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.

4 thoughts on “Russian Morphology

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  1. In the second example, do you mean something like “The man was wringing out…”? In that case (b). Otherwise (a), like the first example.

    It gets more complicated than that:

    cht-u (archaic) “I read”
    chit-a-yu (imperfective) “I am reading”
    po-chit-a-yu (perfective) “I will read a little bit”
    pro-chit-a-yu or pro-cht-u (perfective) “I will read to the end”
    pro-chit-yv-a-yu (imperfective) “I am reading to the end”

    The last form has TWO imperfectivising suffixes, one of which cancels out the perfectivising effect of the prefix – ANY prefix.

    But do bear in mind that Russian verbs behave remarkably like Greek ones, except for this perfectivising effect of prefixes. We class Greek perfectives and imperfectives as morphological variants of the same verb, but there are enough irregularities especially with strong verbs that there is not that much difference between the two languages here. Also there is no Russian equivalent to the Greek perfect.

  2. I kind of expected that it would get more complicated.

    And yes, I noticed the large number of similarities between Greek and Russian, or at least, I’ve begun to. I’ve kind of wondered why in all the debate regarding Greek Aspect over the past 15-20 years why nobody has made the comparison between Greek and Russian.

  3. Wow. And urm… wow. Russian is an incredible language. As someone who studied French and Spanish to a pretty advanced level I (naively) thought I might have been better placed than the average person to pick up the rudiments of Russian. Your post has just confirmed that a) I was wrong, and b) that Russian is utterly fascinating. The subtlety of change in meaning between verb forms completely blows my mind. I am totally daunted by everything I still have to get to grips with but perversely, it makes me want to persevere all the more. I’ll look forward to (hopefully) one day understanding EVERYTHING you just had to say about Russian morphology rather than just the part in layman’s terms!

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