Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Verbal Aspect

Next month I have to take my basic Czech language exam in order to apply for permanent residency.  One thing in common to Slavic languages, which can be incredibly difficult for native English speakers, is verbal aspect.

Overall Czech verbs are pretty easy.  There are normally only three tenses...past, present and future.  So I went, I go, I will go.  That's it.  None of the crazy I had gone, I am going, I am going to go, I will be going tenses that we have in English. 

Czech, and the other Slavic languages - Slovak, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bulgarian,  Ukrainian, Macedonian and Belarusian, have this concept of completeness which is understood by aspect.  So first of all, for every action you have to understand if the action was completed or not.  Basically is it finished or not finished.

Imperfective verbs look things being a process and don't care about the end result.  The imperfective verbs have past, present, and future tenses.  For example, the imperfective aspect of to read:

I read a book (but didn't finish reading the entire book).
I am reading a book (but won't finish reading all of it).
I will read a book (but won't necessarily finish it in one go).

Perfective verbs show that something is done/completed.  The perfective verbs only have a future and past tense.  There's no present tense because it is impossible to be actively doing something and be finished with it at the same time.

I will read a book (and I will finish the entire thing).
I read a book (and I finished reading all of it).

The tricky thing is that for the future tense of perfective verbs, you don't actually use the future tense.  You use the present tense of the verb but all Czechs know that the present tense is really the future tense.  Ugh!!

Czechs use different verbs to express aspect.  So číst means to read (imperfective) and přečíst meas to read (perfective).  So to cover the whole "to read" thing in Czech you actually need to learn two verbs whereas in English you only have to learn one verb.

And it's like this for everything.  You always need to learn two verbs for every action, and then think if the action will be completed or not (imperfective or perfective), then use the past, present, or future.  But if the action is perfective, then use the present to really express the future.  This does my head in.  I had better pass this damn test.

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