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I asked an earlier question, Is there a vocabulary list comparable to Basic English?, and @Avtokod gave a gem of an answer saying basically, "You don't want the most common 1000 Russian words; you want a grasp of how suffixes and prefixes create clusters of words."

So I'm making a separate base question for the obvious followup question.

Where on the web can I best research the suffixes, prefixes, and other important things I did not know to ask for?

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  • Try the Wiktionary. Got no idea how to process all those bits and pieces, though. – jwalker Aug 2 '15 at 21:21
  • Learn both common words and suffixes/prefixes. Use common words to choose what to learn next and every time you see a word with the same root but different suffix/prefix learn the meaning of the suffix/prefix. Then try to find words you have already learnt but with the newly learnt suffix/prefix. – Vitaly Sazanovich Aug 2 '15 at 22:13
  • There is another user I know, who had the same interest. – Avtokod Aug 2 '15 at 23:30
  • My opinion as a C1-C2 level speaker is that you should definitely learn common words, and then on the side learn about prefixes. Knowledge of prefixes will help, but knowledge of common words is much more useful. – VCH250 Aug 26 '18 at 10:08
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English prepositions can do two jobs: 1) changing the noun like "on the floor", and 2) changing the verb like "to get out". Unlike English ones, Russian prepositions do only 1). For 2) we use verb prefixes exclusively.

This concept presents in many languages and even in English you sometimes say "bypass" or "foresee" etc. What makes English special is that in 80% cases you still may use separate prepositions like "go in, go out, go on, go by" so there's one monstrously large vocabulary entry on "to go" yet it's only one and you know what letter it starts with. But in a Russian vocabulary there are a dozen of entries on those "to go"-variants and they all start (the prefixes!) with different letters.

How to deal with it? Well, think of it like an extra set of "prepositions" which you have to learn. In fact, they sometimes coincide. Let's take an example.

"Под" means "Under" yet it's a verb prefix too. Let's add it to a verb "Держать" (to keep, to hold). Now we have "Поддержать" (note that double D: there's also both preposition and prefix "по", so "подержать" is an absolutely different word). What "Поддержать" means? Literally "to hold (from) under". Then applying some mind work gives "to support" which is the right answer.

The problem is that the prepositions (both true and "prefix-like" ones) have too many meanings so you can't deal with only a simple one-to-one correspondence. Or at least it wouldn't help you to get it. As an example, "Подделать" is "Under" + "Do". But what it means? Really, "To Forge". Having known that beforehand, perhaps, I can speculate that it was due to forging signatures or stamps which are under the text, yet no chance I could figure this just without any context. Sadly, this means you still need the dictionary.

But what about listing all those prefixes? Well, I don't know the comprehensive source to provide it here. But there shouldn't be too many of them (or else Russian people can't remember them all). So let's try to deal with it just by another example. How many verbs can we form out of "Держать" by adding different prefixes? Now let's do it: starting from the literal meaning we go to true one.

Выдержать ---> "to hold from inside to outside" ---> to withstand, to survive, to keep self-control, to make vintage wine or cheese etc.

Додержать ---> to keep upto/until smth. (rarely used in prefix-form)

Задержать ---> "to hold after" ---> to delay

Издержать ---> "to hold from" ---> "to hold completely" ---> to spend, to waste (a little bookish)

Одержать [победу] ---> "to hold [a victory] all round" ---> to win

Передержать ---> "to hold throughout" ---> to hold too much

Придержать ---> "to hold near" ---> to delay a little

Подержать ---> to keep a little

Поддержать ---> "to hold under" ---> to support

Сдержать ---> "to hold from top down to bottom" ---> to hold back, to fight off

Удержать ---> "to fulfill the process of holding" ---> to keep despite of smth.

This list is no way complete but it could serve as a starting point. Try to apply these same prefixes, say, to verb "Идти" (to go) - can you now understand all the verbs? Выйти, дойти, зайти, изойти, обойти, перейти, прийти, пойти, подойти, сойти, уйти? (The life is hard and making the couple of errors here seems to be unavoidable, yet there always is the vocabulary to fix them).

UPD. As I was pointed out any "preposition" matching only the verb is considered to be an adverb not a preposition anymore. That makes much sense and yet raises one more question: if Russian language has adverbs too (and it really has) why Russian verbs need prefixes at all? The answer is productivity. Naturally, some adverbs make a bigger meaning shift than others. Say, "Go forward" still means "Go" plus a direction. While "Go nuts" isn't about "going" at all. So sometimes it makes sense (at least for Russians) to merge two words into one.

Let's take another example. "Я повернул налево" (I turned left). Here "налево" (left) is a regular adverb. Yet the verb "Повернуть" is still uses a prefix: "По" + "Вернуть". That is "an incomplete action" + "one turnover" which gives just one regular turn in a grand total. It's fun that in English there's a prefix too although the other way round: "To Return" (Вернуть in Russian) is formed like Re + Turn that is turning twice gives coming back.

Thus there's nothing truly new in the concept of prefixes, and once you've got it, it helps much just like common prepositions, adverbs and conjunctions do. Though the flexibility is always a danger. Not all the couplings really make sense and combining them blindly is a way to play a fool. The most well-known joke about prefixed verbs is the word "Недоперепить". Could anyone translate it? :-)

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    Just a minor detail: the English "prepositions" that modify the meaning of verbs are formally considered adverbs. – Nikolay Ershov Aug 3 '15 at 9:21
  • @NikolayErshov Okay, that makes sense. I'll update my answer. – Matt Aug 3 '15 at 9:45
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    "I can speculate that it was due to forging signatures or stamps which are under the text" - have not not you recall the meaning "он одет под немца", "эта картина - под Пикассо". – Anixx Aug 3 '15 at 10:01
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    @Anixx Well, probably, I must. My bad. It's always a crime trying to reduce the word to only one "root" meaning. In Russian "Под" is also about "following some pattern or style" like being "under some influence" - kind of a mental "underway" not a physical one. – Matt Aug 3 '15 at 11:11
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    You already said it. )) Подделать is closest to the essence of подправить (to correct a little). First, we make smth, it has the name поделка, but that поделка is obvious for everyone that it is different, then we do retouch, touch up, and we made a подделка.ACC=подделку, a thing that at the first look seems like an original. – Avtokod Aug 3 '15 at 13:19
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There is a good list with explanations in Derek Offord's book Using Russian.

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  1. You will find long lists of Russian prefixes and suffixes arranged alphabetically with links to dictionary-type definitions and explanations in the English language Wiktionary. The lists are located in specific Wiktionary "categories" In the English Wiktionary search box enter either "Category:Russian prefixes" or "Category:Russian suffixes" to access the lists. [Note that there is NO SPACE following the colon in the entry]

  2. Users who are able to enter text in the Cyrillic alphabet will find similar lengthy categorical prefix/suffix lists with dictionary definition links in the Russian language Wiktionary. In the Russian Wiktionary search box enter either "Категория:Русские слова по приставкам" or "Категория:Русские слова по суффиксам" to access either list. [As above, note that there is NO SPACE following the colon in the entry].

I hope this tip will help advance the study of the Russian language.

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this might be more of a student-style hack, but when I was getting started I would watch for five or six letter verbs that seemed to come up a lot:ступить, глядеть, пустить, words like that. Anytime I learned a new one, I would go to google translate and try it out with as many prefixes as I could think of, see which ones came back as valid translations, then I'd scope those out in a dictionary to get a full translation (whether it was transitive, verb collocations, things like that). It was a bit repetitive, but not as bad as wading through the wiktionary list (which I also fought with) and it got me pretty good at anticipating and remembering the different senses of the prefixes. Maybe that helps?

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  • Thank you; I like to have the option of going off the beaten path in addition to what is front and center. – Christos Hayward Aug 26 '18 at 14:39

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