Russian Morphology

Now that I’ve finished, relatively speaking (there’s more to do in morphophonemics), working on Russian Phonology. My sights have now turned to morphology – yes that’s right, how words are formed!

My Russian group (three pairs of two) have split up the parts of speech to lighten the load. Unfortunately, my wife and I were stuck with verbs. My goodness, now that’s complicated.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Russian only has two morphological tense: Past & Non-past. Future tense is either marked by an auxiliary verb like we do in English, “I will go to the bank tomorrow” or the present and future are combined in one single form.

In the present (i.e. non-past) tense, the verb agrees with the subject in person and number.

In the past tense, the verb agrees with the subject in gender in the singular and only has number agreement in the plural.

But the truly serious morphology is derivational (i.e. like in English: dependent -> in+dependent = independent). Russian marks Verbal Aspect with derivational morphemes (for those who have studied Greek, remember? The aorist “tense” marks the perfective aspect – looking at the action as a whole). I barely understand the Russian system and I’m already amazed. You take a basic imperfective verb (i.e. a verb that expresses a process or a state) like /zat’/ “to squeeze” and you put a prefix on it, which places spatial/abstract limits on it, but also changes the verb from imperfective aspect to perfective aspect, such as /otzat’/ “to wring out.” The difference between the two is that the second perfective form has an end goal. Its telic. But that’s not the craziest part. You then take that prefixed verb and give it a suffix that transforms it back into an imperfective verb again: /otzimat’/ “to wring out.”

What’s the difference in meaning between the two? Well since /otzat’/ is perfective, the action is viewed as a whole. Thus, not only was the towel (or whatever) wrung out, but it was wrung out completely and definitively.

In contrast to that, /otzimat’/ would be used when some one began to wring out a towel or something, but a) never actually finished, b) when the towel will be completely wrung out is unknown, or c) the event of wringing out the towel is a customary, regular event. In all these cases, the action has the potential to be completed but when that definitive conclusion is to come is not known or irrelevant.

Okay class, here is your quiz. In the following two clauses, which one would you use?

The man wrung out the towel and then he went to work.

a. otzat’
b. otzimat’

The man was wringing out the towel, but then the phone rang and he had to leave.

a. otzat’
b. otzimat’

(I hope I got that right myself in those sentences…)

But seriously, even this tiny glimpse into Russian aspect blew me away. What kind of language has a specific derived verb for actions that could potentially be completed but are not??? Russian apparently. Amazing.