Verbal aspect in Russian – a major headache!

I was sitting drinking with two Russians recently, and the first bottle of sparkling wine was running out. One of my собутыльники ([sobutil’niki], lit., ‘co-bottlers’, i.e., ‘fellow drinkers’) said:

– Да, надо было две брать. [Nado bylo dve brat’.] ‘Yeah, we should have got two.’

If you look брать [brat’] up in the dictionary, you’ll see the translation, ‘take’, and an abbreviation like impf. or ip. Alongside you might see a reference to the verb взять [vzyat’], also ‘take’, with perf. or pf. These abbreviations mean ‘imperfective’ and ‘perfective’ respectively and it’s no exaggeration to say they are the bane of every Russian student’s existence!

The beast we’re dealing with here is verbal aspect. Here’s a very quick intro:

  • When you talk about any action, you can choose to emphasise either the process, its unfinished nature, or the result, its finished nature – this is a basic definition of aspect. In English we can say both ‘I was feeding the lions’ and ‘I fed the lions’, with different connotations. English expresses aspect through verbal tense (here: past continuous and past simple), but other languages do it differently. 
  • In Russian, most verbal infinitives have two forms, one for each aspect. See the брать/взять example above.
  • This means almost every time you use a verb in Russian, you have to choose between the two aspects: imperfective (impf., несовершенный вид [nesovershenniy vid], abbr. as несов. or нв) and perfective (pf., совершенный вид [sovershenniy vid], abbr. as сов. or св).

When you start learning Russian, it seems impossible to remember when to use the impf. and when to use the pf. With time and speaking practice you come to realise that it’s not all that bad and that there are some broad rules that are fairly easily remembered.

One of those basic rules is that the impf. is used for repeated actions, and the pf. for one-off events. So, for example, you’d say:

я брал отпуск каждое лето [ya bral otpusk kazhdoe lyeto], ‘I took time off every summer’, but

я взял отпуск в этом году с середины июля до конца августа [ya bzyal otpusk v etom godu s seredini iulya do kontsa avgusta], ‘I took time off this year from the middle of July to the end of August’.

Here брал [bral] means ‘I look multiple times’, взял [bzyal] means ‘I took once’.

Clearly, though, not always – see what my friend said about the wine, above. Going on my understanding of the rules, I would have said надо было две взять [nado bylo dve bzyat’], because it’s a one-off event and the most important thing is the result, not the process.

But… No. Something I’ve noticed about Russian is that надо [nado], ‘it is necessary’, seems to collocate strongly with the impf., even when people talk about ‘needing to do something’ just once, not multiple times. For example, I’ve heard people talking about buying a car and saying:

надо покупать Ауди [nado pokupat’ Audi] or

надо брать Ауди [nado brat’ Audi], ‘One/you should buy an Audi’ (in Russian the verb ‘take’ is often used synonymously with ‘buy’). Verbs in the impf.

This makes no sense to me as they’re talking about buying a car only once! I don’t know if надо купить/взять Ауди, with the verbs in the pf., would sound strange in this context – native speakers, please comment with your thoughts!

One small sub-tendency (not even a rule) I could identify is that the impf. брать is used a lot when talking about buying something, and maybe even more so when it’s a big purchase that is viewed as a long process and not a quick result. On the other hand, when you need to take a break, I think it would be far more natural to say надо взять паузу [nado vzyat’ pauzu] than надо брать паузу [nado brat’ pauzu]. In both situations I am imagining a concrete, one-off event.

This is but one tiny area in which the choice between impf. and pf. comes up. I’ll return to this huge question in later posts. For now, though: have you experienced similar issues when learning Russian or another language? Are you a native speaker with some valuable insights you’d like to share? Please let us know in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Verbal aspect in Russian – a major headache!

  1. I persuaded myself that deciding which aspect to use was easy – though your examples suggest I was wrong. My problem was remembering the pairs – the result of being introduced to imperfective aspect without any mention of the perfective. Teachers of Russian need to give the bad news at the start…

  2. Reblogged this on lingua fennica and commented:
    I persuaded myself that deciding which aspect to use was easy – though your examples suggest I was wrong. My problem was remembering the pairs – the result of being introduced to the imperfective aspect without any mention of the perfective. Teachers of Russian need to give the bad news at the start…

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