual use is the same as for most other verbs. And it was clear that here we had to do with a negative purpose clause clearly indicating inadvertency (chtoby ne + perfective past). That is, this was clearly what we had a right to EXPECT. The speaker was afraid that the envelopes would scatter about, i.e. that this would happen inadvertently, on the way home.
Finding my mother-in-law’s use of the imperfective very odd, I immediately turned to her and said: “You could have said chtoby ne rassypalis’. Right? She thought about it for a moment and said: “Yes, I could have.” And, of course, she could have. But she chose to use the imperfective, instead. Why?
I didn’t want to trouble my mother-in-law with these weird questions (just as we would not be pleased with similar arcane questions about our use of English), but I had a hunch why. This sentence is obviously a cousin to the imperative sentence “ne slomai igrushku” we discussed above in Appendix 4. But why the imperfective? After all, the context allows for both aspects. The main reason, as confirmed by my wife, who has by now become used, through me, to seeing her language from the point of view of a foreigner, is that the speaker deliberately decided to make vivid her predicament. Using the expected perfective in this case would have expressed a possible EVENT, that is, that the envelopes would end up scattered on the road. But the speaker wanted to go beyond that dry description and decided therefore TO CHANGE THE CONTEXT from that of a mere event to that of a drama. By using the imperfective “chtoby ne rassypalis’”, she imagined (pun intended) that the envelopes were not mere instruments or “victims” of blind fate but that they were active AGENTS of their own destiny, that they, as it were, could will their own fate, that they were ACTORS in their own DRAMA, who had the power to scatter themselves to the four winds or else not to do so. This may not seem like a very scientific explanation. Perhaps it is a bit childlike, but, however you wish to interpret it, the two clauses (ne + perfective and ne + imperfective) uniquely embody the general distinction of the aspects as explained throughout this essay. They not interchangeable. They are not used arbitrarily. It is the speaker who ultimately controls and determines the context, not the other way around. And for us to understand what is going on, we must enter into the speaker’s mind to observe what the speaker is doing.
Appendix 6: “Yuvelir priekhal vozvrashchat’ kradenoe”
This deceptively simple sentence, which appeared in a film review on RFE’s web site, is a supreme challenge to the foreigner’s sanity, fortitude and ingenuity. The obvious question arises immediately: why “vozvrashchat’” and not the expected “vernut’”? Either way, the sentence can be translated in English as: “The jeweler has arrived to return the stolen goods.” It doesn’t matter whether the jeweler is planning to return the goods on one occasion or many, etc. (See discussion above). For those who rush past this sentence, the answer will be easy: it’s just idiom or just style or just arbitrary or whatever. Of course, context plays a key role, but what is the context and how do we foreigners process this individual aspectual situation as part of a larger, more universal pattern? The key to understanding this sentence is, once again, to focus on the aspect as a unique category, not to succumb to the temptation of seeing it as something it is not. And this, in turn, leads us to recognize that the Impf (Transcendental) “vozvrashchat’” conveys a sense of possibility, of hypotheticality, of pure volition instead of the Perf (Empirical) tangible, materialized (once or many times) event. If the author had wanted to make it empirically real, had wanted us to see the return of the goods as one or a series of concrete events, he would have done so by using the empirical, i.e. Perf. Instead, he wants us to see the situation from INSIDE the mind of the jeweler, to imagine it as a theoretical possibility. The jeweler is clearly contemplating their return to their rightful owner without specifying how and when and where they are to be returned. And this is the crux of this particular situation. The foreigner can, if he wishes, skip this critical distinction and condescendingly move on to the next (probably equally elusive and mystifying aspectual situation). Or she can stop and examine this very baffling and formidable distinction and try to understand it both on its own terms and as part of the overall pattern of aspectual decision-making. The key, ultimately, is to recognize this distinction (and hundreds of thousands of others, of course) instantly as you race (or crawl) through the spoken or written text, i.e. to process the specific issue case as part of the universal, logical principle of mutually exclusive binary aspectual decision-making.
Appendix 7: “Irak ne zakhotel razoruzhat’sia”
I read this sentence online on a Russian news site during the preliminary phase that led to the war on Iraq in March of 2003. This is another classic example of how complicated Russian aspects are, in this case, in terms of their morphological and semantic permutations: In actual fact, both theoretically AND idiomatically, the following four sentences are possible, both in the affirmative AND negative:
“Irak (ne) zakhotel razoruzhit’sia.” (Perf verb + Perf infinitive object )
“Irak (ne) zakhotel razoruzhat’sia.” (Perf verb + Impf infinitive object)
“Irak (ne) khotel razoruzhit’sia”. (Impf verb + Perf infinitive object)
“Irak (ne) khotel razoruzhat’sia”. (Impf verb + Impf infinitive object)
For discussion of these four options, please see examples above. This example illustrated what I would call an aspectual double somersault, that is, consisting of an auxiliary verb and an infinitive as its object and, therefore, four aspectual options. However, one can easily imagine a TRIPLE SOMERSAULT, consisting not of four but, in fact, of EIGHT options. For instance:
“Rossiia posovetovala Iraku soglasit’sia razoruzhit’sia.”
“Rossiia posovetovala Iraku soglasit’sia razoruzhat’sia.”
“Rossiia posovetovala Iraku soglashat’sia razoruzhit’sia.”
“Rossiia posovetovala Iraku soglashat’sia razoruzhat’sia.”
“Rossiia sovetovala Iraku soglasit’sia razoruzhit’sia.”
“Rossiia sovetovala Iraku soglasit’sia razoruzhat’sia.”
“Rossiia sovetovala Iraku soglashat’sia razoruzhit’sia.”
“Rossiia sovetovala Iraku soglashat’sia razoruzhat’sia.”
All of the above eight sentences can be translated the same way in English as: “Russia (has) advised Iraq to agree to disarm.” Yet, each specific aspectual option represents an utterly unique take on this semantic unit. It is, of course, the context that determines which particular aspectual decision the native writer/speaker will select from the eight choices available to him in this situation. With the proper philosophical/logical understanding of the issues involved and the fundamental binary principle underlying all of the myriad of theoretical and idiomatic choices possible, the foreigner can at least follow the aspectual process with proper respect for the rich array of aspectual nuances. Without such a universal binary principle (and experience at implementing it in actual usage, i.e., at least as a reader or listener), the student (and scholar) will experience Russian in a way analogous to a color-blind person who views a color photograph in black and white: the main features (the main structural units of volume, mass, geometric perspective and positioning of objects) will be evident but the richness of secondary qualities (color, smell, atmospheric perspective, even such implicit qualities as sound and taste and even movement) will be only partially apprehended, i.e. they will be translated into the limited spectrum of black and white. When it comes to Russian verbs, the whole richness of Russian is carried on by subtle, aspectual gradations, distinctions and nuances. And aspect is not to be confused with tense (present, past, future) mood (indicative, subjunctive, conditional, exhortatory, imperative), mode (finite, infinitive, gerund, participle), number (single or frequentative), affirmative vs negative, etc. Aspect is a category unique unto itself. Any attempt to subsume aspect under some other category will cripple the student for life.
Appendix 8: “Nikto ne prosil SShA osvobozhdat’ Irak!”
This is what an irate, indeed, enraged Russian government official said at the height of the Iraq war on RFE : « No one asked the United Stated to liberate Iraq ! »
A classic aspectual puzzle: Both “osvobodit’” and “osvobozhdat’” are possible in the object clause. To even suggest the frequentative as an explanation for the use of the Impf would be preposterous. Obviously, this is an example of an Impf “pure” (or Transcendental) fact vs. a Perf “empirical fact”. But, since the speaker could have used the perfective, why has he chosen the Impf? (Of course, the Russian native makes this decision for the most part unconsciously). And, more importantly, how do we process this individual aspectual situation in terms of a universal morphological and semantic pattern of aspectual usage? If such a universal principle did not exist, no one, including a Russian, could ever, as in Xeno’s paradox, take so much as the first step in communicating: he would spend an eternity pondering which aspect to use and find himself unable to utter a word. Clearly, using the Perf here would focus our attention on the empirical event as begins and ends, i.e. on its three-dimensionality, on its “reality”. That’s not what the speaker wishes to do, not in a language like Russian where he has other options. Instead, he wishes to focus on the pure action of “liberating” Iraq, on his rage at the very IDEA, the chutzpa of undertaking the liberation of Iraq. Not to realize the speaker’s aspectual OPTIONS in terms of the universal binary principle is to fail to understand his SPECIFIC aspectual decision. The full meaning of the speaker’s aspectual decision cannot be gauged just from this particular “mono” utterance. It must be inferred from the relationship of this specific utterance to the full “stereo” presence of at least two aspectual options.
Appendix 9 : “Liubaia popytka ustanovit’ rezhim iranskogo tipa budet nemedlenno presekat’sia”
As every student of Russian eventually realizes, aspectual decision-making is ALL PERVASIVE. It is not an isolated phenomenon. It affects every area of Russian grammar, every tense (past, future and, indeed, present too in the very common use of an infinitive as an object of a helping verb), every mode (infinitive, gerund, participle), and every mood (indicative, subjunctive, conditional, imperative). This example illustrates just how pervasive, just how ordinary this practice is. And yet, every translator knows that there is no such thing as a minor error: every nuance must be understood fully, in color, not just in black and white. The listener/reader must be AWARE, in the background, of the options that the Russian speaker has at his disposal, of the aspectual palette, so to speak, available to him (except that the infinitely rich colors of her palette, that is, the actual morphological colors, are built out of the two primary, binary colors, i.e. Transcendental [IMPF] and Empirical [Perf]). In this particular case, once again heard on RFE, the Russian speaker must choose between “…budet nemedlenno presechena” (future perfective participle) and “…budet nemedlenno presekat’sia” (future imperfective reflexive). Please note that the presence of “nemedlenno” has absolutely NOTHING to do with the aspectual decision as such. In fact, this is a classic example of how easily one can mistake the aspects for what they are not. Either Perfective or Imperfective version would be translated as: “Any attempt [on the part of the Shiite religious sect in Iraq] to establish a regime of the Iranian type would be immediately nipped [in the bud].” But the choice of the Perfective (“budet presechena”) would be ill-advised here since no empirical situation, i.e. no actual real-world attempt to establish such an Iranian theocracy in Iraq, is entertained by the speaker in this sentence. Instead, the speaker focuses on the hypothetical and, by doing so, i.e. by using the Imperfective, is able to rule out ANY such effort, not just a particular one. In fact, even if a conspiracy to establish an Iranian regime were discovered, the speaker could and probably would use the Imperfective to stress the universality of his statement, covering any and all such situations. On the other hand, if such a situation existed in reality, he could indeed switch to the Perfective to focus his attention on, to highlight, such an empirically real threat. As a side note, it should be obvious that the Russian speaker must also decide between “ustanovit’” (Perf) and “ustanavlivat’” (IMPF). The fact that the context predisposes the native speaker to choose the perfective “ustanovit’” does not in the least, from the student’s point of view, remove the need to make such a decision. In this case, the choice is seen empirically. But the speaker may also, in a different linguistic context, see this option transcendentally and use the IMPF.
This example illustrated the need to a) never underestimate the kaleidoscopic richness and complexity of aspectual usage; b) never forget its intimate relationship with morphology; c) finally, never forget that the entire aspectual kaleidoscope, however complex, operates on a simple binary principle, that an intuitive/logical principle of aspectual decision-making, wired into every Russian’s brain since childhood, underlies this gigantic architectonic whole. Mastering aspectual usage, at least, as a reader and a listener, involves simultaneously grasping this intuitive/logical principle AND learning to apply it, to implement it as we read and listen (and, hopefully, as we write and speak). Anything other than that, in my opinion, will lead only to guess-work and to a linguistic dead-end and, probably, to the madhouse. There is a world of a difference between the two aspectual sentences offered here, and a failure to catch the aspectual nuance is a fundamental failure at understanding meaning. Let no one tell you otherwise. They are not interchangeable. On the contrary: they are worlds apart, as they should be. Russians know this though they may not be able to articulate the distinction. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by this failure on the part of the Russian native to explain what, after all, is second nature to him or her. We would feel equally nonplussed if asked to explain certain distinctions in English (and not just the ubiquitous problem of articles!). We, too, would throw up our hands in despair and say: “Well, it doesn’t really matter.” No! It is these distinctions that make a language what it is. It is our challenge as students to ask these kinds of questions and, insofar as possible, to paraphrase Hamlet, “to pluck out the heart” of the mystery of the Russian language.
Appendix 10: “soglasit’sia vs. soglashat’sia”
Here is a classic illustration of aspectual decision making focussing on one verb: soglashat’sia vs. soglasit’sia (to agree to). The dialogue is taken from the Internet. Please note the subtle distinction between the pure, imperfective use of “soglashat’sia” (and its finite forms) and the empirical, perfective use of “soglasit’sia”.
ISKUSSTVO NE SOGLASHAT’SIA (KYSOCHEK INDIVIDUAL’NOI RABOTY)
- U menia est’ gipoteza, chto dlia vas vopros kontrolia ne sil’no zavisit ot pola cheloveka. Imeyu v vidu, chto vam voobshche slozhno soglashat’sia. Ne tol’ko s muzhchinoi, no i s zhenshchinoi. Potomu, chto soglashat’sia – znachit podchiniat’sia. Znachit – teriat’ kontrol’. Posmotrite, vot ya tut sizhu. I so mnoi vam tozhe ochen’ trudno prosto soglasit’sia, verno?
- Net, u menia s etim vsyo prosto. Chto by mne ni skazali, ya nikogda ne soglashayus’ srazu. Snachala ya vsegda govoriu “net!”. Potom prokhodit 5 minut, i ya delayu to, chto nuzhno.
- Akh, kak krasivo.
- Vy ochen’ krasivo ne soglashaetes’.
- …? Pochemu? Ya soglasilas’!
- Smotrite. Ya skazala vam, chto dlia vas trudno soglashat’sia.
- I vy govorite: “Ya nikogda ne soglashayus’ srazy. No prokhodit 5 minut, i ya soglashayus’.
- Takim obrazom, poluchilos’, chto vy kak by soglasilis’ so mnoi, no na samom dele vy ne soglasilis’. Ved’, ya skazala vam, chto vam trudno soglashat’sia, a vy otvetili, chto vam trudno tol’ko pervye piat’ minut. To est’, vy skazali tem samym, chto na samom dele vam soglashat’sia legko.
- …?!!! Ne ponimayu.
- Piat’ minut uzhe proshlo.
- i chto?
- Soglashaites’. Priznaites’, chto vam voobshche trudno soglashat’sia, a ne tol’ko pervye piat’ minut
Appendix 11: Chto delat’? as Utopian Discourse
The question “Chto delat’?” (“What is to be done?) was first asked by Chernyshevsky in his didactic novel of the same name. It was later asked again by Lenin and others. A brief bio of Chernyshevsky will quickly help explain its utopian foundations:
Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (July 12, 1828 – October 17, 1889) was a Russian revolutionary democrat, materialist philosopher, critic, and socialist. He is seen by some as a utopian socialist. He was the leader of the revolutionary democratic movement of the 1860s, and was an influence on Lenin. The son of a priest, Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov in 1828, and stayed there till 1846. After graduating from St. Petersburg University in 1850, he taught literature at a school (gymnasium) in Saratov. From 1853 to 1862, he lived in St. Petersburg, and became the chief editor of Sovremennik (Contemporary), in which he published his chief literary reviews and his essays on philosophy. In 1862, he was arrested and confined in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, where he wrote his famous novel What Is To Be Done? In 1862 he was sentenced to ‘civil execution’ (mock execution), followed by penal servitude (1864-72), and by exile to Vilyuisk, Siberia (1872-83). He died on October 17, 1889, at the age of 61. Chernyshevsky was a founder of Narodism, Russian populism, and agitated for the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy and the creation of a socialist society. He thought of creating socialism based on the old peasant commune. (Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia)
As a utopian, Chernyshevsky (as Lenin after him) asked a question that could only be formulated in the pure, transcendental imperfective, NOT in the empirical perfective. He didn’t ask: “What is to be done so that…” (Chto sdelat’, chtoby…). For instance, the following empirical question would have been of little interest to either Chernyshevsky or Lenin: “What is to be done to raise the wages of the factory workers?” (“Chto sdelat’, chtoby povysit’ zarabotki rabochikh?”). That is an empirical question more appropriate to the English utilitarians or socialists. As utopians, they would have considered such a question to be beneath their dignity as revolutionary intelligenty (of whatever ideological stripe). Instead, they asked the more fundamental question: “What is to be done”? For instance, “What is to be done to destroy the old society and build a new one?” (Chto delat’…, i.e. chtoby razrushit’ staryi mir i postroit’ novyi?”). That is why the question is posed in the pure imperfective. The answer to this question can, of course, take either the form of either the pure imperfective (“Nam nado borot’sia” – “We have to struggle”) or the empirical perfective: “My dolzhni razrushit’ staryi mir” – “We have to destroy the old world”). This demonstrates how each aspectual decision, while influenced by the general context, must also be made and processed on its own terms.
Appendix 12: “ob”iavit’ voinu” vs. “ob”iavliat’ voinu”
Finally, here is an example that really shows how elusive and yet how all-important aspectual distinctions are in practice. Both of the above sentences would be rendered in English as “The government is planning to declare war.” However, the subtle distinction between the two, which rests
ENTIRELY on aspect, is one that, misunderstood or not understood at all, can have the most devastating consequences for the countries involved.
Both the Perfective “ob”iavit’ voinu” and the Imperfective “ob”iavliat’ voinu” (as predicate clauses of the auxiliary verb “sobiraetsia”) could be translated similarly in English as “The government is planning to declare war”. However, the key difference between them is NOT one of being on a Perf/IMPF continuum or of single vs. frequentative number, etc. (see above). The two sentences are distinguished by the aspectual nuances of the Russian verb “to declare” (“ob”iavit’” vs. “ob”iavliat’”). “Pravitel’svto sobiraetsia ob”iavit’ voinu” is an empirical statement, that is, it means that the government has a clear plan of action in mind, that its plans for declaring war are definite, even if a specific time and place have not yet been set. But the government’s mind is made up. It is definitely planning to declare war.
On the other hand, the Imperfective “Pravitel’stvo sobiraetsia ob”iavliat’ voinu” expresses mere intention, that is, it is a pure, noumenal statement that means “nothing”, i.e., that refers to “nothing.” It does NOT refer to any empirical data or experience. In short, it means that the government may be planning to declare war but that it has no specific, definite, real plan in mind. The plan to declare war is merely considered and presented as such only, that is, as a possibility. Thus, what appears to be a minor, insignificant distinction may, in the hands of an inexperienced translator, lead to a catastrophic misunderstanding about the intentions and plans of the adversary.
So, we see that the distinction between the Empirical Perfective and the Transcendental Imperfective is at the heart of Russian verbal discourse and demands the utmost concentration on the part of the foreigner as he seeks to follow the subtle objective and subjective shifts in meaning in the use of the aspects.
First and foremost, it is critical to understand that aspect is a unique phenomenon, that is NOT to be confused with any other feature of Russian grammar such as tense, mood, etc. (see above), that while context helps to determine the use of one or the other aspect, the aspectual distinction is a thing in and of itself, that is, it is a grammatical category that expresses, as Gasparov so well puts it, two distinct and, I would reiterate, mutually exclusive world-views. That’s the secret of understanding the Russian aspects. The rest is implementation, a long and laborious process — at least at first — in which we seek to discern the workings-out of this fundamental principle of the aspects in all its kaleidoscopic variety.
After a few years of practice, one gets a handle on this key feature of Russian grammar. Naturally, there is no end to learning and no end to discovering new subtleties of aspectual usage. But such new discoveries are understood not as exceptions to the underlying, binary principle at work, but rather as further implementations of it, that is, within the framework of its linguistic structure. In fact, it is astonishing how this simple Empirical/Transcendental principle, this dualistic world-view, can produce such a rich body of linguistic effects. But then again, who ever said that Russian was easy? The greater our intellectual curiosity about the Russian language, the greater will be our awareness of its problems and issues, NOT less.
Mozart may be a piece of cake for a beginner, but he is a supreme challenge for a great pianist. As foreigners, we may never read, not to mention speak or write, like a native Russian (though we think we do), but we should certainly respect the complexity and intricacy of their linguistic performance, even if they themselves often fail to fully appreciate it. And aspectual usage, while only one element of the miracle that is Russian, deserves constant fine-tuning on our part, who are curious about the “why,” by seeking the help of our Russian friends, who are best at providing the “how”. We too, like native speakers everywhere, often fail to understand the linguistic miracle that is English. We come to realize this usually only when seeing it from outside, through the eyes of foreigners, who are as mystified by the subtleties of our linguistic performance as we are by theirs.
I have attempted to offer my personal explanation for the “why” of Russian aspectual usage. I leave it to you, the reader, both Russian and American, to judge for yourself whether I have succeeded.
NOTE: For an MSWord copy of this essay, click below: