English: A Weakly Typed Language

Two of my hobbies are programming and languages, and I often think about how much the two of them have in common. A short while ago, I was asking my friend Maxim some questions about the distinction between perfective/imperfective aspect in the Russian language. This distinction is unlike how we distinguish tense/aspect in English, so it's often a pain point for native English speakers learning the Russian language. For example, in English, we make the following distinctions when talking about a past event:

I was eating. (past progressive)
I have eaten. (present perfect)
I ate. (simple past)

In Russian, a different set of distinctions is made. Imperfective expresses an ongoing process, an unfinished process, or a repeated, habitual action:

Я кушал. (imperfective, I was eating, I didn't finish eating, I used to eat)

…whereas perfective indicates a single, completed action:

Я покушал. (perfective, I ate, I have eaten)

This seems relatively straightforward after thinking about it for a bit, but then you get present tense, future tense, expressions of desire, commands, and shades of past tense meaning built into the Russian grammar, but requires extra words to express the idea in English:

Что ты делал сегодня? "What have you been up to today?"
Что ты сделал сегодня? "What have you gotten done today?"
Смотри! "Look!" (with the notion that I don't care when/if you stop looking)
Посмотри! "Look!" (and let me know what you think)
Мне надо кушать. "I need to eat" (on a regular basis, as in to stay alive,
to get big and strong, etc)
Мне надо покушать. "I need to eat" (I need to eat something right now, I'm hungry)

(This reminds me of how sometimes a higher-level construct like map in some programming languages can be achieved with lengthier, more verbose constructions like for loops in others.)

As you can see, when translating a sentence like “I need to eat” or “I don't want to go”, which form to use requires an intuition you build up over time. I've been studying Russian for two years and I feel like I'm starting to get it. =)

Anyway, so my line of questioning eventually lead to translating the sentence “He hit me after I kissed his girlfriend”, which I translated as follows:

он ударил меня после я поцеловал его девушку. (word for word translation)

Maxim offered up a better translation in Russian:

он ударил меня после того, как я поцеловал его девушку. (lit. "He hit me after
that, for I kissed his girlfriend")

This interested me, because it made me think of weakly typed vs strongly typed languages in programming. In Russian, the word после (after) must always be followed by a noun in the genitive case (in this case, того “that”, standing in for the latter phrase). So my translation was invalid; it didn't “type check”. In English, however, the types are weaker; I can follow “after” with pretty much whatever I want. I'm always delighted when my hobbies intersect!

Published on 2015-01-10