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Teaching aspect

July 12, 2018

This isn’t about literature, but it may be of interest. Background: Russian verbs have two aspects, imperfective and perfective, and they’re hard for English-speaking learners of Russian to get right. A perfective verb in Russian will usually correspond to a non-continuous form in English (did, will do), while a continuous form in English (was doing, is doing, will be doing) is almost always translated with an imperfective verb in Russian. But you can’t go the other way, and learning when to use which is, in my opinion, harder than the case system for nouns and adjectives and almost as hard as learning where to put the stress on a word.

Oscar E. Swan thinks that students would have a better chance of getting it if teachers taught aspect differently. Here are the two ways he doesn’t like. First, the nonpast-vs.-past framework used by Roman Jakobson:

This elegantly captures the similarity between the imperfective present and the perfective future by classifying them as “nonpast.” To my English mentality, the Russian perfective future can have a bit of a modal flavor, and I like the way “nonpast” links it to more than the future. But as Swan says, this diagram leaves out буду, будешь, будет, будем… + imperfective infinitive altogether.

Next is the default way today’s textbooks present things, which does include the будем + infinitive compound future:

If you’ve taken Russian in the last several decades, you’ll recognize the diagram above. Here is what Swan proposes replacing it with:

Why? Swan’s central insight, backed by frequency data (836-39), is that the perfective is used more often in both the past and the future tenses, so we shouldn’t train students to believe the imperfective is the default. If you start in the middle of the row, the present tense (always imperfective) is the most common finite form. Moving one column left or right, you get the “compact past” and “compact future,” the next most common forms for many verbs, which correspond to the perfective past and perfective future in traditional terminology. At the left and right extremes, the “diffuse,” a.k.a. imperfective, past and future are least common — at least, compound future forms like мы будем делать tend to be less common than simple future forms like мы сделаем, though the situation is murkier in the past tense.

Swan’s table also doesn’t leave any empty cells. If traditionally teachers say that a perfective form like сделали has no present-tense equivalent, in Swan’s system we can just say that the present tense of мы сделали is мы делаем (835).

I thought this was persuasive enough to be worth thinking about and posting here, but I wonder how it would affect intermediate and advanced language learners trying to get a handle on the other imperfective/perfective distinctions. The past and future forms are hard enough, but for me at least the choice of which infinitive (делать or сделать?) or imperative (делай or сделай?) form to use was even more difficult to figure out, and no doubt I still make mistakes. I’d be curious how Swan would approach those forms pedagogically.

Also, I’m not ready to let go of the idea that the imperfective aspect is unmarked, and the perfective marked. I feel like there are uses of the imperfective “in the wild” that I’d be at a loss to explain without markedness to fall back on. At the same time, it’s easy to make a sentence frame where a perfective verb would be unambiguously wrong, but harder to think of contexts where an imperfective form is impossible (even if the perfective is preferred). But it’s hard to argue with Swan’s point that learners can easily take this way of thinking too far:

In pedagogy [the terms “marked” and “unmarked”] are misleading because they encourage students to think that, because it is supposedly unmarked, the imperfective aspect is overall safest to use, when it is not. It is true that the perfective aspect expresses a narrower meaning than the imperfective, but if, despite that, perfective forms are the ones to be expected in past- and future-tense use, and they are, then in this sense they are not marked, but unmarked, and accordingly the perfective is the “safest” aspect to use in most instances. (835)

See “Sketching the Russian Tense-Aspect System for Verbs That Form Simple Aspect Pairs” by Oscar E. Swan, Slavic and East European Journal 61.4 (2017): 825-43 (no link). The tables above are slightly simplified versions Swan’s tables on pp. 833-35.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2018 9:06 am

    Here‘s a very interesting analysis of perfective prefixes that might be useful in teaching the topic.

    • July 13, 2018 10:45 am

      Thanks, very interesting! I’m only a few pages in, but I wonder if the Emptiness Hypothesis would fare better (and the Overlap Hypothesis worse) with a different division of what counts as a Natural Perfective vs. a Specialized Perfective. I’m not a native speaker and don’t know all the linguistics research, but my intuition is that писать-написать should count as a Natural Perfective, but путать-впутать shouldn’t. Nordrum seems to treat both as equally Natural.

  2. July 17, 2018 11:02 pm

    Apropos of the debate about whether the perfective or imperfective member of the aspectual pair is considered to be the default form, it is interesting how some dictionaries will refer you to the perfective verb if you look up the imperfective (Oxford Russian Dictionary and Ozhegov) and others will do the opposite (the Katzner dictionary and the Penguin Russian Dictionary).

    • July 18, 2018 2:20 am

      Are there really dictionaries that always refer you to the perfective? My Ozhegov treats the morphologically simpler verb as the default member of the pair: if you look up выделывать (impf.), the first definition is “see выделать” (pf.), but if you look up прочитать (pf.), the first definition is “see читать” (impf.). But I agree with you that it’s interesting how dictionaries take different approaches.

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