Back to Saint Petersburg – some thoughts about the Russian language

Before leaving to Saint Petersburg in June 2017, Ursula studied the Cyrillic alphabet. When walking around, she would always read, what she sees – and she understood a lot such as: банк=bank, кофе хаус=coffee house, бистрот=bistrot, ресторан=restaurant, стритфуд=street food, магазин=shop (magasin), автобус=bus (Autobus), такси=taxi, вокзал=station (from Vauxhall) or – another example – френч дог=French dog.  Knowing the alphabet provides the first access to the language.

Having been exposed to Russian for quite a while, I experience the Russian verbs to be one of my most serious obstacles. I keep on stopping, when seeing advertisements and signposts… why have they used the perfect aspect here and the imperfect aspect there…? And why the multidirectional and not the unidirectional motion ? How do Russians think?

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About the perfect and imperfect aspect – some cases

The perfect and imperfect aspect are unique in Russian (and other Slavic languages). The perfect aspect shows that the result of an action (or of some actions) matters or that the action is planned. The  imperfect aspect points to the fact (“has it happened or has it not happened?”) or to the process (now, in future or in the past). Russians use two separate verbs for their two aspects, and I could not find any consistent rules to relate one to the other (e.g. говорить is imperfect and сказать is perfect – both meaning “sagen”). The concept applies to all verb forms, also to the infinitive.

In the newly renovated park of New Holland in Saint Petersburg they play nicely with the two aspects, perfect (pf) and imperfect (impf).

It says: “We ask you (now, impf) to wait a little bit (pf, result “until” matters), until the young lawn will strengthen and grow (pf, future). Very soon it will be possible again to rest on it, to read, to eat or to simply look into the sky (rest, read, eat, look are processes in the future, hence impf).” It sounds charming – I do not know another language that prohibits access to anything so nicely. Translating the text literally into English does not convey the full charm of it.

This is another example. When going for a boat trip on the channels of Saint Petersburg, you are asked not to stand up under the bridges. “Под мостами” means “under the bridges” and “не вставать” means “do not stand up”. “не вставать” is a negative imperative in the imperfect aspect (expressed here using the infinitive –  in German you could also use the infinitive for the imperative: “nicht aufstehen!”).

Tatjana told me that, for the negative imperative, I should use the imperfect aspect in 95% of the cases. The reason: It is just forbidden to DO something – nobody is interested in the result of the action, what matters is just the “doing” that is not allowed. BUT if you are really afraid of the result of the action, then it matters and you would use the perfect aspect. Standing up under the bridge can really hurt, as they are so low above the water level. When approaching the bridge, I might watch my friend stand up, I might be shocked, I might fear, she will bump her head into the bridge now, I want to prevent the accident and, as the danger is very real and immediately ahead of us, I would then shout “не встань” (perfect aspect – do not stand up!).

Another example that puzzled me: In Russian trains there are green buttons that you are asked to press to open the door at the station. Having to press those buttons is a general fact. Hence in the trains, “press the green button” is written in the imperfect aspect: “нажимаете зелённую кнопку” (“нажимаете” means “press” and is imperfect). But then, in Repino, I find this plate: “Нажмите кнопку – ждите зелённый сигнал”. “Нажмите” (press) is the perfect aspect and “ждите” (wait) is imperfect. Why this? I sense that it is still a general fact that I have to press the green button, whenever I want to order green light to cross the street, but the Russians seem to think differently, as Tatjana explains to me.

For Tatjana, it was evident. By pressing the green button (perfect action), you start the process of waiting (imperfect action).  I can understand, what she means, but I find it difficult to get this right.

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About the verbs of motion such as “ходить” and “идти” – and I am twinkling with my eyes

“По газонам не ходить” means “do not step onto the grass”. More precisely translated it means “do not walk around on the grass”. This also includes “do not walk to the shore and then back.” The verbs of motion differentiate between the process of going in one direction (“unidirectional motion”, идти ) and to walk around or go there and return (“multidirectional motion”, ходить). The sign says that it is forbidden to walk on the grass, “multidirectionally” or “to the shore and back”.

Now I am joking: These two guys may have done everything right, because so far they have only walked to the shore (which might be expressed by the unidirectional verb “идти”). In case they leave the place swimming, they have not walked around (“ходить” – forbidden) nor have they gone there AND returned (also – “ходить” – forbidden).

I am doing hairsplitting and twinkling with my eyes. Of course, the intention is to forbid “any” way of walking on the grass, which requires the “multidirectional” verb “ходить”.

Multi- and unidirectional motions is another concept that applies to Slavic languages and it holds for all verbs of motion such as climb, run, drive, bring, crawl, swim – in the imperfect aspect.

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