Psycholinguistic Investigations of the Metaphorical Motivations for Russian Aspect

Laura A. Janda, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For the past few years, I have been researching a possible motive for the distinctions of the Russian aspectual system. This model assumes that grammar can be metaphorically motivated, and that a metaphor involves the mapping of structures from one domain (the source domain, which is usually grounded in embodied human experience) to another (the target domain, which is usually more abstract). I have developed a model (recently published as a pedagogical piece in SEEJ and forthcoming as a theoretical piece in the journal Cognitive Linguistics) that identifies fourteen groups of properties that human beings experience when contrasting discrete solid objects with fluid substances, and I have shown a strong parallelism between these properties and the distinctions between perfective and imperfective aspect in Russian. For example, discrete solid objects have firm edges but fluid substances do not, corresponding to the way in which perfective events are temporally bounded, but imperfective events are not. Discrete solid objects are unique individuals with parts, but fluid substances are uniform and continuous, corresponding to the way that perfective aspect marks unitary events, whereas imperfective typically does not. Discrete solid objects are impenetrable and thus cannot occupy the same space, but fluid substances are penetrable and can be mixed, corresponding to the perfective’s tendency to mark sequenced events as opposed to the imperfective’s capacity to describe simultaneous events. This is just a small sample of the entailments of the model I have been working on.

Originally I conceived of this model as one that might be theoretically interesting and have useful pedagogical applications. However, when I have presented this model at scholarly gatherings, native speakers of Slavic languages in the audience have declared that it represents a psychological reality. Some have insisted that I even try to prove the existence of the unconscious use of this metaphor by conducting psycholinguistic experiments. Thus, at the behest of my colleagues, I have undertaken some preliminary investigations, the results of which I will present in this paper. Native speakers of Russian have been presented with various combinations of realia (a discrete solid toy on one plate vs. a pile of sand on another), tables of properties of physical matter, and sentences containing perfective and imperfective verbs and asked to make the associations that they find appropriate. They have not been told that this experiment has anything to do with aspect. One pilot study and two experiments have been conducted. The two experiments contrast the results with the properties of matter I have detailed in my model, as opposed to a “control” group that was offered an equally large set of properties associated with the sun vs. the moon. The experiments were conducted by graduate students who were not told what the “correct” answers were, in hopes that they would thus not influence the data collection. I will be working with a statistician to ensure the proper handling of the numbers, but I hope to show that the “control” group (sun vs. moon) gives random data, whereas the properties of matter group (discrete solid object vs. fluid substance) gives statistically significant results suggesting that the model is indeed a reflection of psychological reality.