Exploring Emptiness 2.Small prefixes 3. Semantic profiles 4. Constructional profiles 5. Prefix variation 6. Aspectual triplets English version


Методология This page presents the methodology that we applied for the “small” prefixes. We call them “small” because they form the fewest numbers of Natural Perfectives. There are eleven “small” prefixes: v-, pod-, pere-, pri-, ot-, v(o)z-, u-, iz-, raz-, vy-, and o(b)- (as opposed to five “big” prefixes: pro-, na- za-, s-, and po-).

Three steps of analysis

For each of the “small” prefixes the same analysis is carried out.
  • First, the meanings of a prefix are established on the basis of its usage in those verbs where everybody agrees that there is meaning present, namely in the Specialized Perfectives (SP) and Complex Act Perfectives (CAP): e.g. SP переписать/pere-pisat’ ‘rewrite’ < писать/pisat’ ‘write’; CAP отслужить/ot-služit’ ‘finish a tour of duty or church service’ < служить/služit’ ‘write’). In order to represent rich polysemy of each prefix, we use a radial category model of meaning.
  • Second, the meanings of the simplex verbs that form Natural Perfectives with that prefix are analyzed. This yields another radial category of meanings.
  • Third, the results of the two analyses are then compared to check for overlap. This comparison is termed “radial category profiling”. This methodology enables us to reveal whether we have overlap, how extensive it is, and also whether it is systematic.

Frequency threshold

Our analysis involves comparison of behaviors of the different types of perfectives. The status of Natural Perfectives as opposed to Specialized and Complex Act Perfectives is very different in terms of frequency.
  • Natural Perfectives approximate a closed class with a restricted number of items that typically have relatively high frequency.
  • The list of Specialized and Complex Act Perfectives is by contrast open-ended and potentially vast, which means that they cannot be accounted for exhaustively, and many of them are of such low frequency that they are not immediately recognizable even to native speakers. This poses the risk of overwhelming our dataset with a large quantity of low-frequency and therefore marginal verbs.
Since the objective of this study is to explore the meanings of prefixes in Natural Perfectives, we include all of them. We make use of the “Exploring Emptiness” database, an inventory of Natural Perfectives in Russian, publicly available at: http://emptyprefixes.uit.no. The representation of Specialized and Complex Act Perfectives is calibrated to a frequency threshold that approximates that of a typical Natural Perfective. We include only Specialized and Complex Act Perfectives that have 100 or more attestations in the Russian National Corpus.

Requirement for simplex base

On the grounds that all the Natural Perfectives in our study have a corresponding imperfective simplex verb, we removed from the study all Specialized Perfectives that lack an imperfective simplex verb. We exclude
  • verbs with perfective simplex forms like раздать/raz-dat’ ‘distribute’,
  • prefixed verbs that are formed from other parts of speech, such as: noun (рассекретить/raz-sekretit’ ‘reveal’ from секрет ‘secret’); adjective (утяжелить/u-tjaželit’ ‘make heavier’ from тяжелый/тяжелее ‘heavy/heavier’); pronoun (присвоить/pri-svoit’ ‘adopt’ from свой ‘one’s own’); numeral (удесятерить/u-desjaterit’ ‘increase tenfold’ from десятеро ‘group of ten’).
  • prefixed verbs with no unprefixed form at all (e.g. обуться/ob-ut’sja ‘put on one’s shoes’, разуться/raz-ut’sja ‘take off one’s shoes’ with no corresponding *уться/ut’sja).


When a verb with the reflexive -ся/сь differs from a non-reflexive counterpart only in terms of transitivity, the two verbs are collapsed into one entry on our lists. For example, умыть(ся)/u-myt’(sja) ‘wash (one’s face)’ is listed as one verb, and the parentheses indicate that the reflexive -ся/сь does not alter the meaning beyond making the verb intransitive. We do include examples in which the prefix is attached simultaneously with the reflexive -ся/сь, as in разойтись/raz-jtis’ ‘walk away in different directions’, which is derived from идти/idti ‘walk’.

Prefixes with special issues

Our analysis involved making a number of decisions on the mutual status of vz- and voz-; o-, ob-, obo-; and vy- and iz-. For the purposes of our analysis, we adopt the following approach:
  • We join historically related vz- and voz- into a single prefix, since they occur in all meanings of our radial category and have only minor differences in terms of register.
  • O-, ob-, and obo- are collapsed into a single prefix due to the large degree of their semantic overlap and rather strong rules of phonological conditioning;
  • Vy- and iz- are treated as two prefixes but are represented within a single radial category. This policy is justified by their special relationship in Russian since they share meanings and often distinguish verbs only according to register and metaphorical usage.

Format of representation

Each prefix occupies a separate page available in the menu tableau located on the left side of the page.

RUS / ENG page

Each page exists in two versions: Version RUS provides all the Russian data using the Cyrillic alphabet, while Version ENG provides the same data transliterated into the Latin alphabet. Note that the lists of verbs are organized in alphabetic order.


A diagram juxtaposes the radial category of the prefix based on the Specialized Perfectives with the radial category of simplex verbs that form Natural Perfectives, thus visually collapsing the two steps undertaken in the analysis. A radial category is a semantic model that we use in order to represent the polysemous semantics of a prefix. A radial category is a network of interrelated meanings organized around a central prototype. The prototypical member is the semantic center of gravity for a category and typically is most salient and has the most relationships to other members. Each diagram shows a radial category with meanings represented as boxes. The box representing the prototype has a thicker border and there are lines connecting the boxes to represent relations among the meanings.

Each box contains the following information:

  • a numerical code for convenience,
  • the meaning in small caps,
  • type of perfective verbs (Specialized Perfectives – SP; Complex Act Perfectives – CAP; Natural Perfectives – NP) that have that meaning and their number in parentheses,
  • an example for each verb type with a gloss.
Shading in the figures highlights the overlap between the meanings of the prefixes (attested in Specialized and Complex Act Perfectives) and the meanings of the base verbs in Natural Perfectives. Shaded boxes show those meanings where we observe both Specialized Perfectives (or sometimes Complex Act Perfectives) and Natural Perfectives. Boxes that are not shaded represent meanings that we find only in Specialized or Complex Act Perfectives.

Table of meanings

Under the diagram you will find a table where a short commentary on each of the submeanings is provided. The first column contains the number and the name of the submeaning. It works as a hyperlink: if you click on the submeaning name, you will be directed to the full list of verbs representing this submeaning. The next column contains a short explanation of the submeaning. Submeanings are illustrated by examples with translations, which are given in the two columns to the right. All examples are culled from the Russian National Corpus (RNC). Long examples have been shortened in that some elements have been deleted: relative clauses, parenthetical words and the like.

Lists of verbs

At the bottom of the page we present the verbs. For each meaning given in the figure we provide a list of the analyzed Specialized (or Complex Act) Perfectives and a complete list of Natural Perfectives. The order of presentation follows the numerical codes of meanings given in the figure. Each group of verbs is given in a table with five columns. The leftmost column Lemma lists the prefixed perfectives. The next column to the right provides English glosses for each perfective verb. The next column Base lists the corresponding simplex imperfective bases of perfective verbs. The column Base Gloss translates each simplex base into English. Note that for Natural Perfectives the gloss of the perfective and the base is the same. The right-most column n/m specifies whether a given verb corresponds to non-metaphorical (n) or metaphorical (m) instantiation of a meaning. In order to grasp the most clear examples of a suggested meaning one can first start by looking at those verbs that are marked as non-metaphorical (n) and then proceed to metaphorical extensions. For example, the prototypical meaning of the prefix pere- is defined as transfer and refers to the change of spatial location, as we see in verbs of motion like перебежать/pere-bežat’ ‘run across’ and перелететь/pere-letet’ ‘fly over’, marked as ‘n’, that is, non-metaphorical. By contrast, the verb pererabotat’ ‘convert into’ is labeled with ‘m’ (metaphorical) and implies mapping of the concrete spatial meaning transfer to a more abstract domain of substances and states. Since some verbs can realize both non-metaphorical and metaphorical possibilities, we label them as ‘n/m’, and a good example of such a case comes from the polysemous perevesti glossed as ‘take across, transfer, shift; translate; switch the job or class; convert currency; transfer money’.


It is sometimes possible to argue that a given verb could be classified differently. Indeed the radial category model of meaning predicts that there can be gradient transitions and multiple associations. Still, such adjustments would not change the overall outcome of the analysis, which is based on over two thousand verbs. We do represent some multiple associations in the analysis, which means that the numbers of verbs in the boxes might not add up to the total numbers given in the heading. For example, the Natural Perfective упаковать/u-pakovat’ is listed both under place/fit in its meaning ‘pack up’ and under cover completely in its meaning ‘wrap up’.

Major result

All eleven radial category profiling analyses support the Overlap Hypothesis. The analyses show that overlap ranges from complete overlap in all meanings (u-, v-), through overlap in a majority of meanings (raz-, pri-, ot-, v(o)z-, o(b)-, vy-, iz-), and also overlap in a smaller portion of the radial category (pere- and pod-). For every prefix the overlap involves the prototype and coherent subsets of the radial category.