I have been reading into Balto-Slavic languages and come across a problem. "To need" is always imperfective.

If I use the imperfective past verb, "to need," I am going to be still, presently needing something (because the verb is viewed internally).

That works fine, but what if I needed something in the past and I stopped needing it? If I stopped needing something, that would mean that the "process" of needing has concluded and I am viewing it from outside the duration of that action. This would require a perfective though, and almost none of the Slavic languages have them for that verb.

My reference words are наблюдать and нуждаться.

NOTE: I am talking about the perfective aspect NOT a perfect tense.

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    I'm not a Russian expert, but I see that Russian has the pairs тре́бовать(ся) /потребовать(ся). Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 21:10
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    I was more thinking of verbs like нуждаться
    – Anon
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 21:58
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    Most Slavic constructions are something like To me x needs, To me x is necessary, x requires etc where English would have I need x. It's a mistake to start from English, translate a single word, and then wonder why the resulting translation seems unexpressive. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 4:56
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    наблюдать has понаблюдать, not sure if your premise there is correct. Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 12:12
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    @MarkBeadles понаблюдать is a resultless perfective (like most of the по- ones), it merely points to the fact that the process of observation was finished. What the asker is looking for, I think, is a way to express an instantaneous event of observing something. Theoretically, it would be *наблюсти, but for some reason, it's not a word. Some use наблюдать where you'd expect perfective; more commonly, synonyms are used such as заметить. Czech AFAIK has no problem perfectivising pozorovat into zpozorovat. Then again, I'm not sure sledovat has a perfective pair. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 20:05

2 Answers 2


I believe you are asking this question because you have read that the perfective is used for completed actions. This is perfectly true. But it is important to understand in what sense they are completed.

Actions described by perfective verbs are completed in the sense that they stop because they have accomplished their object. For example:

Я открыл дверь. (I opened the door.)

This is a completed action. It is not simply discontinued as if it had ceased to be interesting and rewarding to the one doing it. It is completed because it has accomplished its purpose. Opening a door allows one to see what is on the other side and to pass through. If one is telling a story, saying that a door was opened moves the narrative ahead by one step. This ability to propel the narrative is what it means for a verb to be perfective.

The verbs you cite simply do not describe such a decisive action. For example "наблюдать" means "to observe" in the sense of "I observed how the birds raise their young." This is an extended passive activity which does not create new possibilities all by itself. Thus it is an imperfective idea.

The same applies to needing something as expressed by "нуждаться". Needing is not a real action it is more of a state. It is not a decisive action like opening a door or an act which one can carry to completion. On cannot "do a needing". One can only cease to need. Thus it too is an imperfective idea.

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    I think the use of perfective vs. imperfective in such circumstances is somewhat language-dependent. In French, "il a fallu" can be used in some circumstances for past needs Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 3:30
  • Wouldn't the difference in aspect be better explained by the difference in meaning between "il a fullu" and "нуждаться"? It seems the first refers to a condition which is met in order for something else to happen. The second refers to an unmet need.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 1:08

I know that this might sound as a blasphemy, but it doesn't make much sense splitting Slavic verbs along the "perfective" and "imperfective" line. This opposition is simply not built into the Slavic verb system.

This understanding of the verb aspect in Slavic languages is put forward in Comrie's work on the verb aspect:

Students of Russian and other Slavonic languages are familiar with the distinction between Perfective and Imperfective aspect, as in on pročital (Pfv.) and on čital (Ipfv.), both translatable into English as 'he read', although some idea of the difference can be given by translating the Imperfective as ' he was reading, he used to read '.

Speaking for Serbian (and I strongly suspect the same applies to Russian) Comrie's understanding of the contrast between "čital" and "pročital" must be erroneous on many levels. In the first place, understanding of "čital" as a strictly imperfective verb is untenable. We cannot possibly know whether "čital" receives perfective or imperfective reading without the context, simply because such opposition is not built into the language. What adding the morpheme "pro" to "čital" does is it changes an atelic verb into a telic one. Slavic (or at least Serbian) verbs contrast in terms of their telicity, but not in terms of perfectivity.

Similarly to Comrie, the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say this:

With perfective aspectuality, the situation is presented in its totality, as a complete whole; it is viewed, as it were, from the outside, without reference to any internal temporal structure or segmentation. The concept of complete whole is independent of time, so that perfective aspectuality is compatible with any time-sphere: past in He declared it a fake, present in I declare this meeting open, future in It is essential [that he declare everything he’s bought]. With imperfective aspectuality, the situation is not presented in its totality; it is viewed from within, with focus on some feature of the internal temporal structure or on some subinterval of time within the whole. In languages such as Russian there are distinct verb-forms whose basic meanings correspond closely to these two aspectualities, and these languages are therefore said to have perfective and imperfective aspect. English, of course, is not such a language: the simple present and preterite can both be used either perfectively or imperfectively.

I'd say it is on the contrary actually, the perfective / imperfective opposition is pretty much grammaticalized in English considering that in English we can clearly align "perfective" aspect with all (single) event verbs and imperfective (progressive) with the (be +) ing verb form.

  • Imperfective and progressive are not the same thing, and there is no such clear alignment as you mention; I think your understanding of these categories is somewhat lacking. ‘He walks to school’ is a single event verb (unless you mean something else by that?), but nearly always imperfective, for example, and ‘he walked to school’ can equally well be perfective or imperfective. On the other hand, there is a strong affinity between telicity and the perfective aspect on the one hand, and atelicity and imperfective aspect on the other. Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 19:57
  • Hi Janus! I didn't say that "imperfective" and "progressive" are the same thing, you can't find it in my post. I said that there is a clear grammatical opposition between perfective and imperfective-progressive verbs. Imperfective does comprise more than just progressive aspect, but that isn't the point. "He walks to school" can't normally be interpreted as a single event of walking to school, that's beyond dispute. (fringe uses of the present aside). "Walks" cannot equally be interpreted as "perfective" or "imperfective" as you claim. Or to put it differently, perfectivity of event verbs is
    – user35807
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 6:23
  • the very reason why "single" event interpretation of "walks" is infelicitous. It is clear from what you said that your understanding of "perfectivity" is different from how current linguistics treats this concept, so we are obviously talking about different things. The verb "walk" will be perfective regardless of the tense, "walked to school" can only receive perfective interpretation. Even worse in my mind is mixing up the concepts of "telicity" and "perfectivity". These two concepts define two different aspectual properties of the verb.
    – user35807
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 6:39
  • As for the Slavic aspect, I will repeat my claim that the "perfective" / "imperfective" opposition is not grammaticalized in Serbian. Comrie's understanding of "pročitati" as an perfective counterpart of the imperfective "čitati" is simply wrong. What we achieve by adding "pro" on the stem "čitati" is we embed the endpoint into the meaning of the verb. Or to put it differently, we turn an atelic verb into a telic one. This kind of opposition is embedded in the Serbian verb, but of course not in English. On the other hand, perfective/ imperfective opposition is embedded in the English verb
    – user35807
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 7:01
  • but not in Serbian verbs. The concept of "telicity"/ "completion" is often confused with the concept of "perfectivity" which is clearly shown in both your answer and the answer David provided above. (David said "Actions described by perfective verbs are completed in the sense that they stop because they have accomplished their object."). The terms we use in Serbian to describe verb opposition such as "čitati/pročitati" is "svršeni/nesvršeni glagolski vid", which in literal translation means "finished/unfinished verb aspect". These terms clearly indicate the nature of these verb properties.
    – user35807
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 7:14

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