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About the “Exploring Emptiness” project

In this project, which has received funding from the Research Council of Norway (Norges Forskningsråd) and Sparebankens gavefond, we investigate two classes of derivational affixes in Russian that have traditionally been considered "empty", i.e. devoid of semantic content:

The perfectivizing prefixes na- and s- in verbs like napisat’ ‘write’ and sdelat’ ‘do’ have traditionally been considered to have no semantic content, except for the aspectual feature "perfective" (Vingradov 1947: 533). This sets them apart from specialized perfectives like perepisat’ ‘rewrite’ where the prefix pere- adds the meaning "over again". Verbal suffixes like -a in napisat’ and -aj in sdelat’ (where final /j/ is sometimes deleted) are also considered semantically empty; there is no contrast in meaning between verbs with the -aj and -a suffixes. From the point of view of cognitive linguistics, "empty" affixes represent a challenge, insofar as cognitive linguistics emphasizes the importance of meaning as the driving force in grammar (Janda 2010). We therefore explore the "empty" affixes from the perspective of cognitive linguistics.

The project has the following main objectives:

We entertain three main hypotheses:
  1. "Empty" affixes do indeed have semantic content; the illusion of semantic emptiness is due to a large amount of conceptual overlap (Langacker 1999) between the meaning of the stem and the affix.
  2. Verbs with "empty" affixes form radial categories (Lakoff 1987) organized around prototypes.
  3. The paradigm structures of verbs show prototype effects that influence the distribution of "empty" affixes.


Janda, Laura A. 2007. Aspectual clusters of Russian verbs. Studies in Language 2007. Volume 31 (3). S. 607-648.
Janda, Laura A. 2010. Cognitive Linguistics in the Year 2010. International Journal of Cognitive Linguistics 1.
Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind. University of Chicago Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1999. Grammar and Conceptualization. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Vinogradov, V. V. Russkij jazyk: grammatičeskoe uenie o slove. Moscow: Učpedgiz, 1947.