• Anja Gattnar University of Tübingen




Background. In contrast to English, Russian does not know sequence of tense (SOT) in reported speech. In SOT languages, the tense in a complement clause changes according to the verb tense in the main clause. In Russian, the verb tense in the complement clause remains the same as in corresponding direct speech. There is no agreement of tenses in indirect speech. While many studies on indirect speech in Russian solely discusses tense forms, this paper focuses on usage of verbal aspect in past-under-past condition.

Purpose. The aim of the paper is to show experimentally how tense and aspect influence the comprehension of temporal reference in indirect speech in Russian. The focus of my investigation is based on the distinction between overlapping and backward-shifted events in past-under-past condition. In past-under-past reported speech, the complement clause embedded under a past-marked verb adopts the verb tense of direct speech but does not agree with the indirect clause as it would be in SOT languages. In an overlapping context with imperfective (IPF) past-under-past, the narrated event is not yet completed but extended until after the original speaking event. In perfective (PF) past-under-past, the narrated event took place before the original speaking event. The aspect of the subordinated verb in indirect speech is the crucial factor for backward-shifted or overlapping reference.

Methods.  A sentence transformation test serves to yield knowledge from language production. How do Russian native speaker transfer direct speech into reported speech according to tense and verbal aspect use. I hypothesize that they adopt the verb tense of the direct speech and purely transfer it into indirect speech. According to present-under-past, I assume that they choose present verbs for present tense direct speech. In terms of past-under-past, I expect past subordinate verb for PF past verbs.

A picture recognition task enables us to achieve clarity about the interpretation of time reference in reported speech. For the interpretation behavior of the participants, I assume that present-under-past solely evokes the recognition of the IPF event picture. In contrast, past-under-past with PF subordinated verb solely elicits the recognition of the PF event picture (result). For an IPF subordinated verb in past-under-past condition, I suppose recognition for the IPF event picture (process) by the majority of answers. The effort for picture recognition is elicited by measuring the response times (RTs). I predict that picture recognition under IPF past-under-past condition leads to higher RTs than picture recognition under IPF present-under-past.

Results. The result for the sentence completion test is as follows: In only 13% of the answers was the verb tense changed, namely present tense to past. Regarding the aspect choice in case of tense switch, the participants transferred 53% into IPF past and 47% into PF past. The data analysis of the picture recognition task shows following picture: more than 80% of the picture recognitions comply with my assumptions concerning the interpretation of time reference in the reported speech. There is no significant difference between the recognition rates for the three sentence conditions. The RTs for picture recognition in present-under-past condition and IPF past-under-past condition are nearly the same, whereas PF past-under-past condition leads to significantly lower RTs.   

Discussion. The sentence transformation task confirms my assumptions that Russian native speakers simply adopt the verb tense of the direct speech to perform an indirect speech sentence. The distinction between present-under-past and past-under-past is common knowledge. The change from IPF present to IPF past for the subordinated verb leads to the conclusion that IPF past-under-past is interpreted as simultaneous to the original speech and consequently transfer the event as not completed. The result of the picture recognition test proves that IPF past-under-past strengthens an overlapping interpretation of the time reference expressed in the reported speech by main clause and complement clause. The higher RTs for present-under-past, in my view, can be explained by the temporal localization of the different speaking events. The main clause and complement clause refer to different times. The time relation in such indirect speech is more complex, slowing down processing and leading to higher RTs. I would explain the result for IPF past-under-past concerning RTs in respect to aspect differences in main clause and subordinated indirect speech. The time reference is past, but while the main clause expresses a completed speech event, in the reported event is still in progress. This aspectual difference leads to higher RTs compared to PF past-under-past. The RTs reflect the processing of different times. Aspect use in past-under-past indirect speech reports to different event types; therefore, aspect is important for the interpretation of the time reference in indirect speech. Further experiments should concentrate on the processing and interpretation differences between present under present and IPF past-under-past. Further experiments should focus on clarifying the differences between simultaneous and overlapping reading.

Keywords: indirect speech, verbal aspect, tense, experimental methods, sentence transformation test, picture selection task


The research was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) – SFB 833 – project number 75650358.

Author Biography

Anja Gattnar, University of Tübingen

PhD. in Philosophie, research assistant at the Collaborative Research Center CRC 833


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