How Many Lexical Entries Do Russian Aspectual Pairs Constitute? Evidence from Language Attrition

Asya Pereltsveig, Yale University

1. I address the much debated issue of whether aspectual pairs formed with purely perfectivizing prefixes (e.g., citat’ – procitat’) in Russian constitute one or two lexical entries. On the one hand, Isacenko (1960) and others assume that such aspectual pairs constitute two separate lexical items. On the other hand,  Comrie (1976) and others assume that such pairs are inflectional forms of the same lexical item. In this paper, I address this issue from an original angle, using data from language attrition among Russian immigrants in the USA, Israel and Germany to support the latter position. I compare attrition of aspect with lexical attrition and show that the two are driven by different factors. The results of this study are significant not only for theoretical linguistics, but also for language pedagogy and lexicography.

2. Previous research shows that lexical attrition depends on several factors, the most important of which are frequency in L1 and interference from the ambient L2. Specifically, words with higher frequency are more likely to be retained under attrition than words with lower frequency (cf. Polinsky 2002); furthermore, interference from L2 likewise defines the rate and the nature of lexical attrition, e.g., borrowings, calques, etc. (cf. Klintborg 1999).

3. In this paper, I examine a corpus of utterances from Diaspora Russian (DR) speakers from three countries, focusing on the mistakes in the choice of aspectual forms, i.e., using the imperfective instead of the perfective (1) and vice versa (2). Based on my examination of data across different verb types and across speakers with different sociolinguistic profiles, as well as monolingual Russian speakers, I propose four arguments to rule out interference from English (contra Pavlenko 2002). My error analysis study also excludes the frequency of aspectual forms in CSR as a factor determining their retention in DR: I show that the predictive power of the frequency hypothesis is at the chance level (the binary choice of form is predicted by frequency in only 50% of the cases).

4. To recap, I argue that the two factors affecting lexical attrition play no crucial role in the attrition of aspect in DR. Henceforth, I maintain that aspectual pairs constitute a single lexical item, making Russian aspect a grammatical rather than a lexical notion.

(1)        ja ne  ljubil      eë   muž

            I  not like.impf her husband

            ‘she started getting angry’ [context: briefly meeting his new in-laws]                  

(2)        ja vsegda  procital    Kadiš

            I   always  read.perf  Kadish

            ‘I would always read Kadish.’                                     



Comrie, B. S. 1976 Aspect. Cambridge UP.    

Isacenko, A. V. 1960. Grammaticeskij stroj russkogo jazyka v sopostavlenii s slovackim. Cast’ 2: Morfologija. Bratislava: Izdatel’stvo slovackoj Akademii Nauk.

Klintborg, S. 1999. The transience of American Swedish. Lund UP.

Pavlenko, A. 2002. "I feel clumsy speaking Russian": L2 influence on L1 in narratives of Russian L2 users of English. To appear in: V. Cook (ed.) L2 influence on L1.

Polinsky, M. 2002. Structure Mapping in Incomplete Acquisition. Ms., UCSD.