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First, for the aim of this question I must say that I am not familiar with the Russian language, but I read a bit about it and am curious. I've never learned Russian before and just able to say a handful of sentences.
Thus the intention of this question is to get a rough understanding of what the aspect actually is and how it does work.

I read that the Russian language does have three tenses (past, present, future) and contains a concept called aspect. There are two aspects, the perfective and the imperfective aspect, which determine if actions are successfully completed or not.

I'm not sure if I understand that concept correctly. Maybe it's the wrong way trying to compare them with the English tenses, but that's what I actually do. However, in my current understanding there are several things which the English language supports, but Russian not. First, are English and Russian tenses somehow comparable or is it the wrong way to start with?

For instance, I wonder why there is no perfective aspect in present. What about actions that have happened right now, but are already completed. I think of the English present perfect:

I have cooked dinner.

This action is already completed, but very close to now. Is such a thing only provided by the past perfective using catchwords like "just now" to declare that the action has just recently happened?

And does the past perfective also cover the English past perfect? If an action had been completed before another action started, how does the Russian language provide that? And to go one step further: What about progressive tenses? E.g. how to differ between past perfect and past perfect progressive:

I had read a book ...

I had been waiting ....

My best guess regarding those two tenses is:

  • past perfect -> past perfective
  • past perfect progressive -> past imperfective

But if that were true then either the past perfective do in fact cover two (or even more) English tenses or my conjecture for the "cooking-example" above is totally wrong.

So, it's very confusing to me how a language can handle all requirements in specifying time measurements with a little set of tenses. So, what does the aspect cover? Is it (as the name suggests) the equivalent to the English perfect tenses or is it actually more?

  • 3
    I found a good document explaining the aspects but it's in Italian. I'll translate it soon and compose an answer. :) – Alenanno Jun 14 '12 at 23:41
  • @Alenanno Unfortunately I indeed don't know Italian, accordingly I would appreciate that. – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 6:53
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    I think this is an example of a very interesting and appropriate question for this site. Someone should now ask about articles :) – texnic Jun 15 '12 at 9:03
  • @Em1 I started posting the first part. Let me know if you want me to improve some parts or anything. :) – Alenanno Jun 15 '12 at 11:43
  • @Alenanno I already read and up-voted your answer. It's comprehensible and helpful. If there's anything which need improvements ... I can't say ;) – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 12:13
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There are indeed less tenses in Russian. There used to be more, but that was long, long time ago.

How do you convey exactly what you want to? You can either just forget about it (when the correct tense should be obvious from the context, provided the person you are speaking to is willing to employ common sense), or throw in additional, clarifying words.

I have cooked dinner.
Я приготовил ужин. (which is not actually different from 'I cooked dinner'.)

When looking at the sentence alone, you can't really tell when the dinner was made. This is where you refer to the context.

When are you saying that?

Are you speaking to someone over the phone and making a hint you would love them drop in? Then obviously you don't need to clarify the dinner is freshly made.

Are you telling a story to your friends next day, about the great dinner you made (and the person you shared it with)? Then again, the context is enough for your listeners to understand that you are referring to dinner you made yesterday, which has long been eaten.

And only when the context is ambiguous, you may want to clarify:

Я только что приготовил ужин.


As for past perfect: you use clarifying words to establish order in which events happened in the past:

Я прочитал книгу.
Given the lack of context, can be "I read the/a book"; or "I have read the/a book"; or "I had read the/a book".

Я [уже] прочитал книгу [на тот момент].
Now you make it clear the book had been read when the event you're describing occured.

Я ждал.
I waited. I was waiting. I have been waiting. I had been waiting.

[К тому моменту] я [уже какое-то время] ждал.
Now you make it clear you had been waiting for some time.


Bonus chatter: It is not possible to translate "I'm loving it" to Russian. (The official translation back-translates as "This is what I like".)

  • About "There used to be more, but that was long, long time ago." - That's interesting. I didn't know that. As I said I'm not familiar with the Russian language, thus could you provide me with a short information: Is it worth to make an on-line search about that and would that be an appropriate question on RLU as well? – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 9:46
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    @Gserg "Я тащусь/прусь" :) – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 15 '12 at 9:50
  • @VitalyMijiritsky Right now or in general? ;) – GSerg Jun 15 '12 at 10:06
  • @Em1 Only if you want to study the history of Russian language. We're talking about thousands years here. – GSerg Jun 15 '12 at 10:07
  • @Em1 I think linguistics.SE would be a better fit for such questions. That's in no way definitive, however. – kotekzot Jun 15 '12 at 16:11
17

In this document, Il verbo russo: il problema dell'aspetto1, there is a nice analysis, but since it's Italian, I'll translate it for you. I'll also include parts from other sources.

From the lexical-grammatical point of view, the Russian verbs are divided into three classes: aspectual, transitive/intransitive and personal/impersonal. Let's take only the first one for this case.

The verbs that belong to the aspectual class, are divided into two additional categories: verbs that possess whatever limitation in terms of space/time/other and verbs that have no such limitations. Some examples are (taken from the document:

  • писать: "to write", writing without any limitations of time.
  • написать: "to write", writing bringing that act to completion.
  • гулять: "to stroll, to walk, to wander", without limitations.
  • погулять: "to stroll, to walk, to wander", do the same action but for a while (the limitation is present).

The two aspects are called Perfective, in Russian совершенный вид (СВ), and Imperfective, несовершенный вид (НСВ).

The Russian language, unlike other languages, conveys the additional meanings and other information using the verbs' aspects. For example:

  • Я писал письмо: НСВ, process, duration.
  • Я написал письмо: СВ, reaching the act completion.

Now let's get to the different features of these two aspects (the terms in the document are not easily translatable, so I'll try to express them with common expressions. If someone finds mistakes, feel free to comment).

Imperfective

  1. describing an action being performed by the subject.
  2. actions that are repeated (you usually add adverbs to indicate this like иногда, часто, регулярно, каждый день, etc.).
  3. durative action.
  4. describing an action that doesn't reach completion.
  5. it describes the try of reaching a result.
  6. describing an action but including the opposite one. The classic example for this is: Кто-то открывал окно — Somebody opened the window. But a possible implication would be "The room changed air (thanks to someone opening the window), but the window is now closed."
  7. describing an action that hasn't being brought to completion.

Perfective

  1. describing an action, but highlighting its result and above all, the wanted result. For example Я прочитал книгу. I read a book (and I finished it).
  2. describes many repeated actions but summarized: Каждому сказал своё.
  3. inchoative action: it describes an action at the moment of its start, such as in он закричал. (he started to shout). Or бежать, "to run" and побежать, "to start running".

The classification is much more complicated, because we'd need to include:

  1. the verbs describing motion (which deserve a completely separated book) like идти/ходить, etc...
  2. The fact that not all verbs change aspect because of a prefix but also changing other parts: отвечать/ответить
  3. Some verbs don't just change aspect but also meaning.

Tenses

The imperfective is present in past, present and future, infinitive and imperative. The perfective only for the *future. The present usually describes a current action or something that happens regularly, and so the perfective is not fit to describe this kind of action.

Future

  • composite future: буду + imperfective infinitive (habit, repetitiveness)
  • simple future: perfective verb, present conjugation (unique action, not repeated)

Infinitive

  • with phasic verbs2: usually the imperfective is adopted.
  • to desire, to want, to promise: with verbs like these, both perfective and imperfective can be used (also with negation). The imperfective shows the hope/will that the action has a regular or repeated follow-up. The perfective just for a single event.

Imperative

  1. the perfective refers to:

    • a single request, that should be done in that moment.
    • a compulsory, peremptory request.
  2. the imperfective, instead refers to:

    • negative requests (Don't do this!)
    • a request to start a certain action.
    • an invitation in order to make the subject keep doing the action after some hesitation.
    • an invitation in order to make the subject perform an action in the desired way.
    • a courtesy request (like favor, I think).

1: The Russian verb: the aspect problem
2: See comments. "phasic" was hard to translate in this case. A better word might exist.

  • I'll be soon including the part about the tenses. :) – Alenanno Jun 15 '12 at 11:42
  • What is a "phasic verb"? – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 14:35
  • @Em1 That was hard to translate... For example "начать" would belong to that category, but I'm not sure how it's translated in English... – Alenanno Jun 15 '12 at 14:37
  • Does that mean in "I began reading a book" (can't provide any Russian example ;)) the verb begin is a phasic verb? ... Wow, anyway I think I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow. Google "phasic verb" and creating a new question on RLU ;) – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 14:42
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    @Alenanno: In fact the example with verbs of movement probably does not belong to the general explanation about imperfective / perfective. However, I think this example also follows the pattern of "performing one action followed by its opposite". – Giorgio Jun 16 '12 at 9:08
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Actually you come pretty close with your guesses. There are basically two questions you have to ask yourself when trying to select the tense and the aspect:

  1. Is the action done in the past, the present or the future?
  2. Has the action been completed or not?

The first question is obvious, it selects the tense. The second question defines the aspect: if the action has been completed, then the aspect is perfective, otherwise it is imperfective.

Perfect tenses correspond to the perfective aspect as this is the only type of tenses which tells us that the action is over. All other tenses in English (Simple, Progressive, and Perfect Progressive) correspond to the imperfective aspect because they all imply that the action still continues.

By default a message with the imperfective aspect is understood as Progressive. For example, я пеку пирог without any additional context will be understood as you are cooking it right now, at the moment. If you want to signify that you do this on a daily basis, you can say я обычно пеку пирог which corresponds to Present Simple. The same thing is done if you want to tell that you have started this action some time ago in the past, but still continue doing it: я уже пеку пирог, and this is equivalent to Present Perfect Progressive.

3

In general the OP is completely right: there are less tenses in Russian than in English. There is no progressive form either. This makes it possible to express in English something in fewer words, or to add subtle meaning to a phrase. Of course, as any other language, Russian offers other means to express yourself.

Back to the original question:

So, what does the aspect cover? Is it (as the name suggests) the equivalent to the English perfect tenses or is it actually more?

Yes, aspect is basically equivalent to the perfect vs. simple difference in English. In English it is the time of doing an action that is stressed. I had cooked, I have cooked, I will have cooked. In Russian, it's the fact itself: was/is there a success in cooking or not? Thus you use just two aspects in Russian instead of three tenses in English.

There is no progressive form of verbs in Russian at all. How can Russian survive without it? It offers alternatives. In English the progressive form is built using a gerund, which can be replaced with a participle in Russian. For example:

the man going along the street — человек, идущий по улице

Russian also has adverbial participles, like in

while going along the street... — идя по улице...

As you see, it's again a replacement of an English tense with something else. In this case it actually helps Russian to be more concise.

To give one further example of such differences between different languages, in German the perfect tense has nothing to do with the result of an action at all: in oral speech it's almost exclusively used as the only past tense:

Ich habe gemacht — I have done/I did/I was doing — Я сделал/я делал.

  • Oh, I think you just get me wrong when saying "How a language can work". Re-reading that I agree that it sounds somehow negative, but actually what I just want to express is: "How does this language handle all requirements in expressing detailed tense measurements with this rare set of tenses" I will amend my question to clarify that statement. – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 9:13
  • @Em1 I hope I didn't sound too defensive either. Anyway it's a good point for everyone: different languages use different means, and what looks weird and awkward in the beginning later yields to admiration to the grace of how the language handles something. That's why learning languages is such a pleasure—at least once you are there :) I remember my first reaction when our English teacher told us of the number of tenses in English :) – texnic Jun 15 '12 at 9:19
  • @Em1 Just realised you're from Germany :) Then you can probably better than me explain the differences between German and English tenses. – texnic Jun 15 '12 at 9:29
  • You're right about German, and it's a good example. As a native German I never wondered about it. I just grew up with it and it's absolutely natural to me. Nonetheless, a question about the German tenses on GLU is fine as well, but I know that a single question can't cover the usage ;) For instance, as you already mentioned the perfect is used as simple past in English, but in spoken language only. In novels or news the preterit is used instead. What we do to determine when it happened is using catchwords, that's why I asked in my question if it's the same in Russian. – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 9:36
3

To add a note to the excellent answers above: the concept aspect can be very confusing. For example, I haven't realized how difficult it is till the moment I started learning Russian and it exists in my mother language (Slovak) as well!

There are no hard rules, how these words are made. I.e. even if you perfectly understand when/how to use it, you still have to learn perfect-imperfect pairs. Few examples (imperfect/perfect):

читать / прочитать

писать / написать

учить / выучить

делать / сделать

One imperfect word can have many perfect forms (and these perfect forms may but may not have different meanings!)

писать / написать, прописать, выписать, ...

нести / принести, вынести, ...

Prefixes used for perfect forms can be used also for imperfect ones:

находить / найти

There's no rule that if there's a word in imperfect form that then there's a word in perfect form and vice versa:

организовать, рекомендовать (here literally perfect = imperfect)

Funny thing is these forms changes from one Slavic language to another. For example in Slovak, we've got perfect forms for the both of them.

These are just random thoughts, feel free to correct me, I'm far from being a good Russian speaker ...

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