Spanish on the outside, Russian on the inside

Principal investigator: Laura A. Janda and Antonio Fábregas

Project title: Spanish on the outside, Russian on the inside

Summary of the project:

Both Spanish and Russian have a Perfective vs. Imperfective distinction, yet there are examples where the languages show opposite tendencies. Such examples are evidence that the grammatical category of aspect varies across languages, and indeed that all grammatical categories are to some extent language-specific as claimed by Croft (2001:Chapter 1; with respect to aspect 2012:127).  Our study reveals an important and pervasive difference in the “thinking for speaking” (Slobin 1996) concerning the conceptualization of time in the two languages.

In Janda & Fábregas (2019) we examined situations where Spanish uses a Perfective Past tense form, while the Russian translation equivalent is an Imperfective Past tense form. We find this mismatch primarily in contexts with overt expression of time periods as in (1). Our interpretation is that Spanish tends to view time periods externally, interpreting them as bounded and thus Perfective, whereas Russian tends to view time periods internally, interpreting them on the basis of their duration without reference to their boundaries and thus Imperfective.

(1)

Leyó-pfv toda la noche

On čital-ipfv vsju noč’

‘He read all night’

In Fábregas & Janda (Under Submission) we look at the opposite mismatch, where a Spanish Imperfective has a Russian Perfective translation equivalent. This kind of mismatch is rarer, appearing in only 5-6% of examples of parallel Past tense forms, and typically involves the starting point of an event, as in (2).

(2)

El mendigo se reía-ipfv de puro placer

Niščij rassmejalsja-pfv ot udovol’stvija

‘The beggar started laughing from pleasure’

We contend that the Spanish event-external vs. Russian event-internal perspective is relevant also for examples like (2). The event-internal perspective adopted by Russian makes it sensitive to the presence of an initial boundary, which is enough for the language to determine that an eventuality is bounded and thus Perfective. One can only observe the initial boundary from within. The event-external perspective of Spanish makes it insensitive to the initial boundary, because for Spanish the only relevant question is whether the endpoint is specified or not; therefore the event is interpreted as Imperfective.

In other words, the same type of contrast that explains Spanish Perfective > Russian Imperfective mismatches is also responsible for Spanish Imperfective > Russian Perfective mismatches.

Additionally, Spanish neutralizes aspectual distinctions in modal contexts, and assigns modal values to the imperfective, while Russian expresses aspectual contrasts even in contexts that are modal, such as (3).

(3)

no se lo creían-ipfv ni las piedras

ej ne poverili-pfv by daže kamni

‘not even stones could believe that’

Our study is richly illustrated with data from parallel corpus examples of 5000 pairs of Spanish /Russian verbs and the Spanish-Russian parallel corpus in the Russian National Corpus.

References

  • Croft, W. 2001. Radical Construction Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, W. 2012. Verbs: Aspect and Causal Structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fábregas, Antonio and Janda, Laura A. Under Submission. When Russian is more Perfective than Spanish. 29pp.
  • Janda, Laura A. and Fábregas, Antonio. 2019. Seeing from without, seeing from within: aspectual differences between Spanish and Russian. Cognitive Linguistics Issue 4, Vol. 30 (2019). 27pp.
  • Slobin, D.I. 1996. From “thought and language” to “thinking for speaking”. In J.J. Gumperz & S.C. Levinson (eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity, 70–96. Cambridge University Press.

Link to the project result: All data in connection with this project is available here: https://doi.org/10.18710/WR4Y0Q

Project duration: year 2017 – present

Key publications:

Fábregas, Antonio and Janda, Laura A. Under Submission. When Russian is more Perfective than Spanish. 29pp.

Janda, Laura A. and Fábregas, Antonio. Forthcoming in 2019. Seeing from without, seeing from within: aspectual differences between Spanish and Russian. Cognitive Linguistics Issue 4, Vol. 30 (2019). 27pp. Ahead-of-Print https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2018-0054

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