The Grammar of “Paraphrastic Imperfectives” in Latvian and Upper Sorbian

In the contemporary Slavic literary languages and in contemporary Lithuanian, verbs derived by means of prefixes with lexical (including spatial and directional) meaning are aspectually perfective. They are normally “paired” with lexically synonymous verbs that share the same prefixes but whose stems have been “reimperfectivized” by means of suffixation and/or suppletion: cf. Russian pf. perepisat′ / ipf. perepisyvat′, Lithuanian pf. perrašyti / ipf. perrašinėti ‘to rewrite’. Indeed, aspectual pairedness is often generalized as a predominant feature of both the Slavic and the Baltic verb: prefixed perfective verbs are ordinarily paired with prefixed imperfective verbs that have been derived from their perfective counterparts through stem suffixation. Some Slavic linguists, apparently adopting a Russocentric point of view, go so far as to contend that aspect would not even exist in a Baltic or Slavic language that did not have derived imperfectives.

Nevertheless, according to Mathiassen, Latvian verbs do exhibit aspectual oppositions, even though contemporary Latvian, unlike Lithuanian, “does not allow secondary imperfectives to be formed with the help of suffixation” (1996 [1997]:116). Accordingly, lexical derivation by means of verb-stem prefixation in Latvian yields verbs that are in fact neutral with regard to aspect (e.g., pārrakstīt ‘to rewrite’); however, in the case of prefixes with spatial or directional meaning the same derivational process yields verbs that are aspectually perfective (e.g., ipf. nākt ‘to come’ vs. pf. pienākt ‘to approach, come up to’, ipf. slēgt ‘to lock’ vs. pf. atslēgt ‘to unlock, open’). The perfective aspect of such verbs is evident in their inability to denote an eventive present (praesens actualis, praesens hic et nunc). Moreover, the actions denoted by the prefixed perfective verbs can find expression in the imperfective aspect, but they do so only by what appear to be paraphrastic means; this process (paraphrasing) entails combining the corresponding basic (imperfective) verb with a spatial or directional adverb that is synonymous with the prefix of the perfective verb. Thus, the meaning of pienākt (pie) ‘to approach, come up to’ is expressed in the imperfective aspect as nākt (pie), the meaning of atslēgt ‘to unlock, open’ is expressed in the imperfective aspect as slēgt valą̄, etc.

While Latvian seems to have never developed imperfectivizing morphology, Upper Sorbian, like the Slavic languages generally, did develop formal means of imperfectivizing prefixed perfective verbs (viz., verb-stem suffixation). Nevertheless, Toops (1998:292) concluded that “[i]mperfective verb derivation in contemporary USo is a largely inoperative grammatical process” indeed, Michałk (1961:42 [1996:73]) notes that the usual imperfective counterparts to the pf. verbs wuńć ‘to go out’ and zalězć ‘to climb up, climb in’ are not wuchadźeć and załažować, but rather the paraphrases won hić and horje (or) nutř lězć, respectively. Like the Latvian imperfective “paraphrases” cited above, therefore, the meaning of the Upper Sorbian prefixed perfectives is expressed in the imperfective aspect by means of paraphrases consisting of the corresponding basic (imperfective) verb and a spatial or directional adverb that is synonymous with the prefix of the perfective verb.

Where no adverb exists to express the meaning of a given prefix, Upper Sorbian further resembles contemporary Latvian in exhibiting verbs that are now aspectually neutral, e.g., přińć ‘to come’, přinjesć ‘to bring’, etc. (at least in their finite forms).

Using various grammaticality judgments elicited from native speakers of Latvian and Upper Sorbian, the proposed paper provides a descriptive and contrastive analysis of “paraphrastic imperfectives” in the two languages. Despite their remarkable formal and morphosyntactic similarities (e.g., the paraphrastic imperfectives of both languages are confined to the expression of strictly eventive presents), it is concluded that the Latvian and Upper Sorbian verb systems actually exhibit divergent degrees of grammaticalization. Upon closer analysis, Latvian “paraphrastic imperfectives” prove not to be imperfective paraphrases of prefixed perfective verbs at all; rather, the Latvian situation is concluded to be primordial, reflecting the fact that perfectivization by means of stem prefixation is the result of a type of lexical overspecification that has resulted in increased telicity and, ultimately, perfectivization. Upper Sorbian, in contrast, has largely (but not completely) abandoned its formerly imperfectivizing morphology (or relegated it to other functions), and “paraphrastic imperfectives” are genuinely motivated by a need to express the meanings of prefixed perfective verbs in the imperfective aspect as well. In the Upper Sorbian literary language (as opposed to the dialects or colloquial language) this results in verbal paraphrases that are often lexically underspecified relative to the prefixed perfective verb (cf. napisać for the meaning ‘to write down’, which can be expressed imperfectively only as pisać ‘to write’, wusnyć ‘to fall asleep’, which at best can be expressed imperfectively only as počinać spać ‘to begin to sleep’, etc.).


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