Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bet you wish you'd never asked...

Beth asked, "what is this weird slavic imperfective/perfective verb thing?"

But please don't blame her. And I did start to respond in the comments. I really did. But the whole thing is weird. (To me, that is. It's completely normal to the millions of native-slavic-language speakers who instead think the whole latin/germanic language system of tenses* is a bizarre perversion of the time-space continuum, or whatever. At least, that's what Mrs. Jana thinks. Tenses make her angry.) And because it's weird, it refuses to be confined to a brief comment.

So first of all, I may be making a gross generalisation. But friends who studied Russian used to complain about perfectives and imperfectives in that language. And now, here I am, learning a bit of Czech and lo and behold we hit chapter 12 (skinny chapters, btw) and they leap out to bite me in my linguistic hindquarters. So I googled, and it seems that verb aspects crop up in Bulgarian and Ukrainian in a big and important way too.

Anyhow, Sara-wearing-her-Rosina-hat could do this way better than me, but here's my amateur take on the matter after a couple of lessons:

Perfective and imperfective are two different aspects of verbs. "Aspect" kind of means how you look at/think about the action that's being described, regardless of when it takes place. So if you picture it from outside the action, in a linguistic out-of-body experience, it could be seen as a single, complete action. This is perfective (as in perfectly complete). If you picture it somehow from within the action (in other words, are more interested in the process as it's going on), it's imperfective.

Aspects are different from tenses, however, which is where it becomes confusing because I've definitely come across verbs in the past being called "perfect". So I've had to chuck that notion out of the window for the moment. In Czech, you can have past and present perfective (it has a future meaning), and past, present and future imperfectives.

So far, we're only dabbling in the past, which basically means deciding if you're interested in the fact that an action has been completed or in the action itself, which could sometimes give it a continous sense, but not always. It's not really like the imparfait/passé composé distinction beloved of French tests of yore which can usually be translated as "was/were yodelling" (imp.) or "used to yodel" (imp.)vs. "he yodelled" (pc). It also communicates things in ways that are expressed in English completely differently.

For example, you could say "Last Saturday that pudgy and over-familiar chimpanzee [shopped for] a new blouson leather jacket." If you used the perfective [shopped for] you could mean either:
1. He'd found and bought the jacket or...
2. He'd checked out all the jackets and decided that he'd rather get something in padded gingham and chains and spend the change on a cheap fedora.

But if you used the imperfective aspect of [shopped for], you could:
1. Be setting the backdrop for another action in the sense of "was shopping for…when he was attacked by a vengeful Confucius impersonator", or…
2. Mean that he'd shopped, not bought anything, and would probably go back and look at the discounts in the sales next week. Or not. You just don't care if the chimpanzee is stuck forever in limbo, still shopping. Given his taste in outfits that may be a good thing.

This is about as far as I've come. And the way Mrs. Jana nervously changes the subject whenever I mention the present tense gives me the feeling we're just skimming the surface. Basically it's just weird and depends on point of view and probably just getting a feeling for it.

But here's where it gets more weird. Because instead of just taking your average verb and twisting it in devious but ultimately classifiable ways (stick a bit on the end/the beginning/in the middle, oh but here's an exception) those wacky Czechs decided instead to use a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORD. Admittedly it's one that often appears distantly related, but only in the sense that some of the letters or the odd syllable are the same.

There are no rules about how it works on this frontier, kids. And I bet that as a beginner I'm getting the easy ones. Some verbs get longer, some get shorter. Some add a prefix or suffix, some change letters or syllables or any combination of these things. So you just have to learn them. Except there can be more than one perfective verb for an imperfective one. Not always pairs of verbs tromping along two-by-two in a metaphorical crocodile for the Czechs. Oh no.

Oh. And all verbs of motion, such as "going-by-feet" and "going-by-transport-including-roller-skates" are exceptions and are always imperfective, but it's okay because they form the future tense in a TOTALLY DIFFERENT WAY.

All of which makes me suspect that those Czech grammarians had a lot of repressed anger.

Sorry Beth. You give me garlic-browning tips, I give you rants on linguistics. Life is very cruel.

Edited to add: Aaaarrrgggghhhh. Verbs of motion are all perfective. Not imperfective. Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh.

*By this I mean things like, "I will wankle-rotate", "I will be wankle-rotating", "I will have wankle-rotated", "I'm going to wankle-rotate", the nuances of which I am woefully ill-equipped to explain. I just wankle-rotate away. Or is it off?

11 comments:

jmc said...
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jmc said...

Hit post too soon, sorry about that.

Czech sounds frighteningly like Russian, with the go by foot, go by car, etc. Not a huge surprise, since it too is a Slavic language.

I'm thinking that even Latin/romance languages have some of the perfect/imperfect stuff going on too. In Spanish (back in the Dark Ages when I was in high school), it was called preterite/imperfect for past tense, with other labels for the subjunctive and future. But the distinction was all about duration of action. Even so, Spanish was way easier to master than Russian.

Suisan said...

And the pluperfect is?

Because I used to get dinged on all my French compositions for using the pluperfect incorrectly. Only to discover years later that one of the tenses (I cna't remember which) was only literary form, never used in conversational French. Oh, thanks.

BTW, you don't have to answer about the pluperfect--just yanking your chain.

Lyn Cash said...

My favorite line in a movie of late: Val Kilmer's character to that of Robert Downey Jr's in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"..."Why in pluperfect hell did you pee on the corpse?"

Lots of grammatical word play and a tight script - loved it.

I'm supposed to be packing or writing or something - just had to post this time rather than lurk. Have a great rest of the week, and may gods past perfect, present, and pluperfect smile on you.

Beth said...

Nope, not sorry I asked. It reminds me why I'm glad I'm not in school anymore, which is always a very nice thing to be reminded of.

And the mere mention of the pluperfect (as in "he had arrived") triggered this traumatic memory for me, of trying to compose sentences in French that were like "We would have been happy to come, if you hadn't been nagging us about it for days." Just trying to remember which tenses (and modalities, for the subjunctive was the scourge of my scholastic career) to use in a sentence like that is kinda making me want to vomit.

fiveandfour said...

This is why I laugh - LAUGH, I tell you - at the people who used to tell me I must be nuts to want to study Japanese instead of French or Spanish back in high school. Sure there were lots of strokes and symbols and stuff (and, ok, 3 alphabets), but it all makes sense, it's all perfectly logical - it's elegant even.

My head hurt trying to wrap my mind around this Schrodiger's Cat of language with its perfection changing based on the perspective.

But I've long held that you can learn a culture most intimately from learning its language -- I don't know what all this says about Slavic culture, maybe once you're more into it you can let us know what you come up with.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Jmc, you mentioned the subjunctive! Noooooo. I had to czech (hehehe) and guess what lies in wait somewhere down the winding path? Noooooo.

Suisan, I will now be haunted by the ghosts of the pluperfect and past historic. Bet you're glad Beth got to your question first, though. ;-)

Lyn, Haven't seen KKBB, but the line you quoted definitely sparked my interest. Nice one, thank you.

Beth, don't suppose you wanna do my homework? Sentences abound, but apart from "ape-man" I only have really boring vocabulary.

Fiveandfour, isn't Japanese supposed to have mind-blowing registers of politeness that are all but impenetrable without years of study? It's things like that which make me agree with you about the culture/language link.

And thank you guys, all, for your comments.

RPC said...

I think all the above goes a long wasy to explaining why 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' made Lynne Truss a multi-millionnairess. Which makes me think that there is almost certainly a path ahead to your unimagined wealth based solely on this post alone.

It's obvious: write a book...

fiveandfour said...

isn't Japanese supposed to have mind-blowing registers of politeness that are all but impenetrable without years of study?

Yes, there is a lot of that, I'll admit. But it's a logical kind of politeness ranking it seemed to me. Father, Mother, Older Brother, Boss etc. - more honorific word choice. Contemporary such as a good friend - more "equal" word choice. Younger sibling - more "what a good pet" word choice.

What was harder for me was distinguising when a symbol had it's old, Chinese pronunciation and meaning or the 'new', Japanese pronunciation and meaning because those vary based on the context. Of course, it's been so long since I studied all that now that I can only recognize the most basic and common of symbols and it feels like it must have been some other person who used to have dreams in Japanese.

Makes me wonder if my brain's so calcified now whether it's even possible to stuff a language in there since I feel half the time like even my English is going the way of Algernon. ::Sigh::

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Oh cool - thanks for updating, fiveandfour. Really interesting stuff.

And thank you, rpc, for the compliment.

Rosina Lippi said...

How did I miss this whole linguistic love feast?

I kept wondering when you were going to throw MOOD into the mix, and then it showed up at the last minute in the comments. You don't know from complicated until you have to make the subjunctive II play nice with the pluperfect.

You did a great job explaining, by the way.