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Question: Can someone explain what the difference between посмеяться and засмеяться is?

Both have смеяться (to laugh) as their imperfective form, so I am really confused about what the difference might be -- usually perfective verbs with different meanings have different imperfective forms, yet not this time.

Both verbs appear in my flashcards of the most common verbs in Russian, and I am unsure of what to write in order to remember the difference between them.

Attempt: Here is my working hypothesis for now:

засмеяться - to laugh only in the sense of "to begin laughing"

посмеяться - to laugh in any other sense.

This seems to be corroborated by the following lines of evidence:

  • The Wiktionary articles for засмеяться and посмеяться.
  • These internet flashcards I found, which define засмеяться as "to start laughing" and посмеяться as "to laugh, to chuckle".
  • Most of the google image results for засмеяться say "попробуй не засмеяться" which I would translate as "try not to (begin) laugh(ing)" while a lot of the google image results for посмеяться are "демотиваторы для посмеяться" which I would translate as "demotivators for laughing (but not necessarily beginning to laugh)".

On the other hand, this dictionary translates both verbs as simply meaning "to laugh".

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One of Russian language treats is that it can convey the finest nuance of the verb's aspect (how does the state or action described by the verb develop in time) morphologically rather than analytically (meaning changing a single word using prefixes and suffixes rather than building a phrase out of many words).

These nuances sometimes cannot be explained very well in other languages in a few words, and mostly are not even that significant. It's just that Russian works this way, the same way you have to use definite and indefinite articles with nouns in English or have to add evidential markers to verbs in Quechua (this means that in Quechua you can't state a fact without expressing the way you learned about it; you can't just say "that horse is black", you can only say "I saw that horse was black" or "I think that horse is black" or "that horse is black they say"). This is just how language works and in fact most of the time you can omit those details in translation.

In Russian, there are lots of perfective verbs formed from this root: засмеяться, посмеяться, рассмеяться, пересмеяться, отсмеяться, усмеяться etc., all with basic sense of laughing but focusing on different aspects of how does the laughing develop in time. Some of the prefixes have more or less established meaning (you can tell the aspect from looking at the prefix); others are ad-hoc and you just have to learn that form by heart to be able to use it correctly.

That said, засмеяться focuses on the beginning of laughing indeed and at the same time is the "default" perfective form of the verb meaning to "laugh": if you ask a Russian to put я смеюсь in future, most would say я засмеюсь (Russian forms simple future tense by replacing an imperfective verb with perfective). This is what is used by default to convey the meaning of "laugh" when the grammar requires a perfective verb.

Музыка стихла. В наступившей тишине кто-то засмеялся. // The music faded. Someone's laugh broke the silence.

Я думал, она заплачет. Нет, она не заплакала, она засмеялась… // I thought she would cry. But she didn't cry, she laughed.

Посмеяться is a more specific word, it focuses on first starting the laugh then ending it. It could be translated as "to have had a laugh".

Оба посмеялись, как это бывает в таких случаях у мужчин. // They both have had a laugh, as it is customary between men on such occasions.

И командировочный опять посмеялся, глядя на Нюру. // And the business trip man had a laugh again looking at Nyura.

  • TIL there's a real world E-Prime equivalent – jwalker Apr 20 '17 at 19:07
  • Thank you for the very thorough answer. Just so you can save more time in the future, I didn't indicate in my question that I was confused about perfective vs imperfective aspect; it's just that, in this specific case, смеяться has two possible choices for a perfective partner, so the ambiguity for me lay in the fact that neither of the two verbs seemingly could just be remembered/understood as "the" perfective form of смеять, since смеять doesn't have a single choice of perfective form. (E.g. usually it seems that when one adds a prefix to an imperfective verb to get a perfective verb, – Chill2Macht Apr 21 '17 at 11:28
  • the imperfective version of this perfectivized verb is a new imperfective verb, so it leads to a new imperfective/perfective pair, so it is possible to just learn two different imperfective/perfective pairs and associate one meaning to both, e.g. смотреть/посмотреть, then add the prefix раз- to смотреть to get рассмотреть, the prefix perfectivizes, so рассмотреть is perfective -- but the imperfective partner of рассмотреть is a new verb, рассматрывать, so one can just learn рассматрывать/рассмотреть and смотреть/посмотреть. But with смеять there's no "засмеивать" or "посмеивать". – Chill2Macht Apr 21 '17 at 11:32
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    @Chill2Macht: fwiw, Russian has both засмеиваться and посмеиваться, though they don't correspond to засмеяться and посмеяться in meaning. – Quassnoi Apr 21 '17 at 12:17
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You are almost right. "Засмеяться" indeed means "to start, to begin to laugh". But "посмеяться" means "to laugh for a short period of time".

"Я посмеялся" - I laughed (but I don't laugh any more now).

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Посмеяться means 1)to laugh for some time or 2) if you have an object or a person to laugh at, to joke, to mock at someone.

Мы посмеялись его шутке. Посмеяться над анекдотом. Посмеяться над чувствами влюбленного. Посмеяться над приятелем. Она посмеялась надо мной и была, наверное, права.

Засмеяться means to start laughing

Он услышал анекдот и засмеялся.

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no different. Example: "Она посмеялась" = "Она засмеялась"

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