Distinguishing alternative perfective forms
Does anyone have any tips for how to go about deciding which perfective form of a verb to use when there are multiple choices?
If we take, as one example, видеть, Wiktionary (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%8C) gives two perfective forms: увидеть and завидеть. Both are given exactly the same definition.
We can take a look at the common meanings of the prefixes у- and за- in this case, but there are often a great many possibilities, and this doesn't help narrow down the difference.
Is there a good strategy for finding the different nuances between two verbs (perhaps just a different site, though Wiktionary is very helpful in most other cases)?
I'm not a native speaker, but I believe завидеть is mostly used in literature, while in the spoken language people only use увидеть nowadays.
Anyway, here's a great article on everything you need to know about perfective verbs: http://explorerussian.com/verb-aspects-perfective-imperfective-verbs/
Use a dictionary, e.g. at GRAMOTA.RU, Lingvo or Wiktionary in Russian. Just be sure to check the examples and also look up the word in the corpus. In general, the "natural" perfective should not be much more rare than the base imperfective verb. Certainly not several orders of magnitude. Some verbs do not have natural perfectives, though (or have several). It blurs the picture.
It's best to think of aspectual pairs as practical rather than actual pairs of words.
You see, perfective verbs focus on the point of transition between two states. The imperfective aspect, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of process/interation/general idea of what the action is. Imagine a director compiling an animated film from the two stacks of sequences provided by the animators: "actions" and "loops". Actions change something ("character closes the door", "character starts walking", "character falls asleep") . Loops let you show the process for as much time as you want ("character walks", "character fights the zombies", "character sleeps") . You can say that an action has a "phase transition". Think of it for a moment: some loops do not have a natural result or phase transition, so you cannot say which is the "obvious" way to turn them into an "action".
HOW IS IT PRACTICAL?
Russian requires you to use a certain aspect in some situations. For instance, whereas "I often return home after midnight" requires an imperfective verb, "I finally returned home" requires a perfective. It means that sometimes natives have to come up with an imperfective verb even if they originally had a perfective one in mind—and vice versa. So we have "pairs" of verbs with almost identical meaning. Native speakers easily come up with an aspectual partner .
HOW IS IT ACHIEVED?
The most common way of making a perfective verb is to add a prefix to an unprefixed verb. Sometimes the meaning the prefix adds has a good overlap with the meaning of the verb itself, so the former meaning becomes "invisible". That's how a "natural" perfective counterpart" is coined:
- строить → построить
- читать → прочитать (прочесть is also common)
This technique has an interesting consequence: other prefixed versions of the same verb do not have the same lexical meaning. Some verbs are already prefixed perfectives, and their bare stem is not used in speech. But they still need imperfectives for everyday use! The most commom way to make such secondary imperfectives is suffixation:
- настроить → настраивать ("to tune")
And now I can finally explain why aspectual pairs are more of a useful trick than the bedrock of the Russian aspectual system. Different phase transitions may occur even when the same verb describes the process. For example, the verb "to eat" (есть) is used both without an object ("to receive nutrition by consuming edibles", "to have a meal") and with an object ("to consume something"). Russian has different perfectives for these two:
- Я ел апельсин → Я съел апельсин.
- Я ел. → Я поел.
Even worse is the verb "резать" (to cut) because even in Russian there are ever so many ways of cutting something. Here are some of the perfectives:
- отре́зать = to cut (off)
- разре́зать = to cut (into two or more pieces)
- перере́зать = to cut (e.g., a rope)
- наре́зать = to slice (e.g., carrots or meat; also порезать)
- поре́зать = to cut (e.g., your hand)
(their imperfective partners just shift the stress to their "-ать", so I provided the accent marks here) Which of these are "natural" perfectives? Well, разрезать, нарезать/порезать sure work but for the different meanings of "cut".
That background on the pair formation is really helpful! Understanding some of reason behind the verbs forming with prefixes or suffixes for the different aspects is enlightening, too!
So with резать, is it the case that the imperfective verb has many meanings, each of which has its own perfective form (for a very loose sense of "each"), which in turn has an imperfective analogue that narrows down on a specific meaning of резать? Would there be a particular reason for choosing резать over разрезáть (or vice versa) — or does it just come down to the particular word choice of an individual, like with many synonyms?
Looking the words up in a corpus is a really good tip — I hadn't thought of doing that, but that makes a lot of sense!
Thank you very much for that explanation — it's been really useful!
When you have a natural perfective with a secondary imperfective, you can safely use the original verb unless you want a specific meaning.
For example, you cannot typically say that someone cuts stuff into a few pieces until you see the result. While the action is in progress, it is enough to say they are "cutting" it. On the other hand, if you are writing an instruction on how one should make a cut through their cloth slowly and carefully, you might say "Разреза́ть ткань нужно медленно". When dicing potatoes and onions, using imperfective нареза́ть would be more precise than just резать (in spoken speech I'd use the pair ре́зать/поре́зать and forget about нареза́ть/наре́зать altogether).
Note that the prefix ПЕРЕ- never makes "empty" perfectives. It has everything to do with its meaning ("over-. . .", "re-. . . ", ". . . through").
Ah, that's very clear! Thank you for explaining everything — that clears a lot of things up! I suppose a lot of it does come down to just experiencing the usages naturally for oneself, which will come with time — but it's nice to feel like you have a better grip on why things are, even earlier on!