In this module we begin to cover more directly the discourse functions that imperfective statements of fact can have. The relevant group of verbs is that of verbs of communication, and this module is based on Israeli’s (2000) analysis of imperfective past-tense usage in this group of verbs, but with simplifications for language learners.
Fans of Russian literature will recognize the title to this module as coming from a scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, when Behemoth questions the theater manager Varenukha. If you go through this module, you will know exactly how aspect works with Russian verbs of communication, and you will not stammer in confusion like Varenukha, but speak smoothly and effectively.
Verbs of communication are special because any act of communication always involves a speaker and a listener, and the speaker’s communicative act can have different effects on the listener, i.e., it can influence the listener’s actions in various ways or not at all. The communication of these effects (as well as their absence) depends on the particular verb of communication involved and whether it is used in the imperfective or perfective aspect .
It might help outline the structure of the communications involved. At a point in time, which we will call speech time, there is an act of communication (which we will call the current act of communication) in which a speaker mentions to a listener some earlier act of communication, the original act of communication. The speaker of the original act of communication could be the speaker or listener in the current act of communication, or some other person.
Note that past-tense forms of imperfective verbs of communication, e.g., говорил, звонил, просил, обещал, etc., refer as often as not to repeated actions (and they can do this easily without adverbs of repetition such as всегда, часто, иногда, etc.). If so, none of the rules elaborated below apply. When you are reading or listening, make sure your context is that of a single action before you make use of these principles.
Without further ado, proceed to exercise A.
Examine the dialogues that follow and after each dialogue choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the attitude of the speaker. Then answer the question at the end of the exercise.
The usage covered in exercise A is not unique to verbs of communication, but can occur with any verb in principle (recall that such checking up by an authority to see whether a prior arrangement has been fulfilled was covered briefly in 5.1, exercise C). The remainder of this module treats aspectual usage that is based on the specific lexical meanings of verbs of communication.
First, we will focus on the following verbs: говорить/сказать ‘tell’, рассказывать/рассказать ‘tell [what happened]/narrate’, сообщать/сообщить ‘inform’, предупреждать/предупредить ‘warn’. What is at issue is the effect of the information on the listener.
Examine the dialogues that follow and after each dialogue choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the actions of the speaker. Then answer the question at the end of the exercise.
As mentioned above in the comments on exercises A and B, temporal and causal sequencing is very important for perfective usage. However, the consequences a communication event causes can sometimes be more minimal, as in the case of объяснять/объяснить ‘explain’, which is covered briefly in exercise C.
Read the two dialogues below and after each dialogue choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the information transfer.
The last section of this module focuses on usage with the verbs обещать/пообещать ‘promise’, предлагать/предложить ‘suggest, offer’, просить/попросить ‘request’, and приглашать/пригласить ‘invite’. As in exercise B, the crucial distinction involves the consequences of the act of communication. These verbs, which are very frequent, obligate the the speaker to do something (in the case of обещать/пообещать) or attempt to elicit a response and affect the conduct of the listener (in the case of предлагать/предложить, просить/попросить, and приглашать/пригласить).
Examine the dialogues below and choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the course of the communication.
Now try your luck with various verbs of communication in various contexts!
Examine the dialogues, and choose the aspect that is most appropriate in the context.
If there is a module in this textbook that demonstrates clearly how dependent Russian aspectual usage can be on the lexical meaning of a verb, this is it. There are some complexities in Israeli’s (2000) analysis which are omitted here for the sake of simplicity (and anyone wanting to know how Russian aspect works should really read her article), but the main tendencies are here and are essential for understanding and speaking contemporary Russian. To sum up, past-tense perfective usage signals one of three things:
- That the speaker is checking up based on his/her knowledge that a communication event was supposed to happen (and has the authority to do so), as opposed to merely being casually interested/reacting to the interlocutor’s statements;
- That someone is acting on the information they received in the communication event, as opposed to simply pointing out how they received the information;
- That, with verbs that require some acceptance and follow-up action, the perfective signals that the time for those actions has either not passed or that it has passed and the follow-up actions were carried out, as opposed to cases in which no follow-up actions occurred and the communication was ignored/disregarded.
It is important to point out that the imperfective usage that has been covered here leads Russians to make immediate inferences. For example, if someone says Меня приглашали туда a Russian will immediately conclude that the person did not go to the place s/he was invited to.
Other verbs of communication also pattern similar to the verbs covered in exercise D. One that is not covered here but operates on the same principles is спрашивать/спросить. Consider again the following dialogue from exercise E in module 5.2.
Начальница возвращается в офис после обеденного перерыва:
– Инесса Викторовна, к Вам адвокат приходил минут 20 назад, спрашивал, подготовили ли Вы документы в суд…
– Ага, спасибо, Ксения, я ему сейчас позвоню.
‘The boss comes back to her office after the lunch break:
“Inessa Viktorovna, the attorney came to see you 20 minutes ago, and asked whether you have prepared the documents for the hearing…”
“Ah, thanks, Kseniya, I’ll call him now.”’
In order for the past tense of perfective спросить to be used, the person who asked a question should have received an answer. In the dialogue above, Inessa Viktorovna was not in her office when the attorney came, and so he did not get an answer to his question.
Keep in mind that the imperfective usage covered here is in addition to the usage covered in module 5.1. Thus, verbs of communication may also be used in experiential statements of fact, as in the following:
Валерия обращается к подруге:
– Мы с ребятами хотим в Испанию слетать. На недельку. Давай с нами?
– Не, меня родители не отпустят…
– Ну ты же уже как-то уговаривала отпустить тебя в Сочи… Может, и в этот раз получится?
– Ой, нет… Испания – это совсем другое… Я за границу ни разу одна не ездила.
‘Valeriya is speaking to her friend:
“My friends and I want to fly to Spain. For a week. You want to come with us?”
“Nah, my parents won’t let me…”
“But you already once persuaded them to let you got to Sochi. Maybe it’ll work this time too?”
“Oh no… Spain is something else entirely… I’ve never been abroad.”’
Here it is clear from the context that Valeriya’s friend succeeded in persuading her parents—the reason for the imperfective is because Valeriya mentions it as a fact of her friend’s past experience without any substantive information about the circumstances and what happened in particular.
Finally, exercise A covered the use of verbs of communication to indicate how someone acquired some information. The next module covers the same function in some other high-frequency verbs.
- Israeli, Alina. (2000) “The Choice of Aspect in Russian Verbs of Communication”. Journal of Slavic Linguistics 9(1): 49–98. ↵