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The Curious Case of Russian Prefix “Without” Posted by on Jul 22, 2015 in language, Russian phonetics

You might have noticed that some nonnative English speakers (myself included) have a way of “inventing” new words. They might say things like “unproper” instead of “improper” or “misagreement” instead of “disagreement,” etc. The abovementioned prefixes all have a similar meaning, a meaning that points to the opposite of the word they are attached to. That observation made me wonder if learners of Russian are facing similar challenges. To help conquer these challenges, I will give you some info on the curious Russian prefixes БЕЗ- and БЕС-.

The meaning of the prefixes без-/бес- can be best described as without, with the exception of. Before we go any further, I would like to clarify that there is also a preposition без; it has the same meaning but this can be a topic of a separate post. A prefix, obviously, is a part of the word so you write it together with the word, a preposition stands alone. It is usually fairly easy to distinguish the two:

  1. Она спокойно, без эмоций протянула ему кольцо. – She gave him the ring calmly, without expressing any emotion.

  2. Концерт закончился в девять. Она играла хорошо, но безэмоционально. – The concert was over at nine. She played well but without any emotion.

As you can see, the first example has preposition без in it followed by the noun emotions, while the second has an adverb with the prefix без. The meaning in both cases is essentially the same. I believe, this is how this prefix came into existence: certain words were used with this preposition frequently enough to morph into one word.

Later, according to certain sources, бес (a version of this prefix) was added to the Russian language to make certain words sound better.

The trick to knowing when to use без and when to use бес is fairly easy to master. You might know that in Russian all consonants are divided into voiceless and voiced. Remember!

-If the root of the word begins with a voiced consonant (such as б, в, г, д, з, ж, й, л, м, н, р) or a vowel, then use prefix без

If the root of the word begins with a voiceless consonant (such as п, ф, к, т, с, ш, х, ц, ч, щ), then use prefix бес.

Now let’s look at some examples.

БЕЗ:

бездельник — a lazy person, a deadbeat

безоблачный день — a clear day, a day with no clouds in the sky

бездетный — childless

безграмотный — illiterate

безжалостно — ruthlessly, relentlessly

бездарность — a person of little talent, a poor performer

безнадежность — despair, hopelessness

беззубый — toothless

БЕС:

беспризорник — an orphan

бесправие — lack of rights, lawlessness, powerlessness

беспокойство — anxiety, uneasiness

бестолковый — clueless

бессонница — insomnia

беспочвенный — ungrounded, unfounded

бесконечный — endless

бесплатно — free of charge

You might wonder what is so “curious” about this particular Russian prefix. A few hours ago I might have thought the same thing but in the process of brushing up on my Russian for this post I came across a few articles that state that a large number of Russian Orthodox Christians flat out refuse to use the prefix бес. This is due to the fact that бес, coincidentally, also means demon, devil, or evil spirit in Russian. Needless to say, they feel uncomfortable with this association and use без in all cases even if бес- is technically correct.

On that note, I wish you безупречного здоровья, бескорыстных друзей и безропотых спутников жизни!

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About the Author: Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


Comments:

  1. Mike Warren:

    re. без/бес

    Before the 1918 spelling reforms, prefixes ending in з preserved the з even before voiceless consonants. Returning to that system would make sense to me — why aren’t prefixes ending in д and б treated the same way as those ending in з? e.g. претставлять instead of представлять, потставлять instead of подставлять, опстоять instead of обстоять.

    Are you a yoficator?

    • Jenya:

      @Mike Warren Mike, thank you for reading! I wish I could answer your question… Some rules (especially new ones) simply don’t make sense, at least to me :-). As for being a yoficator, I admit I had to google it. I have the letter (Ё) on my laptop keyboard, so if I need it, I use it :-).

  2. David Marjanović:

    why aren’t prefixes ending in д and б treated the same way as those ending in з?

    For the record, they are in what used to be called Serbocroatian…

    The meaning of the prefixes без-/бес- can be best described as without, with the exception of.

    Even simpler: -less.

  3. Katherine:

    Hi Jenya! Good post, especially about certain groups choosing not to use бес–. I’d never have known that if not for your article : )

    Could you explain the difference between these words?

    безграмотный vs не грамотный
    беспризорник vs сирота

    Спасибо!

    • Jenya:

      @Katherine Katherine, thank you for reading! The difference between these words is insignificant, they are synonyms. In most cases the use of one over the other is based on preference. However, неграмотный is one word in most cases, the only case when you separate не from грамотный is if you are trying to use it in contrast with something else: Её муж – не грамотный учитель, а простой механик (Her husband is not an educated teacher but a regular mechanic).

  4. Katherine:

    Thanks for your answer, Jenya!

  5. Clarissa:

    Jenya, thank you for this article, it was really helpful! I am currently learning Russian, and posts like these really help me to grasp some of the finer points of Russian grammar, which I find very difficult. I look forward to reading more posts like this in the future 🙂