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There is a big conflict between what I was taught here in Japan and what is written in most Russian grammar sources, and I am very curious what the native speakers have to say about it. I am especially eager to hear responses to one very specific question, which I will ask at the end of this post.

Whilst most Russian grammar sources say that there are only three tenses in Russian (past, present, future), I was taught that there are more tenses, the exact number depending on how to count. The conception I was taught appears to be partially based on or partially concurrent with the book Российская Грамматика by М. Lomonosov, who wrote:

§ 268

Времен имеют российские глаголы десять: осмь от простых да два от сложенных; от простых: 1) настоящее — трясу, глотаю, бросаю, плещу; 2) прошедшее неопределенное — трясъ, глоталъ, бросалъ, плескалъ; 3) прошедшее однократное — тряхнулъ, глотнулъ, бросилъ, плеснулъ; 4) давнопрошедшее первое — тряхивалъ, глатывалъ, брасывалъ, плескивалъ; 5) давнопрошедшее второе — бывало трясъ, бывало глоталъ, бросалъ, плескалъ; 6) давнопрошедшее третие — бывало трясывалъ, глатывалъ, брасывалъ, плескивалъ; 7) будущее неопределенное — буду трясти; стану глотать, бросать, плескать; 8) будущее однократное — тряхну, глотну, брошу, плесну. От сложенных: 9) прошедшее совершенное, напр.: написалъ от пишу; 10) будущее совершенное — напишу.

I would like to show you an example of how I was taught to use these forms. Let's suppose I need to translate the following sentence to Russian:

I was sitting at a goban whereon great masters had played.

If I use the Russian standard past tense for both verbs, I get this:

Я сидела за доской, на которой играли великие мастера.

This Russian translation is ambiguous because it can be interpreted in two different ways:

  1. I was watching great masters playing.

  2. I was sitting at a historic goban whereon a number of great masters had played before.

This ambiguity can be removed by using the distant past tense, called давнопрошедшее by Lomonosov and absent in most Russian grammar sources:

Я сидела за доской, за которой игрывали великие мастера.

I was taught that this variant absolutely excludes the first interpretation because игрывали is a kind of Russian Past Perfect. It is also possible to strengthen the idea by adding бывало before игрывали (давнопрошедшее третье in Lomonosov's classification).

So it works as follows:

Infinitive: Eсть. Играть.

Past: Он ел. Он играл.

Distant Past: Он едал. Он игрывал.

Most Russian grammar sources, however, consider the forms едал and игрывал as the standard past tense of the verbs едать and игрывать, and consider the latter verbs as normal verbs defined as to eat sometimes and to play sometimes. For example, here is how Wiktionary defines the word едать:

едать: разг. многокр. к есть

In this conception, едать and игрывать do not have the connotation of distant past, that is, the connotation that the action was performed before the events that are told about.

And this difference between the conceptions prompts an ultimate test to determine which conception is true: Can you use "едать" and "игрывать" in the present and future tenses?

Can you, for example, say this:

Я едаю в этом кафе.

На каком сайте он игрывает в рэндзю?

Столовая больше не будет работать, поэтому буду едать дома.

Когда стану сильным игроком, буду игрывать в международных турнирах.

My logic is this: If you can say like that, then едать and игрывать are absolutely normal verbs and do not have the connotation of distant past (and hence I was taught wrong things), and if you cannot, then they have such a connotation (and hence I was taught right and many Russian grammar sources teach wrong things).

I tried to find the answer by searching similar phrases in Google, and my little investigation suggests that you cannot say phrases like the examples above. I found really very few such results, whilst I found many results with phrases like я едал.

And this suggests that the true conception is the one proposed by Lomonosov and taught to me in Japan, not the one given in most Russian grammar sources.

I am not surprised to have reached this conclusion, because Lomonosov was a great man. Or wasn't he? The Lomonosov Moscow State University bears his name for a reason. It is hard to believe that he was mistaken. I find it much easier to believe that most Russian grammar sources are oversimplified.

So my question is: Can you use едать and игрывать in the present and future tenses, and, if not, do you agree with my conclusion about which conception is true? I am very curious what you, native speakers, have to say.

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If you can say like that, then едать and игрывать are absolutely normal verbs and do not have the connotation of distant past (and hence I was taught wrong things)

In modern Russian language verbs forms of habitual or intermittent action in the past tense do bear a connotation of distant past, as they can't be accompanied by adverbials of time implying relatively short time spans such as (поза)вчера, (два) часа / (три) дня / (пять) месяцев назад, в прошлый четверг / в прошлом месяце/мае.

Can you use "едать" and "игрывать" in the present and future tenses?

To present and future tenses such verbs are only relevant if they bear the prefix по- (not all do however) e.g. пописываю, почитываю, полёживаю, поделываю, посматриваю. Their future tense paradigm is always analytical - буду пописывать etc.

Usage wise however they all have disappeared from active vocabulary, yet are still understandable.

I am not surprised to have reached this conclusion, because Lomonosov was a great man. Or wasn't he?

Нe absolutely was... for his time. It's been almost 300 years since his passing. Russian language, as well as, i'm sure, the Japanese, has changed as has its grammar theory. Lomonosov was just a pioneer, a trailblazer. Many of his views are no longer relevant.

All in all formally there're only 3 tenses in Russian, the rest are nuances which can be conveyed lexically with specific verb forms and other tricks.

The sentence

Я играла за доской на которой играли великие мастера

is perfectly fine. So as you can notice there's absolutely no difference between the verb forms играла and играли save for number, despite their denoting different past tenses. What in English and German would be expressed by means of Plusquamperfect in modern Russian is normally inferred from the context.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Quassnoi May 4 at 11:44
  • further clarifications are in the chat at the above link – Баян Купи-ка May 4 at 11:52
  • @баянкупика: if that's something worth mentioning, could you please move it to your answer? This way people who come here later could see everything right in your post. Thanks! – Quassnoi May 4 at 12:49
  • @Quassnoi appreciate the suggestion – Баян Купи-ка May 4 at 13:25
  • “Я играла за доской, на которой играли великие мастера. — Ты играла в рэндзю? — Я и сейчас [иногда] поигрываю.” sounds perfectly natural to me and something I might say myself. “Когда стану сильным игроком, буду [изредка] поигрывать в международных турнирах.” also wouldn’t surprise me, but I’m not sure if I’d use that form. In both cases, it is implied that the action happens more than once, but either sometimes/seldom or briefly (e. g., “пописываю [свою] книжку” or “почитываю журналы” might be frequent but only a short piece at a time). On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen “едать”. – Chortos-2 May 5 at 22:20
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Ломоносов жил 300 лет назад. The Russian language has changed a lot since his fabulous time. :)

Едать и игрывать are easily recognized as archaic words influencing the style.

Nowadays we have thee time-tenses (Past, Present, Future) and two aspects (non-perfective + perfective).

Perfective verbs are not used in the Present.

As the means of transforming a non-perfective verb to a perfective one are different, we can hardly say that they are two different forms of one verb.

So, aspects are one category, tenses are another category, and they are only three.

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Since your original question was more generic than a specific question about two verbs, I'd venture my opinion on that broader question.

It is unfair to compare Lomonosov's grammar to the modern Russian grammar. Both of them try to explain all flexible word forms and establish a minimal group of orthogonal (mutually independent) properties, so that all possible word forms could be explained as a combination of those properties. But they approach this task from different positions.

Lomonosov introduced the concept of "one-time action" and "frequent action" - "однократные и учащательные глаголы", for example "видеть-видать", "слышать-слыхать", "гневиться-гневаться", "движить-двигать". In modern Russian we don't (well, save the verbs of movement). From the modern point of view they are different verbs rather than forms of the same verb. So, there's no such tense like "будущее однократное" nor "прошедшее однократное" any more.

Lomonosov implied that the aspect is an attribute of tense, so he had, for example, "совершенное прошедшее". In modern Russian we attribute aspect to the verb and we have pairs of "несовершенный глагол - совершенный глагол" like "глотать - глотнуть". That also reduces (halves?) the number of tenses required to explain all the verb flexion.

My point is that the number of tenses depends on how you define tense. If your definition of tense includes aspect and frequency - you get more tenses.

  • Well, I believe that you have no right to define tenses in any way you wish, because there is a very important criterion you have to fulfill: Practically every verb should be available for use in every tense of yours. The problem with the three-tense system in Russian is that a wide class of verbs can be used only in the past tense and cannot be used in the present tense or the future tense - игрывать, двигивать, тряхивать, валивать and so on. These verbs usually end with -ивать or -ывать, have no prefix, and have the first vowel stressed. – Mitsuko May 3 at 17:24
  • So if you consider these verbs as a separate tense rather than separate verbs, and consider the suffixes -ивать or -ывать as a means of forming this tense, you fulfill the above criterion. And by using these suffixes I can make this tense from almost every verb: махивал, лавливал, жаривал, глатывал, плёскивал, тряхивал, валивал, двигивал, игрывал and so on. Whatever I try, Google confirms I make a valid word! I am at a loss why on earth this is not officially recognized as a separate tense in modern Russian. – Mitsuko May 3 at 17:27
  • The only valid reason I can see is that the use of such verbs gets somewhat outdated or archaic, but I have to say that by getting rid of various grammar forms you may slowly be losing your rich and wonderful language. For example, you already practically lost locative and partitive cases, which are barely used nowadays. The classic Russian writers lived and worked in the epoch when all these forms were still there. I see a huge contrast between writings of the classic Russian writers and the simplified Russian taught by my university textbooks. – Mitsuko May 3 at 17:35
  • You have a really good knowledge and control of Russian, I must say. And you're right: those verbs (forms?) sound archaic and I don't recall ever coming across any of them in real everyday talks, nor in business correspondence. However, they are still instantly recognized by any native speaker, I suppose because such endings are preserved in folklore and in fairy tales. – Igor G May 3 at 17:53
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    The overall simplification of the language is well beyond the scope of this thread and this forum, I fear. Simplification is happening all the time. Try reading ancient texts in old slavonic and you'll see more aorist forms than simple past forms. Beautifully intricate and vivid? Yes. But at the same time - difficult and, alas, redundant, because the same ideas can be conveyed by simplier constructs. And, if given a choice, people tend to choose the simpliest way... – Igor G May 3 at 18:02
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Well, we can use игрывать, думывать, делывать in future tense. And I even do it, if (and only if) I want my speech to be unusual, kind of archaic or humorous. So. We can say like "буду игрывать в международных турнирах", but these verbs are not absolutely normal and still do not have the connotation of distant past.

On the other hand you are right, many Russian grammar sources (especially those for schools) teach wrong or simplified things. I think, natives and foreign learners usually need to emphasis different aspects of language.

What about Lomonosov's tenses, they are now considered another way. 1, 2, 7 cases are forms of verb трясти (non-perfective) ; 3, 8 - of verb тряхнуть (same 1, 7 but for perfective verb) ; 5, 6 forms are very rare and weird, I heard them only from linguists trying express grammar of another language. 9, 10 cases are absolutely the same as 3, 8 (because написать is perfective) Also 400 years before Lomonosov we had tenses more similar to germanic: with auxiliary verbs and participles like "have done", but they have gone too.

Thank you for your hardworking on Russian, I wish I were such a brilliant student when was learning English and Japanese.

P. S. Don't be upset, some linguists think russian vocative is going to reborn ;)

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Я поигрываю (время от времени, иногда) вполне сносно звучит (что-то вроде неопределенного времени в настоящем). Буду поигрывать -- несколько странно, так точно не говорят, не говоря уж об "едал" в любом времени. А вот бывал (т.е. иногда, временами) вполне допустимо для прошлого неопределенного. "Едал" же звучит смешно независимо от времени. Вы можете рассматривать перечисленные глаголы (поигрывать, бывать) как отдельные глаголы, не применяемые в некоторых временах, а не как отдельную форму от "играть", "быть". Удачи в русском!

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    Добавлю, что не стоит путать "проигрывать" и "поигрывать" -- это совершенно разные глаголы. И вот такое предложение "Дай мне эту игру, я буду поигрывать в нее иногда (время от времени)" звучит нормально в разговорной речи, как и этот глагол относится в настоящее время больше к ней. Для русских тоже кажется странным, что не все глаголы могут быть использованы во всех временах и во всех наклонениях: спросите у них, как будет повелительное наклонение от "ехать" (i.e. "go!"), или совершенный вид будущего времени глагола "победить" ("to have won") ). – Roman May 24 at 1:25
  • Буду поигрывать = время от времени буду играть, а вот "буду игрывать" - не лучше, чем "буду едать". Вы исключили из рассмотрения оба глагола из вопроса. – Alex_ander Jun 13 at 8:51
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Despite the fact that modern tense classification differs, Lomonosov's logic is quite understandable. He didn't say it's true for any verb and nothing is said here about the existence of infinitives like едать or игрывать, e. g. you can't see "буду тряхивать" here. The tense name давнопрошедшее looks logical and I can see the following correlation in meaning between its 3 forms:

- form 2 (like бывало, тряс) is just rephrased form 1 (like тряхивал) with the same meaning '(used to eat, used to play,) used to shake';

- form 3 (like бывало, тряхивал) adds some irregularity to form 2 like this: 'used to shake from time to time'.

As for the idea to transform "едал/игрывал" into infinitives "едать/игрывать", it's hard to imagine any usage for such words (Lomonosov derives the forms of "давнопрошедшее" directly from existing and usable infinitives like трясти /есть, играть/).

An example of modern usage of Lomonosov's "давнопрошедшее" (with negation): ... кто картошки не едал (from a Soviet song for young Pioneers) - with the meaning 'who has no experience of eating (such specially cooked) potatoes'.

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Short answer: only with prefixes. "Отъедать", "отыгрывать", "проедать", "проигрывать" (has two meanings: to suffer defeat and to play through. Ex. "чем будете проигрывать X или 0?", "Я буду проигрывать эту музыку в свой голове снова и снова")

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