Move over, Cyrillic, and move over, Case… Verbs are what makes Russian really tough, and its verbal aspect is probably the apex of said difficulty. Russian aspect is complex in all of its dimensions—verbs are marked for aspect by an array of prefixes and suffixes, and the usage of perfective and imperfective verbs can be mysterious even for those who have studied Russian for years and years. Adding to this complexity is the fact that aspect is inextricably intertwined with other parts of Russian grammar (case and voice, to name two big ones). It should therefore come as no surprise that Russian aspect has exercised linguists—or aspectologists, as they call themselves—for a little over a century.
Alas, не каждому дано быть аспектологом—not everyone is lucky enough to be an aspectologist. Russian Aspect in Conversation is thus aimed at demystifying some important uses of imperfective verbs for learners of Russian at the upper-intermediate level and above. It focuses on patterns of imperfective usage in infinitives, imperatives and the past tense that involve single completed/completable actions that are difficult for foreign learners to grasp. In point of fact, it is the reality that imperfective verbs can and do refer to single, complete(d) actions—ordinarily considered to be the domain of the perfective aspect—that students need to wrap their minds around. Only then are they ready to learn how Russian aspect is really used in conversation.
Why should students care about aspect in particular? There are two answers to this question. First, as Šatunovsкij has suggested, aspect is arguably the central grammatical category of Russian, and getting a good grasp of it is essential to getting a feel for that elusive “spirit” of the Russian language. Second, aspect is the only grammatical category mentioned by name in the ACTFL guidelines for foreign language proficiency. For example, the guidelines state that “Advanced Mid speakers demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future by providing a full account, with good control of aspect.” Such benchmarks confirm the importance of the control of aspect in a foreign language.
With regard to Russian aspect, narration is relatively simple: perfective verbs are used for sequenced events, whereas imperfective verbs are used for various kinds of background material (elaborations referring to states, processes and repeated events). There are of course exceptions to these tendencies, but they are fairly minor and need not tie one down like grammatical Lilliputians. In any case, Russian aspectual usage in narration is not covered in this textbook. Nor are the details of prefixation and suffixation treated in detail, though part 1 reviews the basic facts. Rather, as the title Russian Aspect in Conversation suggests, the focus here is on aspectual usage in dialogue, which is where things can get very difficult for the uninitiated.
The structure of this textbook is as follows. Part 1 reviews the form of imperfective and perfective verbs, and Part 2 reviews the basic kinds of imperfective usage. Part 3 covers patterns of aspectual usage in the infinitive with phase verbs, modal verbs (хотеть/захотеть, мочь/смочь, and приходиться/прийтись) and adverbs (можно and надо). Part 4 covers tricky uses of the imperfective imperative, and is in some ways the densest part. Part 5 covers various types of uses in which imperfective verbs refer to single completed events in the past. Each of the core modules consists of exercises that proceed from more passive exercises focusing on interpretations of aspectual forms to an active exercise in which the student must choose the correct aspect in a context. Parts 3–5 focus as much as possible on the intentions of the speaker in a conversation, as opposed to abstract aspectological concepts, thought the two approaches are reconciled here and there. The language material consists almost exclusively of conversational dialogues based on attestations in the Russian National Corpus and Russian fiction, film and online content, which utilize verbs typical of intermediate- and advanced-level textbooks where possible. (Difficult vocabulary is glossed throughout.) The Russian-language material has been produced and revised by co-authors Kamila Saifeeva and Anna Karpusheva in consultation with me, and our subsequent discussions have in turn greatly influenced the explanations and commentaries on the exercises contained herein. I would like to thank them sincerely for the enormous amount of collaborative research, introspection, and discussion that has created a unique resource for learners of Russian.
We are well aware of the possibility of indeterminacy of contexts with regard to aspectual choice (on such indeterminacy, see Janda and Reynolds 2019). With this problem in mind, our approach has been to determine the intent of the speaker in various situational contexts, and to construct dialogues based on that situational intent and indeed to explain the usage in terms of this intent. This has helped us to reduce the indeterminacy of the context. However, in some discourse situations it never really goes away. Thus, in some of the exercises in which students are asked to choose the most appropriate aspect, both the perfective and imperfective choices are given as correct, with different points of feedback to help students understand the difference .
Although we have made every effort to avoid linguistic jargon and striven to isolate the essentials of the content and boil them down into manageable chunks, we have no illusions about the ease with which students can assimilate the content presented here and activate it in their own language use. We do believe, however, that intellectually grasping the various chunks will enable students a solid understanding of what aspect does, and eventually (in combination with other materials and input) lead to such activation. At the very least, Russian Aspect in Conversation should leave students with an organized understanding of the kinds of elements of meaning that perfective and imperfective verbs contribute in conversational usage, so that they will not be completely lost if they encounter some aspectual usage that is unfamiliar.
The approach of Russian Aspect in Conversation is based on my linguistic work on Russian aspect, and there is a bigger aspectological picture behind the exercise material. However, as mentioned above the body of the textbook does its utmost to keep linguistic concepts and terminology to a minimum. For those who are interested in that picture, the Afterword discusses the principles and rules introduced in parts 3–5 in a broader context.
Drs. Alina Israeli, Sergey Say, Irina Six and Valentina Soboleva provided feedback on some of the exercises in part 4. Their assistance is gratefully acknowledged; however, they bear no responsibility for any inaccuracies in the module.
We welcome questions and/or feedback, please send to email@example.com.
Stephen M. Dickey
Work on this project began in the Fall of 2020. It was released in March of 2023.