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All the other prefixes ending in с I can think of off the top of my head have a counterpart ending with з.

бес-/без-

ис-/из-

вос-/воз-

The version with с is used before voiceless consonants, and the version with з is used before vowels and voiced consonants.

бесполезный, безымянный, бездушный

исходить, изыди, изгой

воспевать, возобновить, возможно

But the с- prefix is used in all cases, although before voiced consonants it is often pronounced as /z/

сделать, сброд, сглаживание

Is there a linguistic or historical reason why this prefix seems to stand as an exception?

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  • 1
    There are several words in Russian that start with зд, however in those cases з- is not a prefix but rather part of the root: здание, здесь, здоровье
    – Aleks G
    Jun 20 '12 at 12:58
  • 3
    Historically, з in здоровье was a prefix съ- of another origin, not related to and meaning "good". Proto-Slavic *съдорвъ literally meant "of good wood", *съмьрть — "good (natural) death".
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 20 '12 at 14:55
  • This could be a good question on Linguistics too.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 20 '12 at 15:27
  • @Alenanno: Would it? Wouldn't it be too specific to Russian to be on-topic in Linguistics.SE? Jun 20 '12 at 15:33
  • Uhm, naah, it wouldn't. We allow single language questions (as long as they are Linguistics in nature)... the answers can still expand on other languages anyway (if related). :)
    – Alenanno
    Jun 20 '12 at 15:36
6

Prefixes in Slavic languages originated from the prepositions merged with the roots.

The old Slavic prepositions надъ, подъ etc. which ended with ъ, were merged before the fall of the reduced vowels so the vowel was kept, and you can still see it on its historical place before the roots starting with a yotized vowel: объятие.

When the reduced vowels fell, prononciation changed to agree the articulation of now adjacent consonants, but orthography did not reflect it. The words подътвердити, отъдавити (ъ was read as a really short ы) became подтвердить, отдавить etc, with impossible combinations of a voiced and voiceless consonant. The both consontants are now voiced or not according to the last one ([поттвердить], [оддавить]) but written the old way.

The prepositions ending in and (раз, из etc.), however, did not end with a vowel. The orthography reflected it from the beginning.

But the prefix с- originated from the preposition which never ended in . It ended with ѫ. This nasal sound after denasalization of the yuses had changed into y in nouns like сумерки, сутки and into ъ (which later fell) in verbs, and undergone the process described earlier. So this prefix does not change in writing, just as the prefixes not ending with -c/з don't.

The prepositions без and через (and the Church Slavonic borrowing чрез) merged much later than the others, so until the orthography reform of 1918, they were always written без-, чрез- and через-.

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    Just curious: of the non-native speakers, has anyone understood anything? :)
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 20 '12 at 16:46
  • I did understand something. :-) I think in old Russian the symbols Ъ and ь indicated vowels that are not pronounced any more. This might have influenced the consonant preceding them. Maybe one could add that other prepositions end in з / с while the preposition с starts with с. However, since I am not a native speaker, I am not sure this is correct.
    – Giorgio
    Jun 20 '12 at 16:51
  • @Giorgio: ъ has long since fallen, so the preposition is now с which starts and ends with c :). Is it what you meant?
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 20 '12 at 16:53
  • What I meant is that it always started with с and only more recently it also ends with с. If the changes in orthography occurred before the fall of Ъ this might have influenced how the preposition с is written. But this is just my own speculation. :-)
    – Giorgio
    Jun 20 '12 at 16:57
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    @thorn: only before с and voiced consonants: разслѣдовать but расписывать.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 21 '12 at 14:08

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