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The Russian Tense system with its three formal Tenses: Past, Present and Future, may appear rather simple compared to Latin, Greek or German but this impression is deceptive. The specific feature of a Slavonic verb is its pervasive Aspect system. Nearly all Slavonic verbs exist in two forms which are traditionally defined as “imperfective” and “perfective”. The aspectual relations go beyond simple verbal forms and include the so-called verboids: participles, gerund, modal verbs and the infinitive.

These forms are usually defined as: “perfective” and “imperfective” although the native term glagoly soveršennogo/nesoveršennogo vida is actually translated as ‘verbs of completed (accomplished)/non-completed (non-accomplished) aspect’. Since, historically, the Aspect category has been largely modelled on Slavonic material, this literal translation should be kept in mind because it gives some insight into the nature of this grammatical phenomena.

One of the traditional definitions of such opposition typical of native grammarians may be:

Perfective verbs denote a completed action, the carrying of the action through to its completion (in the past or future)[…]. Some perfective verbs do not only express the completion of the action, but also the fact that it is single in its occurrence, is semelfactive. Imperfective verbs show that the action is in progress, but do not specify whether it is completed, whether there is any result […]. Imperfective verbs….. show that the action was either prolonged or repeated several times. (Pulkina and Zakhaya-Nekrasova, 1988, 198)

This definition is specific to Aspect as it is understood in Slavonic. The more general and widely quoted notion of Aspect in the “broad sense” is that of Comrie:

Aspects are different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation. […] Aspect is not concerned with relating the time of the situation to any time-point, but rather with the internal temporal constituency of the one situation; one could state the difference as one between situation-internal time (aspect) and situation-external time (tense). (Comrie, 1976, 3-5)

Russian verbs are conjugated for number (singular and plural), gender (masculine, neuter, feminine), person (first, second, third) and tense (present, past, future). The verboids: participles and gerunds are declined as adjectives. Schematically this may be presented as:


The simplest form of a verb contains a root, a thematic vowel (except for a few athematic verbs) and a grammatical ending:


Such verbs are defined as simplex. Most of simplex verbs are imperfective but some may be perfective. The Aspect in Slavonic is not expressed by a single morphological device (Timberlake, 2004, 93). Instead there are several ways of making a verb perfective/imperfective.

Most Russian verbs may take a prefix and/or a suffix and become complex. Usually, a complex verb has one prefix and/or one suffix but sometimes two or more prefixes may be added consecutively. Prefixes and suffixes should be distinguished from grammatical inflectional endings. Russian verbs exist as a number of paradigmatic forms distinguished by the grammatical endings: piš-u ‘(I) write’, pisa-l ‘(I/you/he) wrote’, pisat’ ‘to wtite’ etc. but some verbs may occasionally have a zero ending, which is also grammatical: pas-ti[-INF] – pas-Ø [-PST.1,2,3SG.M] ‘to herd – herded’ .

In the IE languages the root with a thematic vowel is usually referred to as a “stem”. Verbs having a thematic vowel are defined thematic as opposed to athematic. The complex verb prepodavat’ [INF] ‘to teach’ will have the following structure:


Figure 1: Structure of the verb prepodavat’

In most of the cases adding a prefix to a verb renders it perfective:


Ivan čital knigu.

Ivan[N.SING.M] read[IPF-PST.3SG.M] book[ACC.SG.F]

“Ivan read a book”

Ivan pročita-l knigu.

Ivan[N.SING.M] [PREF-]read[PF-PST.3SG.M] book[ACC.SG.F]

“Ivan (has) read the book”

However, this process is far from being automatic. Russian verbal prefixes could be divided into three groups: purely perfectivising, superlexical and lexical (Richardson, 2007, 52), although some researchers like Isačenko (1962) object to the existence of purely prefectivising suffixes. The reason is that these are, primarily, derivational instruments always changing the semantic meaning of a verb to some extent. Each prefix is a morpheme having its own meaning. If the meaning is very broad and unspecific its impact on the verb’s semantics is minimal but it is still present.

The best example here is the prefix po– which may be remotely connected with a preposition po ‘on, upon’ but, attached to verbs, it adds some general ingressive or delimitative meaning. Because of its abstractness it is often considered a purely perfectivizing prefix (Comrie, 1976, 59). This is a dubious assertion because there is a clear semantic difference between e.g. spat’ ‘to sleep’ (in the general sense) and pospat’ ‘to take a nap’ (to sleep for a brief period).

Other prefixes like pere- ‘across, over’, ob– ‘around, pro- trough’ etc. with a very transparent lexical meaning  affect the semantics of the verb to a greater extent besides changing their aspectual characteristics to PF. For example, the verb pročital ‘read’ in (1) has a very clear meaning ‘(has) read through’. Therefore, while one can argue whether there are any purely perfectivizing prefixes it would be too simplistic to assert that “[t]he prefix changes the aspect of the verb but it does not change its meaning” as it was done by Levine (1999, 240).

Another complication is the existence of perfective or imperfective tantum verbs. For example preobrazovat’ ‘to transform’ is IPF despite having a prefix. Finally, there is a number of biaspectual verbs which can be viewed either as perfective or imperfective depending on situation (Gladney, 1982):


On obeščal.

He[N. 3SG.M] promise[PF -PAST.3SGM]

“He (has) promised”

On často obeščal.

he[N. 3SG.M] often[IND] promise[IPF -PAST.3SGM]

“He often promised”

Prefixation is by far the most common way of perfectivisation. According to Forsyth (1972), simplex/complex verbal pairs account for more than 80 percent of all perfective/imperfective oppositions so this way of perfectivisation is sometimes called as primary perfectivisation. This view on prefixes as the principal Aspect forming elements is contested by some scholars. To understand this we should analyse the alternative ways of changing Aspect in Russian by means of certain suffixes.

Many simplex verbs can be made perfective by adding a suffix -nu- to the root. This is sometimes referred to as the secondary perfectivisation:


On prygal

he[N. 3SG.M] jump[IPF-PST.3SG.M]

“He jumped (He was jumping)”

On prygnul

he[N. 3SG.M] jump[-PF(SUFF)-PST.3SG.M]

“He (has) jumped”

Alternatively, the combination of the thematic vowel –i/y– and a suffix –va– renders any simplex or complex perfective verb imperfective by adding a dimension of habituality or continuity.


Ona procitala knigu

she[N. 3SG.F] [PF(PREF)-]read[-PST.3SG.F] book[ACC.SG.F]

“She (has) read the book”

Ona procityvala mnogo knig

She[N.3SG.F] [(PREF)-]read[-IPF(SUFF)-PST.3SG] many[IND] book[G.PL.F]

“She (usually) read many books”

The role of prefixes and suffixes in changing the aspectual state is a matter of dispute. For instance Maslov (2004, 110-118) believed that the “carrier” aspectual properties was the verbal “aspectual base” which he defined as “a part of a verbal word remaining after dis-joining of all morphological affixes apart from the imperfectivizing suffixes” (ibid, p. 113).

While most researchers agree that all verbal prefixes change the semantic meaning of a verb and argue mostly on the extent of such change, there is a wide-spread belief that suffixes are purely grammatical markers:

Suffixation leads to secondary imperfectivization of the verb (regardless of the type of verb stem) and the change is mainly grammatical: from perfective to imperfective aspect. (Schmiedtová and Flecken, 2008)

Smith (1983, 5) even refers to such suffixes as “view-point morphemes”. This idea comes out of the formal approach of the structuralist feature theory according to which prefixes and suffixes are treated as abstract perfective/imperfective markers rather than morphemes having any meaning. In the following paragraphs I shall try to demonstrate that the Slavonic “aspectual suffixes” are not purely grammatical markers but derivational morphemes (semems), comparable to prefixes in their function of altering verbal semantics.

In the case of suffixes, the inherent semantic meaning is not as obvious as that of the majority of prefixes since it is somewhat more general and abstract, but this does not mean that suffixes are void of any meaning.

Let us consider the common perfectivizing suffix -nu- which gives a verb a distinctive semelfactive (momentary or punctiliar action) aspect. The word nu in Russian is an interjection meaning ‘come on!’. It is particularly used as a command ‘Go!’, ‘Move!’ to start a horse moving. It is sometimes used in colloquial speech with an infinitive as a predicative in the meaning to start doing something:


A on nu bezat’

And[IND] he[N.3SG.M] start[PF(PRED] run[-INF]

“And he started to run”

The morphosememe {nu} may be identified in the root nud of the Rus. verb nudit’ ‘to force, compel’ which is, in fact, a compound root consisting of the morphosememe {nu} ‘impulse’ and {d} which is a part of the ancient roots *da ‘give’ or *dhe `make, produce’. This compound root may be literally translated as `to give/make (da/dhe) an impuse (nu)’. The antiquity of this compound root is confirmed by the Sanskrit nud – nudati ‘push, thrust, impel’ (Monier-Williams, 1963, 562,2). It is also directly cognate with the Old English nu ‘now’ (Harper, 2001-2010).

Adding the morphosememe {nu} as a suffix changes the semantics of a verb by giving it an aspect of sudden or impulsive movement incompatible with the notion of imperfectivity, thus rendering this verb perfective. It also explains why this suffix can be added mainly to verbs of motion but not to verbs denoting processes like citat’ ‘to read’ or states: stoyat’ ‘to stay’.

The semantics of the other common suffix –va– is not as easy to unlock without recurring again to Sanskrit where va means 1) ‘air, wind’, 2) ‘water, ocean’ 3) ‘going’. There is also a verb vāti ‘to blow ‘(as the wind) (ibid p. 910). In all instances the principal conceptual meaning of {va} is that of movement. It is quite logical that adding the morphosememe {va} ‘movement’ as a suffix makes a verb to acquire an aspect of a continuous, repetitive or habitual action incompatible with perfectivity and making it imperfective: cita-t’[IPF-INF] ‘to read’ but city-va-t’[-IPF(SUFF)-INF] ‘to read (occasionally, from time to time)’. It is also predictable that adding -va- to a perfective verb would also render its meaning incompatible with perfectivity so procitat’[PREF-]read[PF-INF] ‘to read (through, to the end)’ would become pro-city-va-t’[PREF-]read[-IPF(SUFF)-INF] ‘to read (time and time again etc.)’.


Figure 2: Graphic representation of the concept of Aspect in Russian

The above shows that the specific feature of the Slavonic Aspect is the inseparable unity of the Lexical Aspect (Aktionsart) with the Grammatical Aspect. In other words, Aspect is grammaticalised through derivational affixes which do not serve as mere “view-point markers” but modify the lexical meaning of a verb in such a way that it becomes perceived as perfective or imperfective. This interrelation may be presented graphically as shown on Fig.2.

According to Dahl (1985, 69), perfective/imperfective aspectual relations occur, in various disguises, in some 45 language out of the 60 language sampled for analysis. However, Dahl specifically noted that there were no other similar systems of “Slavonic Aspect” in any part of the world (1985, 87). Forsyth formulated this specific character of Slavonic Aspect as:

The essential difference, however, is that only the Slavonic languages have systematized the expression of aspect at the morphological level in the opposition of two sets of verb forms. This consistent semantic opposition of forms constitutes the Category of Aspect in Slavonic languages, and it is quite distinct from the sporadic expression of what can be called ‘aspect in the wide sense’ in other languages. (Forsyth, 1972, 494)

The distinct nature and complexity of Slavonic Aspect is in the intricate interaction of verbal semantics and morphology within the general temporal framework. Its unique character has led to a debate of whether this system was the primordial state of the IE (Indo-European) proto-language (see e.g. Bartalotta, A. “Root lexical features and inflectional marking of tense in Proto-Indo-European”, Journal of Linguistics, 2009, 45, 505–532) or a particular innovation specific to Slavonic languages.  Notably, similar aspectual features: morphological expression and aspectual pairs are found not only in Lithuanian and Latvian, which are closely related to Slavonic, but also in Ossetic and the ancient Iranian languages like Sogdian (Abaev, 1969) albeit in a reduced degree. The opinions here are divided and this controversial issue deserves a special research.

See other posts


Abaev,V. I., “Isoglosse Scito-Europee”, in Studia Classica et Orientalia Antonio Pagliaro Oblata vol. 1, (Roma, 1969), pp. 21–61.

Adger, David, Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach (Core Linguists) (Oxford, London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Comrie, Bernard, Aspect. An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems (Cambridge University Press, 1976).

Dahl, Osten, Tense and Aspect Systems (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985).

Dickey, Stephen M., “Aspectual Pairs, Goal Orientation and PO- Delimitatives in Russian”, Glossos 7 (2006).

Forsyth, James, A grammar of Aspect: usage and meaning in the Russian verb. (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Forsyth, James, “The Nature and Development of the Aspectual Opposition in the Russian Verb”, The Slavonic and East European Review 50, 121 (1972), pp. pp. 493-506.

Gladney, Frank Y., “Biaspectual Verbs and the Syntax of Aspect in Russian”, The Slavic and East European Journal 26, 2 (1982), pp. pp. 202-215.

Harper, Douglas., “Online Etymological Dictionary” (2001-2010).

Isačenko, Aleksandr V., Die russische Sprache der Gegenwart. T. 1. Formenlehre (Halle: Niemeyer., 1962).

Kamynina, A.A., Sovremennyj Russkij Jazuk. Morfologija (Contemporary Russian Language. Morphology) (Moscow: Moscow State University Publishing, 1999).

James S. Levine, Russian Grammar (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Maslov, Ju. S., Izbrannyje trudy. Aspektologija i obšěee jazykoznanije (Selected Works. Aspectology and General Linguistics) (Jazyki Slavjanskoj Kul’tury, 2004).

Mlynarczyk, Anna, “Aspectual Pairing in Polish” (2004).

Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European Languages. 1899 Edition (Revised) edition (26 Mar 1963) (Clarendon Press, 1963).

Pulkina and Zakhaya-Nekrasova, Russian. A Practical Grammar with Exercises (Moscow: Russky Yazyk, 1988).

Richardson, Kyle, Case and Aspect in Slavic (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Schmiedtová and Monique Flecken, “Cognitive Approaches to Pedagogical Grammar. A Volume in Honour of René Dirven”, Berlin, New York : Mouton de Gruyter (2008), 357–384.

Smith, Carlota S., “A Theory of Aspectual Choice”, Language 59, 3 (1983), pp. pp. 479-501.

Timberlake, Alan, A Reference Grammar of Russian (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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