On the Grammar of Slavic Verbs

I’m done – I defended my dissertation and completed all the requirements of my degree. Wherever it says I’m a PhD candidate,  I need to change that to PhD.

One of the last sections I wrote is actually one that I had a lot of fun writing – because it is so completely weird and not like any other part of the dissertation, and because it gave me a chance to talk about language, which is one of my favorite activities. Hope you’ll enjoy!

The grammatical concept of aspect differentiates between perfective and imperfective actions. The perfective aspect emphasizes the finality of actions, whereas the imperfective aspect denotes continuity or ongoing action. It is the difference between ‘I watched a movie’ and ‘I was watching a movie’. In English, this distinction is mapped onto verb tense; in Slavic languages, verbs have two separate forms, which linguists call ‘aspect pairs’: a perfective and an imperfective form.

During field research in Prague and Bratislava, I realized that this grammatical distinction illustrates the dilemmas of transitional justice quite well. For starters, transitional justice is an English term that does not exist in Czech or Slovak – přechodová spravedlnost, a direct translation into Czech, conveys nothing of what this new concept has come to denote in English. Instead, another term that loosely translates as ‘dealing with the past’ is most commonly used to cover the range of practices to which transitional justice refers. The catch is that this term forces a temporal choice on speakers of Slavic languages. While the English language frequently allows speakers to be ambiguous about aspect, Slavic languages such as Czech and Slovak make speakers decide: are they speaking about an imperfective, ongoing process, or about a perfective, definitive action? In the latter case, the verb of choice is ‘vyrovnať sa’, but in the former, the preferred verb is the imperfective ‘vyrovnávať sa’ (the -va- infix turns the perfective verb into an imperfective one).[1]

Peter Dinuš is one example of a Slovakian speaker who faced this choice: his book on Slovakian transitional justice (2010) is entitled Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou, that is, Dealing[imperfective] with the Past. Dinuš’s choice is intentional: he does not foresee that the Slovakian process of dealing with the past can be completed. Instead, he presents this process as self-perpetuating and never-ending. Many interview respondents, however, consistently used the perfective form, speaking of vyrovnanie sa s minulosťou instead. By doing so, they suggest that at some point, to ‘deal with the past’ will become ‘to have dealt with the past’.

So, what does it mean when English speakers talk about transitional justice as ‘closing the books’ (Elster, 2004) or ‘coming to terms with the past’ (Elster, 1998)? What happens once the books are closed, or when we have come to terms with the past? Can the books ever be fully closed or the past finally dealt with? Despite the inherent linguistic ambiguity, much scholarship on transitional justice does clearly assume transitional justice to be a perfective process with catharsis, or reconciliation, at the end.

These assumptions remain untested, which is why it is so important to produce rigorous accounts of transitional justice effects. This dissertation has sought to address that gap, and the findings suggest that Dinuš’s decision to use the imperfective may be more appropriate. Transitional justice is an on-going process. Transitional justice legislation appears in a context in which the past is already debated and subsequently reinforces that debate, keeping it alive in perpetuity. There is no finality and no catharsis.

This is not to say that contestation and debate over the past cannot produce anything of value, or that transitional justice only succeeds if it leads to consensus over the past that it addresses. Transitional justice legislation may, for example, improve the lives of individual victims of human rights abuse (cf. David and Choi, 2005; 2006). In addition, there is no a priori reason to assume that debate over such issues in a democratic society should be seen as problematic and that consensus is necessarily preferable.[2] My conclusions do not rely on an assumption of the desirability of consensus over debate. However, other points of view are informed by such assumptions and have formed the basis for arguments by scholars and policy makers in support of transitional justice. With this in mind, the conclusion that transitional justice legislation as designed by policy entrepreneurs has led to persistent contestation over the past gives pause. Insofar as this analysis is persuasive, it should encourage researchers to pursue a more comprehensive theoretical framework to analyze the effects of transitional justice.

[1] Translated most literally, vyrovnať means to straighten (rovný is straight) or to balance. Adding ‘sa’ (or ‘se’, in Czech) makes the verb reflexive, so that vyrovnať sa/vyrovnávať sa literally means to straighten oneself out, or to balance oneself out. Vyrovnať sa s minulosťou, then, is to straighten oneself out with one’s past.

[2] In order to determine whether debate is better than consensus, one would require a way to measure the quality of debate. This dissertation does not evaluate the quality of the debate over the communist past in the Czech and Slovak Republics, nor does it estimate the effect of transitional justice on the quality of political contestation.


David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2005) “Victims on Transitional Justice. Lessons from the Reparation of Human Rights Abuses in the Czech Republic”, Human Rights Quarterly, 27:2, 392-435.

David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2006) “Forgiveness and Transitional Justice in the Czech Republic”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50:3, 339-367.

Dinuš, Peter (2010) Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou? [Dealing with the Past?], Bratislava: Veda.

Elster, Jon (1998) “Coming to Terms with the Past. A Framework for the Study of Justice in the Transition to Democracy”, European Journal of Sociology, 39:1, 7-48.

Elster, Jon (2004) Closing the Books. Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 thoughts on “On the Grammar of Slavic Verbs

  1. Hi Vincent,
    Congratulations on the successful defence of your thesis, and such an interesting topic as well! To enlighten those like me who have left the world of PolSci, what is your definition of transitional justice? I have a vague idea, but would like to know more.
    One remark about your translation in footnote 1. Vyrovnat’sa s minulost’ou, you translate this as ‘to straighten oneself out with one’s past’, shouldn’t this be ‘the past’? Is there a difference? Or is a past always dealt with from an individual perspective?
    Enjoy your accomplishment and good luck with the future!
    Can I read your dissertation somewhere?


    Suzanne Verhaar

    • Hi Suzanne,
      Thanks for your comments ;)
      – transitional justice policies are state policies that address legacies of human rights abuse, for instance by creating a truth commission or by setting up a lustration policy that places restrictions on positions in the new regime that people with a certain level of involvement in the old regime can take up. I look at policies designed to address the legacy of communist-era surveillance practices (e.g. Stasi, KGB, StB, Securitate, etc.).
      – I think you’re right that ‘the past’ is a more appropriate translation. The term is typically used to refer to a collective past.
      – there’s a link to the dissertation at the top of this blog post.


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