Prefixation and Perfectivization in Russian and Czech

Stephen M. Dickey, University of Virginia

Prefixation has long been recognized as the primary mechanism of perfectivization in the Russian and other Slavic aspectual systems. This is the case even if perfectivization is more frequently a by–product of lexical or Aktionsart prefixation than a solely grammatical phenomenon, as pointed out by Maslov (1961), among others.

This paper presents a comparison of aspectual prefixation and suffixation in Russian and Czech. A simple comparison of the division of labor between prefixes in the two languages yields some interesting observations. Let us begin with Russian. The role of po– as a perfectivizer in Russian has been very diverse. Prefixation with po– has been productive to varying degrees in the derivation of several important kinds of perfective verbs: resultatives (postroit' 'build'), delimitatives (porabotat' 'work for a while'), the perfectives of inchoative relative accomplishment verbs (poxudet' 'become thin') as well as some distributives (pozakryvat' 'close all of'). Moreover, according to Chertkova (1996: 123–24), po– is statistically the single most productive prefix in the perfectivization of loan verbs in Russian, followed by pro–, za– and s–. While statistically perfective verbs in po– may not be in the majority, the I consider the collection of these kinds of perfectivization into the domain of po– as evidence that Russian has taken steps in the direction of grammaticalizing po– as its perfectivizing prefix (a premise of this hypothesis is the view that Russian delimitatives in po– are perfective "partners" of their atelic imperfective source verbs, which is argued by Dickey (2000) on theoretical grounds and by Dickey and Hutcheson (to appear) on a comparative basis; cf. in this regard also Lehmann (1988)). An important defining feature of perfectivizing prefixation in Russian is the use of po– to signal the relative change of state in inchoatives as well as the indefinite temporal delimitation of atelic activities. I suggest that diachronically the unification the perfectivization of several important kinds of perfective verbs into the functional domain of po– has worked as an organizing force in Russian aspect, and that the functional if not ultimately statistical salience of po– as perfectivizing prefix has played a significant role in producing the specific pattern of modern Russian aspectual usage (which is the product of considerable changes over the last 400 years; for details, see Dickey 2000).

Let us now consider the same classes of perfective verbs in Czech. Though various prefixes have created resultative verbs, the currently productive prefix is z– (zbudovat 'build'); this prefix is also by and large the most productive prefix in the perfectivization of various kinds of loan verbs (zkontrolovat 'check', zkonstruovat 'construe'). Delimitatives are neither derived nore used in Czech near as much as Russian; po– has not been productive to any significant extent and has moreover had to compete with za– (zatancovat si 'dance for a while'), which has enjoyed some limited productivity in recent times (zafetovat si 'party [to one's satisfaction]'; note that these new verbs are considered primarily to be satisfactives and not delimitatives by Czech linguists—cf., e.g., Rusinová 2001). As for inchoative relative accomplishment verbs, z– is the primary perfectivizer (zchudnout 'become poor/thin'). As for distributives, po– has been the primary productive prefix in the last few centuries (e.g., pobrat 'take all of'). (However, it has shared this function to a certain extent with perfective prefixed a–stems, e.g., rozrezat 'cut apart [into several pieces/several objects]. Suffixation in Czech will become relevant below.) As far as current productivity is concerned, Rusinová (2001) observes that z– is the most productive, followed by za– and na–.

Comparing the division of labor in the kinds of verbs discussed above in Russian and Czech, it is immediately apparent that in Russian all these classes of verbs fall under the perfectivizing umbrella of po–. (The only qualification necessary is that in the modern literary language pere– has ousted po– as the distributive prefix, but this does not affect my analysis for reasons that cannot be explained here.) In Czech, on the other hand, the picture is much more fractured: the various kinds of verbs are perfectivized by different prefixes, with the exception of resultatives and inchoatives, which both fall in the domain of z–. Similar to the case of Russian, I think the prominence of z–, which signals achievement of result as well as the relative change in relative accomplishment inchoatives, corresponds to the particular nature of Czech aspect as opposed to Russian (Czech aspect is more tied to telicity and simple totality than aspect in Russian). The fact that the functionally most prominent Czech prefix is not tied to abstract temporal delimitation (cf. Russian po–) corresponds to the fact that Czech aspect is less tied to time than Russian aspect (for details, see Dickey 2000).

But this is only part of the story. One cannot underestimate the importance of suffixation for signaling perfectivity (and aspectuality in general) in Czech in contrast to Russian. The striking productivity of –nout as a perfectivizer in Czech has been observed by Shlosar (1981). This includes not only the familiar class of semelfactives (e.g., bodnout 'stab'), but also a class of verbs signaling singularity of object or subject (e.g., roztiznout 'cut apart [one object, with one slice]' in contrast to the perfective prefixed a–stems mentioned above), as well as many verbs with no perceptible semelfactive/singular meaning (e.g., poslechnout 'listen'; note that the imperfective poslouchat is also prefixed—this is very common in Czech). In Russian, on the other hand, –nut' has not functioned as a perfectivizer in general, but as a specifically semelfactive suffix (often with expressive nuances). The prominence of –nout as a perfectivizer in Czech stands in correlation to the lack of a single unifying prefix in that language. Further, the prominence of –nout as a perfectivizer in Czech, with its prototypical element of singularity, has played an important role in the development of the Czech perfective aspect into a category of simple totality, in contrast to Russian, where, as mentioned, the perfective is much more tied to time per se.

This paper will present and discuss these issues in more detail, including the respective networks of Russian po– and Czech z–.


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