An Empirical Study of the Aspectual Usage of Russian Verbs in the Past Tense

Valentina Abdelrahim-Soboleva, Lincoln University

The paper will present the results of an empirical study on the aspectual usage of Russian verbs in the past tense. The study includes 394 sample texts, each of which is the length of a short paragraph. The 394 samples contain 1,629 past-tense verbal forms in affirmative sentences which have been tested. The experiment employed both the original, unmodified texts, and modified texts as well. The number of modified texts corresponds to the number of tested verbal forms, that is 1,629. The modified versions of the original texts include aspectual counterparts to the original aspectual verbal forms. Each of the modified texts differs from the original one in the aspect of only one verbal form. In the experiment, both unmodified and modified texts were mixed and presented to three native speakers, who were linguistically untrained. The testers were asked to read the texts and comment if they found any semantic inconsistency in those texts.

The final data of the experiment present the following: out of total 1, 629 tested verbal forms 1,063 forms were originally perfective and 566 forms were imperfective. From a total number of substituted aspectual forms, 1,197 subsitutions were marked as erroneous by all three testers. In a striking contrast, only 64 substituted forms were unanimously accepted. The remaining 368 substituted forms were marked non-uniformly, i.e., the testers were not unanimous in rejecting or accepting the substitutions.

The description of contexts in all three groups (unanimously rejected substitutions, unanimously accepted substitutions, and non-uniformly accepted subsitutions) yields the following observations:

1) The contexts of group I (unanimously rejected subsititutions) display two basic features: they typically either contain various types of adverbial indicators that modify verbs in the context, limiting their usage to only one specific aspect, or are structured in such a way so as to create special conditions for the use of one specific aspect. In this study, this phenomenon is called aspectual harmony. It is applicable to a series of verbs with a similar function and is relevant to both perfective or imperfective verbs.

2) The contexts in groups II and III are similar in that they do not contain aspectual indicators of perfectivity/imperfectivity. The need for aspectual harmony in such contexts is either not indicated overtly (contexts in group III with a mixed reaction) or not indicateted at all (the contexts in group II with unanimously accepted substitutions).

3) The data also shed some light on the use of three notions of imperfective verbs: continuity, habituality, and general validity, as well as on those cases when the use of both aspects seems to be possible.

Based on these findings, the study suggests some solutions to the theoretical and pedagogical problems that exist in Russian aspectology.