Grammatical aspect in Slavic languages

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In Slavic languages, only one nearly universal type of aspectual opposition forms two grammatical aspects: perfective and imperfective (in contrast with English, which has several aspectual oppositions: perfect vs. neutral; progressive vs. nonprogressive; and in the past tense, habitual ("used to ...") vs. neutral). The aspectual distinctions exist on the lexical level - speakers have no unique method of forming a perfective verb from a given imperfective one (or conversely). Perfective verbs are most often formed by means of prefixes, changes in the root, using a completely different root (suppletion), or changes in stress. Possessing a prefix does not necessarily mean that a verb is perfective.

General characteristics[edit]

With a few exceptions each Slavic verb is either perfective or imperfective. Most verbs form strict pairs of one perfective and one imperfective verb with generally the same meaning. However, each Slavic language contains a number of bi-aspectual verbs, which may be used as both imperfective and perfective. They are mainly borrowings from non-Slavic languages, but some native verbs also belong to this group. As opposed to them, mono-aspectual verbs are mainly native. There are mono-aspectual imperfective verbs without perfective equivalents (among others, verbs with the meaning "to be" and "to have" - note however that Russian does have a rarely used perfective form of "to be", and thus also "to have" via the usual U-construction - namely, "побыть") as well as perfective verbs without imperfective equivalents (for instance, verbs with the meaning "become ...", e.g. "to become paralyzed", etc.; Russian distinguishes these again, namely, for this example, "парализовать(ся)", perfective, vs "парализовывать(ся)", imperfective, even despite the root "парализ-", paraliz-, is non-native).

Aspect in Slavic is a superior category in relation to tense or mood. Particularly, some verbal forms (like infinitive) cannot distinguish tense but they still distinguish aspect. Here is the list of Polish verb forms formed by both imperfective and perfective verbs (such a list is similar in other Slavic languages). The example is an imperfective and a perfective Polish verb with the meaning 'to write'. All personal forms are given in third person, masculine singular, with Russian analog if it exists:

  • Infinitive: pisać - napisać / писать - написать
  • Passive participle: pisany - napisany / писаный - написанный
  • Gerund: pisanie - napisanie / писание - написание
  • Past impersonal form: pisano - napisano / писано - написано
  • Past impersonal form in subjunctive: pisano by - napisano by
  • Past tense: pisał - napisał / писал - написал
  • Future tense: będzie pisać / będzie pisał - napisze / будет писать - напишет
  • Conditional, first form: pisałby - napisałby / писал бы - написал бы
  • Conditional, second form: byłby pisał - byłby napisał
  • Imperative: niech pisze - niech napisze / пиши - напиши

The following may be formed only if the verb is imperfective:

  • Contemporary adverbial participle – pisząc / пиша exists, albeit not commonly used
  • Active participle – piszący / пишущий, писучий (paronymic pair)
  • Present tense – pisze / пишет

One form may be created only if the verb is perfective, namely:

  • Anterior adverbial participle – napisawszy / написав(ши)


The perfective aspect allows the speaker to describe the action as finished, completed, finished in the natural way. The imperfective aspect does not present the action as finished, but rather as pending or ongoing.

An example is the verb "to eat" in the Serbian language. The verb translates either as jesti (imperfective) or pojesti (perfective). Now, both aspects could be used in the same tense of Serbian. For example (omitting, for simplicity, feminine forms like jela):

Example Tense Aspect
Ja sam jeo past imperfective
Ja sam pojeo perfective
Ja sam bio jeo pluperfect imperfective
Ja sam bio pojeo perfective
Ja ću jesti future imperfective
Ja ću pojesti perfective

Ja sam pojeo signals that the action was completed. Its meaning can be given as "I ate (something) and I finished eating (it)"; or "I ate (something) up".

Ja sam jeo signals that the action took place (at a specified moment, or in the course of one's life, or every day, etc.); it may mean "I was eating", "I ate" or "I have been eating".

The following examples are from Polish.

Imperfective verbs mean:

  • actions in progress, just ongoing states and activities, with significant course (in opinion of the speaker);
  • activities posing the background for other (perfective) activities, ex. czytałem książkę, gdy zadzwonił telefon 'I was reading the book when the telephone rang';
  • simultaneous activities, ex. będę czytać książkę, podczas gdy brat będzie pisać list 'I will be reading the book while brother will be writing the letter';
  • durative activities, lasting through some time, e.g. krzyczał 'he was shouting', będzie drgać 'it will be vibrating';
  • motions without a strict aim, ex. chodzę 'I am walking here and there';
  • multiple (iterative) activities, ex. dopisywać 'to insert many times to the text', będziemy wychodziły 'we will go out (many times)';
  • non-resultative activities, only heading towards some purpose: będę pisał list 'I will be writing the letter';
  • continuous states, ex. będę stać 'I will be standing'.

Perfective verbs can refer to the past or to the future, but not to present activities – an activity happening now cannot be ended, so it cannot be perfective. Perfective verbs convey:

  • states and activities that were ended (even if a second ago) or will be ended, with insignificant course, short or treated as a whole by the speaker, ex. krzyknął 'he shouted', drgnie 'it will stir (only once)';
  • single-time activities, ex. dopisać 'to insert to the text', wyszedł 'he went out';
  • actions whose goals have already been achieved, even if with difficulty, ex. przeczytałem 'I have read', doczytała się 'she finished reading and found what she had sought';
  • reasons for the state, ex. pokochała 'she came to love', zrozumiesz 'you (sg.) will understand', poznamy 'we will get to know';
  • the beginning of the activity or the state, ex. wstanę 'I will stand up' (and I will stand), zaczerwienił się 'he reddened';
  • the end of the activity or the state, ex. dośpiewaj 'sing until the end';
  • activities executed in many places, on many objects or by many subjects at the same time, ex. powynosił 'he carried out (many things)', popękają 'They will break out in many places', poucinać 'To cut off many items';
  • actions or states that last some time, ex. postoję 'I will stand for a little time', pobył 'he was (there) for some time'.

Most simple Polish verbs are imperfective (as in other Slavic languages), ex. iść 'to walk, to go', nieść 'to carry', pisać 'to write'. But there are also few simple perfective verbs, ex. dać 'to give', siąść 'to sit down'. There exist many perfective verbs with suffixes and without prefixes, ex. krzyknąć 'to shout', kupić 'to buy' (cf. the imperfective kupować with a different suffix).

Special imperfective verbs express aimless motions. They are mono-aspectual, i.e., they have no perfective equivalents. They are formed from other imperfective verbs by stem alternations or suppletion, ex. nosić 'to carry around' (from nieść), chodzić 'to walk around, to go around' (from iść 'to go, to walk'). However, when such a verb gets an aim anyway, it becomes iterative: chodzić do szkoły 'to go to school'.

Other iteratives build another group of mono-aspectual imperfective verbs. They are formed from other imperfective verbs, including the previous group: chadzać 'to walk around usually (from chodzić), jadać 'to eat usually' (from jeść 'to eat'). Both groups are not too numerous: most Polish verbs cannot form iterative counterparts.

Perfective verbs that express activities executed in many places, on many objects, or by many subjects at the same time, and those that express actions or states that last some time, have no imperfective counterparts. They are formed with the prefix po- (which can have other functions as well).

States and activities that last for some time can be expressed by means of both imperfective and perfective verbs: cały dzień leżał w łóżku 'he was in bed all day long' (literally: 'he lay in bed') means nearly the same as cały dzień przeleżał w łóżku. The difference is mainly stylistic: imperfective is neutral here, while using perfective causes stronger tone of the statement.

In most Slavic languages, including Polish, a present perfective verb form may stand by itself as future tense. Most often than not grammars of these languages state that perfective verbs have no present tense but a simple future tense and imperfective verbs have present tense and only a compound future. In other languages, most notably Bulgarian, a perfective verb form may be used in its present tense only in compound forms. Examples: in Polish it is possible to say kupię chleb to mean I will buy [some] bread (and not *I buy some bread). In Bulgarian it is only possible to say ще купя хляб (I will buy [some] bread) or да купя ли хляб? (Shall I buy [some] bread).



Numerous perfective verbs are formed from simple imperfectives by prefixation. To create the perfective counterpart, verbs use various prefixes without any strict rules. The actual prefix can even depend on a dialect or special meaning. For example: the perfective counterpart to malować is pomalować when it means 'to paint a wall; to fill with a color', or namalować when it means 'to paint a picture; to depict sth/sb'.

Changes in the stem or ending[edit]

Besides the strict perfective equivalent, a number of other prefixed verbs may be formed from a given simple imperfective verb. They all have similar but distinct meaning and they form, as a rule, their own imperfective equivalents by means of suffixation (attaching suffixes) or stem alternation. Examples:

  • prać 'to wash / clean clothes with water and soap / washing powder' is a simple imperfective verb;
  • uprać is its perfective counterpart while doprać, przeprać are other derived perfective verbs with slightly different meanings;
  • dopierać, przepierać are secondary imperfective verbs that are counterparts for doprać, przeprać respectively; *upierać does not exist because the basic verb prać is the imperfective counterpart of uprać. (in fact upierać is an imperfective of completely different verb uprzeć, typically used as reflexive verb uprzeć się)

Other examples include:

Verb Imperfective Perfective
to meet spotykać spotkać
to return wracać wrócić
to help pomagać pomóc
to begin zaczynać zacząć
to gather zbierać zebrać
to transport zawozić zawieźć


A small group of pairs result from suppletion. For example, in Polish:

Verb Imperfective Perfective
to take brać wziąć
to say mówić powiedzieć
to see widzieć zobaczyć
to watch oglądać obejrzeć
to put kłaść położyć
to find znajdować znaleźć
to go in/to go out (on foot) wchodzić / wychodzić wejść / wyjść
to ride in/to ride out (by car) wjeżdżać / wyjeżdżać wjechać / wyjechać


A number of verbs form their aspectual counterparts by simultaneous prefixation and suffixation, ex. (the first one is imperfective) stawiać - postawić 'to set up'.

Contrast between a perfective and an imperfective verb may be also indicated by stress, e.g. Russian perfective осы́пать, imperfective осыпа́ть (to strew, shower, heap upon something).


External links[edit]