The Curious Case of Russian Prefix “Without” Posted by Jenya 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:
Она спокойно, без эмоций протянула ему кольцо. – She gave him the ring calmly, without expressing any emotion.
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.
-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.
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
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!