maestro, hack us a march

In languages such as German and Russian, prefixes play much more important role in word formation compared to English. Let’s have a look at the three Russian verbs: бежать (“to run”), делать “to do, to make” and резать “to cut”, and the derived verbs in the table below:

бежать run делать do, make резать cut
в- вбежать run into вделать fit, insert врезать fit (into a cut-out hole)
в(о)з- взбежать run up (the stairs etc.) возделать cultivate, grow взрезать cut up
вы- выбежать run out выделать make thoroughly, perfectly вырезать cut out
до- добежать complete the run доделать complete (the task) дорезать complete cutting
за- забежать run into заделать mend, close (a hole etc.) зарезать slaughter
на- набежать attack наделать give, cause (trouble etc.), make (some amount) нарезать slice
над- надрезать incise
от- отбежать run (not very far) away отделать finish, decorate отрезать cut off
пере- перебежать run across переделать redo, rework перерезать cut through
по- побежать start running поделать do for a while порезать cut up (e.g. food), slash
под- подбежать run up, reach подделать counterfeit подрезать trim, undercut
при- прибежать run to приделать attach прирезать cut throat, slaughter
про- пробежать perform a run проделать perform, conjure прорезать cut (a hole)
раз- разделать cut (carcase) разрезать cut in two or more parts
с- сбежать escape сделать make, do, complete срезать cut off
у- убежать run away уделать break, spoil урезать reduce, slash

Where Russian uses prefixes, English has to employ different mechanisms: sometimes it is a phrasal verb, e.g. “to cut off”; sometimes completely different word, e.g. “slice”; and sometimes, well, it is a prefix, as in “undercut”.

Of course, not every prefix can be combined with any unprefixed verb to form a new verb in Russian. As you can see from the table, there are no such verbs as надбежать and надделать. Similarly, разбежать does not exist, although there is a reflexive verb разбежаться, meaning either “to accelerate (oneself) by running” or “to scatter (oneselves)”.

Sometimes one can correctly guess the meaning of the prefixed verb. For instance, the prefix в- almost invariably means “into”, while до- confers the sense of completeness to the action. In other cases, it is not as simple, as the famous quote from The Master and Margarita shows:

А тут ещё кот выскочил к рампе и вдруг рявкнул на весь театр человеческим голосом:
—Сеанс окончен! Маэстро! Урежьте марш!!
Ополоумевший дирижёр, не отдавая себе отчёта в том, что делает, взмахнул палочкой, и оркестр не заиграл, и даже не грянул, и даже не хватил, а именно, по омерзительному выражению кота, урезал какой-то невероятный, ни на что не похожий по развязности своей марш.

Михаил Булгаков, «Мастер и Маргарита»


And then the cat leapt out to the footlights and barked suddenly in a human voice for the whole theatre to hear: “The seance is over! Maestro! Hack us a march!!!” Scarcely aware of his own actions, the crazed conductor waved his baton, and the orchestra did not start to play, nor even strike up, nor even slam into, but, precisely in tune with the cat’s repugnant expression, hacked out an unbelievable, exceptionally shameless march.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (translated by Michael Karpelson)


(I have to confess now that this quote was the main reason to write today’s post.)

The prefix у- often can be translated as “away”, e.g. убежать “to run away”, увезти “to ride away”, унести “to take away” and so on. This is not the case with уделать (to break, to render unusable, spoil, stain, etc.) and урезать (typically meaning “to slash”, as in урезать бюджет, “to cut the budget”, which has very little to do with Bulgakov’s “strike up”). I have no clue as to how their meanings came about.

my name is like a story

In his unhasty conversation with hobbits, Treebeard says:

I’ll call you Merry and Pippin, if you please – nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.

For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers