Russian For Beginners: How To Understand Russian Prefixes

Perhaps one of the most exciting facets of the Russian language — and one of the many reasons why it is my favorite language — is the logical construction of words using prefixes and stems.

When learning a new language (or anything else!) I think we learn best by creating a web of knowledge. Rather than spending hundreds of hours torturing myself by memorizing vocabulary, I prefer to learn how the language words and use that to build a "system of crutches", so that when I forget a word, I can figure it out from what I know instead of being frustrated and giving up.

In Slavic languages like Russian, it is super-easy to quickly build vocabulary by simply learning stems and prefixes. It's even handy in a pinch, when you don't know a word for what you want to say, because you can just attach the appropriate prefix to a word stem that you already know, and you'll be able to communicate your thought effectively even if it's not the right word.

Russian Prefixes

Unlike the rag-tag collection of prefixes in the English language, the Russian prefixes are complete and clear, and rather well-defined. I like to think of each prefix as a leg of a journey, and I've come up with a method of visualization that I believe makes learning Russian 1000-times easier.

In the image below (click for a larger version) you imagine you start from the center of the left circle and end at the center of the right circle. Everything that happens along the way can be described using one of the prefixes.

First, let's look at the beginning, and how we can describe going away from a place of origin.

от- : off, aside.

от- (aside) + ложить (to lay) = отложить - to set aside

вы- : out.

вы- (out) + ход (movement) = выход - exit

у- : away.

у- (away) + бить (beat) = убить - to kill

из- : from.

из- (from) + влечь (draw) = извлечь - extract

Next, we'll skip to the end and look at how to describe getting to a destination.

под-

: approach; coming "up to".

под- (coming to) + сказать (to say) = подсказать - to suggest, to prompt.

в-

: in. within.

в- (in) + ход (movement) = вход - entrance

при-

: arrival.

при (arrival) + земля (the ground) + -ся (reflexive) = приземлиться - to land.

до-

: reaching.

до- (reaching) + гнать (to chase) = догнать - to catch [up to]

In getting from the beginning to the end, there are a few things that can happen.

пере-

: across; over.

пере- (over) + садить (to put) = пересадка - transplant

про-

: through

про- (through) + водить (to carry) = провод - wire, conduit

на-

: on.

на- (on) + лить (to pour) = налить - to spill

за-

: drop in

за- (dropping in) + грузить (to load) = загрузить (to download)

воз-

: up.

воз- (up) + брать (bring) + -ся (reflexive) = взбираться - to climb

с-

: down.

с- (down) + крыть (cover) = скрыть - to hide

The rest:

раз-

: out in all directions.

раз- (into all directions) + лететь (to fly) = разлететь - to scatter

со-

: in from all directions.

со- (from all directions) + брать (bring) = собирать - to gather

об-

: around. about. (not pictured)

об- (around) + нимать (to press) = обнимать - to embrace

по-

: by increment of. a bit of. (not pictured)

по- (a bit of) + есть (to eat) = поесть - to have a bit to eat


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  • This is indeed an awesome way to look at this.
    I guess the "по-" part is the hardest to come to terms with because sometimes it seemingly radically changes the meaning of the word.

  • I don't see how по- changes a word any more than any other prefix. Maybe that's just a perception created by the regularity with which it is used?

  • Where are "до", "над", "о", "об", "па", "по", "пре" and others?

  • "по" means a result was/will be achieved, namely completion of the act. also conveys intention, plans

  • Yes, I created it myself.

  • проис isn't a single prefix, but a combination of two: про- and из- (the з changes to с because it precedes a х).

  • Yes, I don't know much Russian, but lilyxl8 seems to be closer on this. Also, под often has more to do with 'under' than 'up to', I think. Very helpful diagram, though!

  • An useful link to the book "Leveraging Your Russian With Roots, Prefixes, And Suffixes":
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/13430603/Leveraging-Your-Russian-With-Roots-Prefixes-And-Suffixes

  • A lot of those prefixes have more than one meaning. For example в-. Вчитаться means to intensively read, which would be hard to deduce from your method.

  • I am slowly learning Russian. Thank you for this. It is easy because add known prefixes to known root words and create a new word! I speak English and it is FUBAR. If I can understand schizophrenic English...I can learn Russian.

  • Congratulations! But as for me, I still don't know all prefixes in Russian. Without any doubts, it's the one of the most difficult languages in the world!

  • Thank this web site. That is very good.

  • I knew these.

  • you are amazing !! ..thank you very much !! :) ..finally i understood it !

  • No, as a native speaker I can still feel the "into" meaning of the prefix. It's like you're trying to read into the text, opening your eyes and as if forcing your gaze into the text. A common usage context for this verb is when you ask someone to read something "прочитай" and then when they misread or misinterpret what they just read you tell them "вчитайся". Hope this helps.

  • Nice article. Did you create that graphic yourself, or do you know where you got it from? I'm a researcher, and I was hoping to use it in a presentation.

  • It's also important to bear in mind that these prefixes can be combined within one word to incrementally modify the meaning of the verb further.

    such as the Russian "joke" verb:

    "недоперепить"

    пить - to drink (means to drink alcohol when the drink is not specified)
    перепить - to drink too much
    доперепить - to successfully complete the act of drinking too much, to drink enough to have drunk too much
    недоперепить - to fail to complete the act of drinking too much, to fall short of the original goal of drinking too much.

  • This was just what I was looking for! Of course this doesn't show ALL the prefixes, but it's the better approach on them that I have ever seen! Большое спасибо!!! :)

  • рас ?

  • Is проис an actual prefix? Can we predict meaning of verb from it? I've noticed it pops up fairly often like in произносит происходит

  • Dead link.

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