Exploring Emptiness

Exploring Emptiness Database

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Theoretical Questions:

Can a linguistic form be void of meaning? What impact does this question have on the relationship between form and meaning in language?

Practical Outcomes: These are organized in two groups:

Prefixes: There are nineteen prefixes traditionally assumed to be semantically “empty” in Russian. These nineteen prefixes are combined with nearly two thousand verbs. According to the traditional model, a learner of Russian must memorize which prefix to use with which verb, since there is no way to make sense of the relationship between verbs and prefixes. By analyzing large databases of Russian, we have discovered a well-behaved system of meanings that improves both our linguistic understanding of Russian and our capacity to teach the language. We have created an interactive database of verbs and prefixes in Russian.

Suffixes: As the result of an ongoing language change, several dozen verbs in Russian can be conjugated according to two different suffix patterns. For example, ‘I wave’ can be conjugated as either mašu (according to the -a suffix pattern) or maxaju (according to the -aj suffix pattern). These suffixes are assumed to be empty, but careful analysis of language data reveals meaningful patterns. Our studies yield better linguistic description that can also benefit language teaching.

In addition to numerous articles, this project will yield a book entitled Why Russian aspectual prefixes aren’t empty: prefixes as verb classifiers. The book presents a coherent narrative capturing the highlights of our findings concerning prefixes and their meanings. The target audience includes Slavic linguists and general linguists, as well as teachers and advanced learners of Russian. The studies in the book make use of quantitative research on corpus data and statistical models (chi-square, logistic regression, etc.), however, these are presented in a common-sense way that assumes no special expertise.

Funding: The Exploring Emptiness project is sponsored by grants from the Norwegian Research Council and Sparebankens Gavefond.