Requests, Their Meanings and Aspectual Forms in Early Greek and Russian Child Language

in Journal of Greek Linguistics

Requests are among the three basic human communicative motives which emerge earliest in ontogeny. The imperative constitutes the prototypical linguistic verb form category for expressing direct requests. In both Modern Greek and Russian, this category is differentiated from other verb forms and most verbs distinguish between perfective and imperfective imperative forms. In the present paper, the perfective and imperfective imperative verb forms occurring in the early speech of a Greek and a Russian child and their mothers’ child-directed speech are studied with regard to their frequencies and functions. It will be shown that the perfective/imperfective contrast of imperative forms does not function alike in the two languages. The differences of imperative usage between the two mother-child dyads and the similarities within each of them may be taken as evidence that the children construct the grammatical distinctions of their language on the basis of usage.


Requests are among the three basic human communicative motives which emerge earliest in ontogeny. The imperative constitutes the prototypical linguistic verb form category for expressing direct requests. In both Modern Greek and Russian, this category is differentiated from other verb forms and most verbs distinguish between perfective and imperfective imperative forms. In the present paper, the perfective and imperfective imperative verb forms occurring in the early speech of a Greek and a Russian child and their mothers’ child-directed speech are studied with regard to their frequencies and functions. It will be shown that the perfective/imperfective contrast of imperative forms does not function alike in the two languages. The differences of imperative usage between the two mother-child dyads and the similarities within each of them may be taken as evidence that the children construct the grammatical distinctions of their language on the basis of usage.

1. Introduction

The first fundamental human communicative motive to emerge in ontogeny is requesting, while the second and third basic motives are offering help to others by informing them of things and expressing or sharing experience with them (Tomasello 2010: 84–87). Requesting is also found in other species besides humans, whereas the motive of helping by informing seems to be unique to the human species (Tomasello 2010: 85). Aikhenvald (2010: 331) emphasizes that “understanding and mastering directive speech acts […] in a language is a key to successful communication.” This is mirrored by the early appearance of imperatives and one-word directives in child language acquisition (Aikhenvald 2010: 325–326).

Requests belong to the linguistic category of deontic (or event) modality—as opposed to epistemic (or propositional) modality1—the origin of which is to be sought in the ontogenetically basic desiderative and instrumental functions of language, i.e. in the use of language for expressing desires and getting “things done by imposing one’s will on other agents” (Lyons 1977: 826).2 Searle (1999) points out that, in contrast to informatives, which reflect a Me-to-You direction, requests show a You-to-Me direction of fit.

Requests (for action) and questions (requests for information) form the category of directive speech acts (Searle 1976).3 The domain of requests for action includes orders (or commands) as well as direct and indirect requests. The difference between a request and an order or command is that in the latter the speaker requires the addressee to bring about a state of affairs, whereas in the former “the speaker believes that the addressee might not mind doing the act requested” (Levinson 1984: 272). In contrast to commands, requests leave the addressee an option of refusal to comply with the “command” (Lyons 1977: 749).

In contrast to non-human apes, which only express orders, humans have an entire scale of different requests at their disposal, ranging from orders to polite requests or indirect ones (Tomasello 2010: 84). As pointed out by Aikhenvald (2010: 398), “canonical imperatives tend to refer to the most immediate and basic of commands” and “are the least formally marked.” The most prototypical second person singular imperatives often coincide with the bare stem of the verb (Aikhenvald 2010: 396). However, indirect requests expressed by questions or mere statements of desire are commonly used in everyday communication, because human beings are cooperative so that human communicators know that others care for their desires (Levinson 1984: 264; Tomasello 2010: 84–85). This is especially true for adult-child interaction, at least in the upper-middle social class to which our subjects belong.

The theoretical framework of the present study is cognitive-functional, usage-based, and constructivist and argues for the learnability of grammatical knowledge from the input (Tomasello 2003, 2010: 313; Stephany 2012: 91; Lieven 2014). These non-nativist theoretical approaches contrast sharply with the nativist generativist approach based on Chomsky’s ideas on Universal Grammar (see Ambridge & Lieven 2011; Stephany 2012; Ambridge, Pine, & Lieven 2014).

The relation between child-directed and child speech not only reflects the forms and functions of the grammatical options of the language to be acquired, but also the usage they are made of in child-directed speech. Language acquisition therefore not simply depends on the grammatical system of the mother tongue, but on the usage the grammatical form-function units are made of in the input.

In the constructivist approach, “grammar is seen as a dynamic system of conventionalized form-function units, i.e. constructions, that children acquire based on domain-general learning mechanisms such as analogy, entrenchment, and automatization” (Diessel 2013: 348). Thus, in language acquisition, token and type frequency of inflectional forms and syntactic constructions play a dominant role for entrenchment and productivity, respectively (Tomasello 2003: 238). One advantage of the usage-based approach to morphological analysis, especially as far as fusional languages such as Greek (Stephany 2012: 93) and Russian are concerned, is that it is goal-directed rather than source-directed and “does not require that a word be exhaustively analyzed into morphemes” (Bybee 2010: 23). Rather, the internal structure of complex forms “is discovered by relating them to similar morphological forms with similar grammatical function in the language” (Stephany 2012: 93). Emergent grammatical schemas thus remain tied to concrete inflectional forms (Bybee 2010; Stephany 2012: 94). According to the constructivist, usage-based approach “learning is a gradual process in which categories are acquired in a piecemeal fashion” (Diessel 2013: 348). Ample evidence for this assumption rather than an across-the-board acquisition of grammatical categories has been found in the acquisition of Greek inflection and derivation.4

In this case study, we can only sketch the complex domain of communicative acts of requesting as it presents itself in the speech of a Greek girl and a Russian boy and their mothers’ child-directed speech from the end of the children’s second year of life to the end of the third (Section 2).5 In Section 3, the functions of the perfective and imperfective aspect in Standard Modern Greek and Russian imperative verb forms will be briefly outlined. After presenting our data base in Section 4, we will concentrate on the analysis of direct positive requests with the verb in the imperative form in Greek and Russian child speech and child-directed speech and, in particular, on the use of the perfective vs. imperfective aspect (Sections 5 and 6). By pointing out the relation between child speech and child-directed speech in both languages and the differences of imperative usage between the two mother-child dyads, we will try to show the influence of the input on the acquisition of imperatives in both languages.

2. Form and Function of Requests in Early Greek and Russian Child Speech and Child-Directed Speech

A continuum of requests ranging from ordering to polite indirect requests or mere suggestions and expressed by a number of different linguistic means can be observed in Greek and Russian mother-child interactions already before the end of the child’s second year.6 Leaving aside verbless requests signaled by intonation (examples 1), there are explicitly expressed direct requests with a verb in the imperative form (examples 2), which will be treated below.

A survey of indirect requests occurring in early Greek and Russian child speech and child-directed speech is presented in examples (3) to (13). Indirect requests will, however, not be studied in detail in the present paper.

In Greek, indirect polite requests are frequently expressed by the subjunctive with the verb in the second person singular perfective or imperfective non-past accompanied by the modal particle na or the modal negator mi(n) (examples 3a and 3b).7 The more courteous character of requests in the subjunctive is consistent with a general cross-linguistic tendency according to which more polite forms convey less forceful commands (Aikhenvald 2010: 221).

In Russian, indirect polite requests may be formed by the modal particle davaj ‘let’s’ followed by the imperfective infinitive or a finite perfective form (typically 1S or 1P). They may also be expressed by the adverb nužno ‘necessarily’ followed by the perfective or imperfective infinitive. The modal particle davaj is a grammaticalized imperative of the imperfective verb davat’ ‘give:IPFV’ serving as a universal “cooperation marker”, which signals not only proposals for common action (example 4a) but also negotiations of planned actions (example 4b).

Indirect polite requests formed with the adverb nužno ‘necessarily’ are only found in child-directed speech in our data (examples 5a and b).

Indirect polite requests occurring in Greek child-centered situations may also contain a verb in the third person singular subjunctive (example 6a). Although requests in the subjunctive mood are possible in Russian, they are not found in the child’s speech and are infrequent in child-directed speech (example 6b).

Suggestions may also be expressed by hortatives. In Greek, these are composed of a first person plural perfective or imperfective non-past verb form, eventually accompanied by the modal particle na (examples 7a).8 Russian hortatives occurring in child-centered situations may consist of a perfective verb in the first person plural future (example 7b) and are often accompanied by the particle davaj ‘let’s’.

A further way to express indirect requests in both Greek and Russian is by stating the speaker’s wish (examples 8).

Statements of social rules with a speaker-external deontic source occur in both Greek and Russian. They are typically prohibitive, with the verb accompanied by the non-modal dependent negator δen in Greek (examples 9). In Russian, actions which are not allowed are expressed by the impersonal form nel’zja ‘not allowed’ combined with the imperfective infinitive (example 10).

Statements of undesired future events function as warnings in both Greek and Russian (examples 11).

Statements of the addressee’s desired future actions may function as strong requests in both languages (examples 12).

In contrast to Russian, there is no negative imperative verb form in Greek. Directive prohibitions are formed by the subjunctive, with the negative modal particle mi(n) and the verb in the second person of the non-past perfective or imperfective (example 13).10

3. The Imperative and the Aspectual Contrast Perfective/Imperfective in Greek and Russian

The perfective vs. imperfective aspect is an obligatory grammatical category of the verb in both Greek and Russian. In Greek, it is marked on the verb stem and thus inseparable from the verb form (e.g. aγoras-a ‘bought:PFV-PAST:1S’ vs. aγoraz-a ‘bought:IPFV-PAST:1S’).11 In Russian, aspect may be expressed by prefixes or suffixes. In some verbs, the prefix of the perfective counterpart of the prefixless verb carries purely aspectual information (e.g. dela-l ‘did:IPFV-PAST:MASC:SG’ vs. s-dela-lPFV-did-PAST:MASC:SG’).12 However, in most cases more than one prefixed perfective verb corresponds to a certain unprefixed imperfective one so that the prefix does not only change the grammatical, but also the lexical meaning of the verb (e.g. čitat’ ‘read:IPFV’ vs. pročitat’ ‘read through:PFV’, dočitat’ ‘read to the end:PFV’, perečitat’ ‘read again:PFV’). In contrast to such verbal prefixes, aspectual suffixes are purely grammatical elements expressing the imperfective (e.g. pročityvat’ ‘read through:IPFV’ (habitually)). It can thus be maintained that Russian aspect is strongly linked to derivation (Bondarko 2005: 105–106). In both Russian and Greek the speaker must usually make a choice between the perfective and imperfective aspect (viewpoint aspect).13 In spite of the fact that aspect is a purely grammatical category in Greek, there is a certain dependency of grammatical (viewpoint) aspect and lexical aspect (aktionsart), which has been found to be especially strong in child Greek and in speech directed toward the young Greek child (Stephany 1985).14

In a survey of more than 700 languages of the world, Aikhenvald (2010: 398) discovered that all languages have a way of expressing directive speech acts, but not every language has “a dedicated set of imperatives”. In Greek and Russian, second person singular and plural imperative forms are differentiated from other verb form categories. Although the imperative forms of most verbs distinguish between the perfective and imperfective aspect in both languages, this contrast is more widely distributed in Russian than in Greek, where it is mostly neutralized (Benacchio 2006: 31; see also Mackridge 1985: 123–124).

In the present paper, we will limit ourselves to the functions of perfective and imperfective imperatives and will not be concerned with their formation. Typical examples of contrasting imperative forms are presented in Table 1.

Table 1Greek and Russian perfective and imperfective singular imperative formsTable 1

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Besides a wider distribution of the aspectual contrast in the Russian imperative, the imperative mood itself is more widely used in Russian than in Greek, where it is often substituted by the subjunctive (Seiler 1952: 48; Benacchio 2006: 30). Thus, unlike Russian, the subjunctive plays an important role in both Greek child speech and child-directed speech from early on.15

Although the imperative is the prototypical linguistic form for expressing direct requests, its functions are by no means limited to giving orders or commands emanating from some authority so that non-compliance is not expected (Palmer 2001: 80). Imperatives are also used “to give permission or advice” (e.g. Come in! Don’t worry about it!) (Palmer 2001: 80; see also Han 1999). They typically have future orientation as is apparent from the incompatibility of imperatives with temporal adverbials referring to the past (e.g. finish your homework tonight/*yesterday) (Han 1999).

A further characteristic of imperatives is that they are “performative and subjective in that the speaker actually gives the ‘command’ in the act of speaking” (Palmer 2001: 80). This is the reason why “the deontic modal force cannot be negated in imperatives” (Han 1999). Thus, the issuer of a request expressed by an imperative cannot be questioned and the speaker cannot exclude himself from the request (A: Go home! B: *Who says so? and A: Open the window. I insist on it. but not A: Open the window. *Everyone but me insists on it. (Han 1999)). In negative imperatives, the deontic modal force always has scope over the negation (don’t go! ‘it is necessary that you don’t go’ but not ‘it is not necessary for you to go’ (Han 1999)).16

The principal functional similarities between the perfective and imperfective Greek and Russian imperative are the following:17 In both languages, the perfective imperative focuses on the result of a specific action and is therefore the most natural and frequent form of the imperative, especially with resultative or telic verbs (Benacchio 2006: 19, 31, 2010: 23–30, 161–166).18 In contrast to this, the imperfective imperative is usually or even obligatorily used for iterated or habitual actions in both languages (Benacchio 2006: 22).19 In addition, it may express requests in a more insistent and, thus, less polite manner (Benacchio 2006, 2010; Zorikhina-Nilsson 2012).

Some differences between the use of the perfective and imperfective imperative in Russian and Greek are the following: For requests expressing the mode of telic actions, such as ‘open the door slowly’, Greek uses the perfective imperative while in Russian this is normally expressed by the imperfective one, although the perfective aspect is also possible (Benacchio 2010: 164–166). With atelic durative verbs, however, both Greek and Russian use the imperfective imperative in such contexts.20

The Russian imperfective imperative may also stress that an action has already been discussed by the interlocutors or that it is in its beginning phase (Padučeva 1996: 68–71). According to Padučeva (1996), it may furthermore be used for immediate rather than deferred action. As pointed out by Benacchio (2006: 23, 2010: 33–41), in this case, there must be a close personal contact between the person requesting and the addressee. In such contexts, the imperfective imperative is not only preferred with atelic durative verbs, but even with resultative or telic ones used with or without a complement under certain pragmatic conditions (Benacchio 2006: 24, 2010: 29–54). All in all, these conditions open a vast area for using the imperfective imperative, not only in adult-directed Russian, but also in child-centered situations.

The Greek imperfective imperative also carries pragmatic meanings and may be used in situations where an action is to be executed immediately or the speaker desires it to be immediately enforced (Bakker 1965; Mackridge 1985: 122–123). In comparison with Russian, however, the imperfective imperative may confer a more direct and even impatient tone to the utterance (Mackridge 1985: 123; Benacchio 2006: 34, 2010: 169–173). For this reason, the Greek perfective imperative is the only choice for impatient specific requests in formal contexts.21 In contrast to this, the Russian imperfective imperative is acceptable in both formal and informal contexts if at least one of the pragmatic conditions mentioned above is met, namely that the situation is clear to both interlocutors, that it needs immediate reaction, or that the focus is on the beginning phase of the action (Padučeva 1996).

Narrowing down the comparison of the functions of the perfective and imperfective Greek and Russian imperative to what will be most relevant for child-centered situations, we may expect the following: (1) The perfective imperative will occur very frequently in both Greek and Russian since it focuses on the result of a specific action. (2) In requests for immediate action focusing on its initial phase, the imperfective imperative will be used more often in Russian than in Greek, since the impatient tone it may confer in the latter language tends to be avoided. (3) The use of aspectual contrasts in the imperative will differ quantitatively in Greek and Russian child-directed speech as well as in child speech.

4. The Data

The longitudinal, observational data on which the present study is based come from mother-child interactions of the Greek girl Mairi (Corpus Stephany in the CHILDES Database22) and the Russian boy Filipp (Corpus Voeikova). Mairi was observed at three points in time between 1;9 and 2;9 and Filipp’s speech was continually documented from 1;5 through 2;8. For the sake of comparability with Mairi’s data, Filipp’s monthly data files have been divided into three phases as shown in Table 2.

Table 2DataTable 2

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5. The Frequency of Perfective and Imperfective Imperatives in Greek and Russian Child Speech and Child-Directed Speech

The imperative has an important role to play in both Greek and Russian child speech. Before the age of 2;0, 30% of verbs are used in the imperative in Greek and 25% in Russian.23 In the course of development, the percentage of verbs used in the imperative decreases in both languages so that at least direct requests tend to become less relevant (see Tables 3a and 3b; Figures 1a and 1b). The same tendency is found in child-directed speech.

The frequency distributions of perfective and imperfective imperative forms used by the Greek and Russian child differ considerably (Figures 1a and 1b). In the first developmental phase studied, most Greek verbs are only used in the perfective imperative, while in Russian as many imperatives are formed from imperfective as from perfective verbs. At 2;8, the percentage of Russian imperfective verbs used in the imperative even outnumbers that of perfective verbs, whereas the frequency of the imperfective imperative further decreases after the Greek girl’s turn to her third year. In the course of his third year, the Russian boy develops an aspectual contrast of perfective and imperfective verbs in the imperative so that verbs used with this contrast occur almost as frequently as those without it. Unlike the Russian boy, the Greek girl does not use a single verb in both the perfective and imperfective imperative form.

Table 3aVerbs used in the imperative mood in Greek child speech and child-directed speechTable 3a

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Table 3bVerbs used in the imperative mood in Russian child speech and child-directed speechTable 3b

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When token frequency of aspectual usage in the imperative is taken into consideration, the differences between the two languages become still more noticeable (Tables 3a and 3b; Figures 2a and 2b).

In Greek, 95% or more of imperative tokens are perfective in both the child’s speech and her mother’s child-directed speech from 1;9 to 2;9. One of the reasons why there are no contrasts of perfective and imperfective imperative forms of a given verb to be found in the child’s speech is that none of the imperfective imperative forms which do occur has a perfective counterpart in Standard Greek. Also, the girl’s mother only very rarely contrasts both aspectual forms of the imperative of a specific verb so that the preponderance of the perfective imperative in her child-directed speech agrees with what Seiler (1952: 52) discovered for adult-directed speech.


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Figure 1a

Mairi’s percentage of verbs used in the imperative and in the perf. or imperf. imperative

Citation: Journal of Greek Linguistics 15, 1 (2015) ; 10.1163/15699846-01501002


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Figure 1b

Filipp’s percentage of verbs used in the imperative and in the perf. or imperf. imperative

Citation: Journal of Greek Linguistics 15, 1 (2015) ; 10.1163/15699846-01501002

By contrast, in the Russian boy’s speech, imperfective imperative tokens amount to about 40% until 1;9 years, rising to more than 60% by 2;8. In his mother’s child-directed speech, imperfective imperatives stay more or less constant at 55% of imperative tokens on average. Accordingly, the imperfective imperative plays a much greater role in Russian than in Greek child-centered situations.


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Figure 2a

Percentage of perf. and imperf. imperative tokens in Greek child speech and child-directed speech

Citation: Journal of Greek Linguistics 15, 1 (2015) ; 10.1163/15699846-01501002


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Figure 2b

Percentage of perf. and imperf. imperative tokens in Russian child speech and child-directed speech

Citation: Journal of Greek Linguistics 15, 1 (2015) ; 10.1163/15699846-01501002

6. Functions of the Perfective and Imperfective Imperative in Greek and Russian Child-Centered Situations

In this section, we will try to explain the quantitative differences found in the use of Greek and Russian perfective and imperfective imperatives by a functional analysis of the data.

In child-centered situations, it is usually more important for requests to be communicatively successful and achieve the desired effect than to be expressed politely. Still, there are no examples of bluntly impolite requests in our data, since educating children to use language in socially acceptable ways is one of parents’ important aims.

Aspectual choice in Greek verb forms overall is crucially determined by the semantic features of telicity and durativity. While pragmatic factors may play a certain role in aspectual choice of Greek imperative forms (see Section 3), in Russian, imperative aspectual choice is mainly determined by pragmatic factors, namely the necessity to strengthen the request and force the child to immediately start on the required action.24

Since the Greek girl studied in this paper does not provide any examples of verbs used in both the perfective and imperfective imperative, the aspectual contrast can only be demonstrated by her mother’s child-directed speech. In example (14a), the perfective form fa-to ‘eat-it!’ is used with a definite object expressing a telic action and implying to complete it. In contrast to this, the imperfective form troje ‘eat!’ in (14b) is typically used without an object and expresses the atelic action of eating.


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The functional contrast between the perfective and imperfective Russian verbs poeš’ ‘eat:PFV’ and ’ ‘eat:IPFV’ in examples (15) partly matches the Greek examples (14). Although used without a direct object, the perfective imperative in (15a) has a telic meaning conveyed by its prefix. The function of the Russian example (15b) differs from the Greek example (14b) in that the focus of the imperfective imperative is either on the initial phase of eating, meaning that the boy should start eating the cutlet in question, or on the continuation of the action if he had stopped eating. Although the verb is accompanied by a specific direct object, the meaning of the request is not telic (in the sense of eating the cutlet up). In a corresponding Greek construction one would definitely choose the perfective imperative (fa-e tin brizola! ‘eat:PFV-IMP:2S the cutlet!’), admitting a telic or atelic meaning of the unmarked perfective aspect.


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In both Greek and Russian, the meaning difference between the perfective and imperfective imperative is sometimes minimal so that both forms may occur one after the other in the same communicative situation. Thus, in example (16), the Greek mother first uses the imperfective imperative form metra! ‘count!’ and immediately continues with the perfective imperative metrise! ‘count!’. While the imperfective form metra! expresses the durative act of counting, the perfective form metrise! carries the meaning of uttering numbers, one after the other, or of counting a definite number of things, such as the paws of a lion.


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In Russian, both the perfective prefixed verb sosčitat’ ‘count/calculate’ and the corresponding prefixless imperfective verb sčitat’ may be used in a situation where objects are counted. In example (17a), the mother uses the imperfective imperative form sčitaj! ‘calculate/count!’ insisting that the action be started. In (17b), she prefers the unmarked perfective imperative, because she herself has initiated the discussion about quantity and the action of the child’s counting is not an obvious consequence.

Since many perfective and imperfective imperatives of prefixed and prefixless verb pairs are offered to him in the input, it is certainly not a coincidence that Filipp starts to use aspectual contrasts in the imperative rather early. However, the imperfective counterparts of perfective forms usually emerge later and are less frequently used than the default forms. Besides, some of these contrasts consist of lexicalized frozen forms such as daj/davaj ‘give:PFV/IPFV!’, the most frequently occurring aspectual pair in his speech.

Filipp’s development of the contrastive use of the two aspects in the imperative is demonstrated by examples (18). In (18a), he uses the two perfective imperative forms otdaj ‘give back’ and daj ‘give’ one after the other insisting that his mother return a book to him which she has just taken away. In (18b), the imperfective form davaj! is used as a grammaticalized particle with a hortative meaning. An instance of a genuinely contrastive use of the imperfective imperative only appears at 2;8. In example (18c), the boy is looking for a proper lotto card and begs his mother to hand it to him without delay, thus stressing the pragmatic connotation of the imperfective imperative. This is, however, the only example of such a use of the form davaj in Filipp’s entire data. In general, the perfective imperative daj occurs much more frequently than the imperfective grammaticalized form davaj, namely 82 vs. 9 times. On the whole, examples of contrastively used imperatives remain very scarce in the boy’s speech.


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Although the Greek girl does not contrast the two aspects in the imperative, her data provide a few examples of an aspectual contrast in requests expressed by the subjunctive. In example (19a), she uses the common unmarked perfective form of the subjunctive with a punctual meaning asking her mother to give water to the investigator. Example (19b), with the verb in the imperfective subjunctive, is a polite indirect request addressed to the investigator after the child has been refused a toy.


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In examples (20), the imperfective and perfective subjunctive forms of the verb kitazo ‘to look’ are contrastively used with a durative and a punctual meaning, respectively.


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To summarize, while in Greek semantic factors such as telicity or durativity predominate in the aspectual choice of imperative forms, in Russian, pragmatic factors such as the immediacy or necessity of an action prevail.

7. Conclusions

The hypotheses concerning the high frequency of the perfective imperative in both Greek and Russian and the higher frequency of the imperfective imperative in Russian as compared to Greek have been confirmed for both child speech and child-directed speech. This may be explained by the fact that, in child-centered situations, politeness is less important than achievement of the requested actions. In Russian, where prefixed perfective verbs differ from simple imperfective ones not only grammatically but also lexically, this leads to a preponderance of pragmatic factors in aspectual choice. In Greek, in which the aspectual contrast is expressed by different grammatical forms of a given verb and is therefore at the core of verbal grammar, grammatical aspect nevertheless interacts with lexical aktionsart. However, in the Greek imperative, the aspectual contrast is often neutralized so that the unmarked perfective aspect predominates.25

Another result of our study is that inflectional categories develop locally and piecemeal rather than across the board (Stephany 1997, 2012; see also Diessel 2013: 348). “Since children are more exposed to certain forms of certain types and will also use them more often than others, their experience with inflectional forms will not grow at an equal pace with all forms and stem types” (Stephany 1997: 324). This also applies to the perfective as compared to the imperfective imperative in both Greek and Russian. When interpreted in the framework of the constructivist, usage-based approach to language acquisition, early inflectional development of children shows that their linguistic skills are much less general and abstract than generativists have assumed (Stephany 2012: 99).

Furthermore, the analysis of our data has revealed important similarities within each of the Greek and Russian mother-child dyads and differences between them. This may be taken as evidence that children construct the grammatical distinctions of their language on the basis of its grammatical options as well as their usage by the caretakers so that this result also supports the usage-based approach to language acquisition. Although the development of the imperative represents just a detail, albeit a frequent one, in the overall picture of language acquisition, it indicates that language-specific factors affect acquisition from very early on.

Finally, this comparative study of Greek and Russian has provided evidence for the cross-linguistically and typologically interesting finding that a seemingly similar contrast between given grammatical categories such as the perfective and imperfective aspect may not function alike in different languages.26


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 15th International Morphology Meeting in Vienna in 2012. The second author’s participation in the Morphology Meeting in 2012 was supported by grant No. NSS-3135.2014.6 of the President of the Russian Federation to the Saint Petersburg School of Functional Grammar. In 2014, her work was supported by the project “Mechanisms of Language Acquisition and Progress in Communicative Competence in the Early Stages of Children’s Development”, the Russian National Foundation, grant No. 14-18-03668. We would like to thank Rosanna Benacchio and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions that have contributed to the quality of the manuscript. All remaining inaccuracies are ours.

See Jespersen (1924); Greimas (1976); Palmer (2001).

See also Tomasello’s (2010: 84) description of the function of requests as getting “others to do what one wants them to.”

See also Levinson (1984: 240).

See Stephany (2012: 95) and the literature quoted there.

Available data did not allow the matching of the two children for sex. Furthermore, the effects of sex differences are part of the wider domain of social norms and can only be studied with a larger population of subjects. Christofidou & Stephany (2003) found that sex may give rise to different developments of case distinctions in boys and girls caused by the masculine vs. feminine gender classes to which their respective first names belong (see also Stephany 2012).

For Russian see also Ceitlin (2008).

On the distinction of indicative and subjunctive in Modern Greek see Mackridge (1985: 104).

The particle as may be used instead of na, although more in adult than in child speech (e.g. Child: as to valume eki pera (MDL.PTL it put:PFV:NONPAST:1P there over.there) ‘let’s put it over there’).

The form pame may be used both in a hortative modal and a non-modal indicative function.

On the acquisition of the non-modal negator δen and its modal counterpart mi(n) see Kourbani & Katis (2001). These authors found that directive prohibitions are negated by mi(n), but prohibitive social rules by δen from early on (see examples 9 above).

On Greek perfective and imperfective verb stem formation see Mackridge (1985: 164–170).

On Russian perfective and imperfective verb formation see a.o. Gagarina (2008: 220–223) and Švedova (ed.) (1980: §1389).

The intricate interplay of mood, tense and aktionsart with aspect, which plays a role in determining the markedness of the perfective and the imperfective aspect in each of the two languages, cannot even be hinted at in the present paper.

For grammatical or viewpoint aspect and its relation to lexical (or “situation”) aspect, also called aktionsart, see Stephany (1985, 1997), Panitsa (2010) on Greek and von Stutterheim, Carroll, & Klein (2009) more generally. On Russian see a.o. Maslov (1984) and Zaliznjak & Šmelev (2000).

See sections 2 and 6 for some examples.

For the expression of Greek negative imperatives see Kourbani & Katis (2001).

For Russian in comparison to Greek see Benacchio (2006, 2010); for Russian see Padučeva (1996), Benacchio (2010) among others; for Greek see Mackridge (1985), Bakker (1965).

On Greek see also Mackridge (1985: 122–123).

On Greek see Mackridge (1985: 122). For Greek and Russian examples see Benacchio (2006, 2010).

For Greek and Russian examples see Benacchio (2006).

For use of the Greek imperfective imperative in informal contexts see Benacchio (2006: 35, 2010: 171–173).

The CHILDES Project, Carnegie Mellon University, NJ, USA (Brian MacWhinney).

This shows that Ud Deen & Hyams’ (2006) claim that Greek irrealis utterances are at first solely expressed by the subjunctive (i.e. the perfective non-past) is unfounded (see Stephany 1985 for details).

The role of aktionsart in the choice of aspect in the Russian imperative mood has not yet been studied systematically. Gagarina (2008: 232) and Poupynin (1996) found, however, that in the earliest phases of Russian language acquisition telic perfective verbs are exclusively used in the past tense while atelic imperfective ones are mainly used in the present tense.

For a detailed analysis of the predominance of the unmarked aspect in Greek language acquisition as it is found in different tenses as well as the subjunctive mood and of the dependence of aspect on aktionsart see Stephany (1985) and (1997).

See von Stutterheim, Carroll, & Klein (2009) on aspectual distinctions in English, Dutch, and German.

  • 1

    See Jespersen (1924); Greimas (1976); Palmer (2001).

  • 6

    For Russian see also Ceitlin (2008).

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Requests, Their Meanings and Aspectual Forms in Early Greek and Russian Child Language

in Journal of Greek Linguistics




See Jespersen (1924); Greimas (1976); Palmer (2001).


For Russian see also Ceitlin (2008).


  • View in gallery
    Figure 1a

    Mairi’s percentage of verbs used in the imperative and in the perf. or imperf. imperative

  • View in gallery
    Figure 1b

    Filipp’s percentage of verbs used in the imperative and in the perf. or imperf. imperative

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2a

    Percentage of perf. and imperf. imperative tokens in Greek child speech and child-directed speech

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2b

    Percentage of perf. and imperf. imperative tokens in Russian child speech and child-directed speech

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