Why is за used as a prefix meaning to start the action of the verb?

Russian grammar is more or less very logical if you look at the history of words, but I just don't understand why за gives verbs this meaning of "to start"

Any explanation is welcome))

For example:

  1. зашевелиться
  2. загудеть
  3. запеть
  4. засмеяться
  5. заговорить
  6. зацвести
  7. заплакать
  8. забе́гать

All mean, to start, begin.

  • 1
    Please add examples of such verbs to the question.
    – Dmitry
    Oct 26, 2015 at 23:36
  • 1
    Asking "why" you mean etymology of the prefix? Actually nobody knows that, because this prefix has several other meanings besides "to start". Here you can find other meanings of different prefixes including "за" project.karelia.ru/atlant/help/prist_ref.htm#за
    – Roman
    Oct 27, 2015 at 5:14
  • Please don't uppercase, just use quote in title
    – shabunc
    Oct 27, 2015 at 6:34
  • @ shabunc why not?)
    – VCH250
    Oct 27, 2015 at 19:09

4 Answers 4


The logic behind it can be seen within a more general function of "за-": the addition of 'change of state' sense to a verb. That includes 2 different aspects: a) productivity of action aimed at changing something/somebody (забить, забронировать) and b) bringing something/somebody to a new condition by putting into action (= beginning that action) expressed by that verb (засмеяться, заверещать). The 'change of state' concept is more typical for some other languages like Chinese, where the corresponding sense is provided by addition of the particle 'le' (了) after the verb. While in Russian such a generalisation is rarely discussed, I find it useful for explanation here.


From wiktionary.org (English)

  1. Начать выполнять действие: стучать → застучать; болеть → заболеть.
  2. Совершить заранее или впрок: готовить → заготовить; планировать → запланировать.
  3. Довести до результативного завершения: асфальтировать → заасфальти́ровать; бетонировать → забетони́ровать.
  4. Действие над предметом, объектом, в результате которого последний оказывается за какой-либо воображаемой или материальной линией: плыть → заплыть; бросить → забросить; брести → забрести.
  5. Покрыть или покрыться, прикрыть или прикрыться чем-либо: брызгать → забрызгать; мазать → замазать; потеть → запотеть.
  6. Чрезмерная интенсивность действия или доведение объекта до нежелательного состояния: читать → зачитать; таскать → затаскать.
  7. Создание преграды, препятствия, помехи: забаррикадировать, загромоздить, забаллотировать.
  • I already know these; I asked about why за means "to start" (1 above). It's more of a linguistics question I guess.
    – VCH250
    Oct 27, 2015 at 2:03
  • @VCH250 One of my language teachers in lycée noted: Prepositions are arbitrary. You must simply learn them. I would say we can extend that to preposition-derived prefixes in Slavic languages. We can see retroactively invent explanations for what we observe, as a learning aid, but to look for logic and absolute consistency is a bit pointless. Oct 27, 2015 at 18:28
  • @ Adam M. B. You are right, But I often find that there is a very solid logic to most prepositions and prefixes in Russian if you are flexible enough. But of course the explanations are not real science and are more voodoo magic—a demon controls за and thus it does what it does; that kind of explanation. :) That being said it really really helps to get a sense of the origins of these things. It helps understand current use. All of them where logical expressions of real world things at one time.
    – VCH250
    Oct 27, 2015 at 19:12

I think the answer to your question is, "well, it doesn't":

закопать - to cover with dirt, to bury
зашить - to sew up
защищать - to guard

Of course, you can also name

запустить - to start up, to let/allow in[to]
зазубрить - to learn by rote

One possible explanation is that those are verbs that designate an action that is complete in some sense (even if the verb has imperfective aspect). For instance "зазубривать" is a verb of imperfective aspect, although it does mean "to be learning by rote", which in itself a completed action.

  • It definitely does have the meaning of "starting". See above.
    – VCH250
    Oct 27, 2015 at 1:15
  • @VCH250 "Starting" is just one of the meanings.
    – Roman
    Oct 27, 2015 at 5:17
  • @Roman: Exactly! And that's the meaning he's asking about. I'm so sick of people striking down good, valid questions on this site.
    – CocoPop
    Oct 27, 2015 at 21:36
  • @CocoPop, Not sure what you're so excited about. The original question (to which I ventured a reply), had no examples, and only a statement that the prefix "за-" meant "to start the action". In the absence of specific examples, it was a general statement, and as such was incorrect, which I pointed out. Oct 27, 2015 at 21:45
  • @VictorBazarov: Relax, darling, I'm not excited in the least. I'm just making a statement. A lot of times they spend so much time focusing on the form of the question instead of providing adequate answers.
    – CocoPop
    Oct 27, 2015 at 21:48

Let's take an example.

Зашёл за угол, за которым забыл закрыть задвижку.

Some of grammarians accepted that verbs in Infinitive behave in mind as nouns.

Verb = an Action,
за (prep. or prefix) = move, slide, transit; and after still holds in a new state, denoted by that noun.
That's the key.

The actions in the example are: шёл, был, крыть.
Шёл = he pictured as he was in the action 'walking'. Where he had to walk, is unknown, and that's the first state.

Let take a look at the noun, угол — an abstract idea. The mind has a state, say, keeping the mind's picture of угол, then the state moved to the more definitely state, after we're hearing за угол, в угол, на угол.

If we say Прошёл за угол, then we mean: he passed the corner by walking along (around) the point of the corner. Зашёл за угол will be means: he's state of walking made a transition, and now he is already at the invisible side of the corner. And we track both states in the mind: first, he had been walked (nowhere), and now stood at the side of the corner.

Зашёл за угол за которым забыл закрыть задвижку.

It means: 
         зашёл      = now he is already into the new state of action идти;
         за угол    = now he is already at the invisible side of the corner;
         за которым = behind that;
         забыл      = now he is already into the failed state of memory;
    забыл + закрыть = he's never been in the state of closing smth;
         задвижка   = the bolt (a metal bar that you slide across a door).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.