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The Issues of Variation: Are there "Empty" Prefixes in Russian?

A big issue in describing a language is variation, which can be found at different levels. For instance, a native speaker of English might be puzzled if asked to explain the difference between two constructions (a) loading the hay onto the truck and (b) loading the truck with hay.

sokolova.jpg (Bredde: 180px) By Svetlana Sokolova, ph.d.-student, IS, member of CLEAR Research group

If the meaning of the two phrases is relatively similar, why do we find such variation? Is this the property of all verbs with a similar meaning? In that case, why can we both spray the paint onto the statue and spray the statue with paint but not *pour the cup with water although we can easily pour the water into the cup? And is this difference between ‘spraying’ and ‘pouring’ reflected in all languages?

It is usually assumed that the ability of verbs to alternate between two constructions is based on their meanings. Given the meaning of the verb we should be able to predict whether it will be possible to use it with both constructions. However, as practice shows, it is extremely difficult to come up with a universal list of alternating verbs. Even if we manage to draw a line between verbs like spray and pour, although both of them refer to an event of applying a liquid to an object, the result would be different in different languages. For instance, in Russian it is possible to both ‘pour the water into the tank’ (zalit’ vodu v bak) and ‘pour the tank with water’ (zalit’ bak vodoj) if the verbal root is combined with the prefix ZA-. Thus, in addition to verbal semantics, one should consider additional factors, like prefixes.

"Do semantically "empty" linguistic units really exist?"
Illustration: www.colourbox.com

Russian has the so-called “empty” prefixes, which, according to the traditional model, do not change the meaning of the verb that they are attached to. For instance, the Russian verb gruzit’ ‘load’ has three purportedly “empty” prefixes (NA-, ZA-, PO-), since na-gruzit’, za-gruzit’ and po-gruzit’ are all listed as the perfective “partners”, or Natural Perfectives, of the unprefixed imperfective gruzit’, and all four verbs come under a single definitional entry. The main question here is why all three units are present in the language if the prefixes do not bring any additional meanings? Do semantically “empty” linguistic units really exist?

My dissertation project aims to bring together the two issues of variation mentioned above by looking at the distribution of “empty” prefixes in the class of alternating verbs. By analyzing large databases of Russian compiled on the basis of the Russian National Corpus (www.ruscorpora.ru), I show that the choice of the prefix is largely dependent on the syntactic construction and the meaning of the verb. For instance, all three prefixed Natural Perfectives of the verb gruzit’ ‘load’ show a different distribution of constructions: na-gruzit’ strongly favors contexts like (b) ‘loading the truck with hay’, za-gruzit’ creates a near-balance between the two constructions, whereas po-gruzit’ uses (a), ‘loading the hay onto the truck’ construction, in a nearly exclusive manner. The attested difference is the result of an overlap between the meaning of the prefix and the meaning of the verb: NA-‘on’ is primarily used with goals that are understood as surfaces, ZA- ‘behind’ tends to select for goals that are understood as containers and gives rise to various metaphorical uses, whereas PO- ‘on, along’ focuses on the event of placing the items rather than on the container which is being filled.

The Russian data that I analyze reveal the interaction between the semantics of the verb, the prefix and the construction, improving our understanding of Russian verbs and their prefixes.

Ansvarlig for siden: Torjer Andreas Olsen
Sist endret: 11.02.2011

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