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Contrary to what some people believe, Ukrainian and Russian are not the same language. Despite sharing a common ancestor and the Cyrillic script, Ukrainian and Russian are two distinct languages. They are somehow similar, yes, but not one and the same. To help you understand the relationship between the two, we are going to look at their shared history and both their differences and similarities.
Was Ukrainian really called Little Russian?
In short, yes. The Ukrainian language was formerly called Little Russian, but the term is now considered pejorative. Let’s see how all the events leading to this name unfolded.
First, you should know that Ukrainian, the same as Russian, is an East Slavic language of the Indo-European language family. Its origins can be traced back to the Old East Slavic language used in Kievan Rus between the 10th and the 13th century. After the fall of the Kievan Rus, the language developed into what was called the Ruthenian language. Along with it, in the territory of modern Ukraine, the Kyiv version of Church Slavonic was also used in liturgical services.
From here on, there are several theories regarding the development of the Ukrainian language and its divergence from Russian, but what’s most important is that their common ancestor, Old East Slavic, spanned a territory hundreds of kilometers wide. Considering how other languages came to be and how much migration influences the process, it’s obvious that the separation happened gradually.
The development of the Ukrainian language after the 13th century
Here’s how other languages influenced (what would later be known as) Ukrainian in the following centuries:
- during the 13th century, the princes of the Kingdom of Ruthenia invited German settles over which resulted in many German words being adopted into the Ukrainian language;
- after the fall of the Kingdom of Ruthenia in 1394, Ukrainians became subordinated to Lithuania and then Poland which further influenced the language. Furthermore, the Polish rule also offered significant exposure to the Latin language which has its own share of impact;
- the German influence also continued under the Polish rule not only through Germans but also through Yiddish-speaking Jews;
- contact with Tatars and Turks also inspired the language and brought in some new Turkic words.
Due to heavy borrowings from so many languages, by the mid-17th century, Ukrainian and Russian became so different that the negotiations for the Treaty of Pereyaslav had to be done using translators.
As a result of Ukraine’s centuries-long political subordination, Ukrainian had almost no literary expression until de 18th century when the modern literary Ukrainian language was born.
The Russian language – a short history
Russian, known as Русский язык (romanized: Russkiy yazyk) to Russians, is the official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan and it is also used as a second language in other former Soviet countries. Additionally, Russian is one of the six official United Nations languages and the 8th most spoken language in the world with a total of 260 million speakers.
Naturally, the origin story of the Russian language continues from where we left it off with Ukrainian – in the 13th century when their divergence began. As the territory of today’s Ukraine fell under Lithuanian rule, the eastern land came under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
Moscow and Novgorod, and later the growing Muscovy, were all home to Church Slavonic (descendant of Old Church Slavonic), which was the literary language until the Petrine era when its use was limited to biblical and liturgical texts. Then, the westernizing policies of Tsar Peter I the Great brought entire blocks of specialized vocabulary from the languages of Western Europe. By 1800, many spoke French and even German on a daily basis. This is why 19-century some Russian novels contain entire paragraphs in French with no translation given – because it was believed that educated people would not need one.
Nevertheless, it was the 19th-century poet Aleksandr Pushkin who determined the further development of the Russian language we know today. His writings, in which he combined the colloquial and Church Slavonic styles, were decisive in establishing the best style for literary use.
Later, the Soviet period brought Russian worldwide prestige which declined after the 1991 collapse. Despite each USSR constituent republic having its own official language, Russian had a unified role and superior status. This is why there are so many people speaking Russian outside Russia.
How similar are Ukrainian and Russian?
The misconception that Russian and Ukrainian are the same sometimes stems from the fact that Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine. The numbers can differ slightly according to various sources, but it’s generally agreed that 60% of Ukrainians consider Ukrainian their native language, while 15% consider Russian to be their native language. Moreover, 22% consider both to be their native languages.
It’s also worth noting that most Ukrainian speakers can also speak Russian, even if it’s as a second language. To an untrained ear, that may sound like Ukrainian when it is in fact, Russian. On top of that, some people use a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian called Surzhyk.
So how similar are Ukrainian and Russian? They share about 62% lexical similarity. What many people don’t know is that Ukrainian has a higher lexical similarity with Polish, Slovak and Belarusian, than it does with Russian – especially with Belarusian.
Since most Ukrainian speakers also speak Russian or have extensive exposure to it, ‘asymmetric intelligibility’ is the best term to describe the relationship between the two languages. In other words, Ukrainian speakers can often understand Russian, while Russian speaker doesn’t understand Ukrainian, especially Russian speakers from outside Ukraine.
However, all three languages – Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian – are in part mutually intelligible, and already knowing one can help a lot if you want to learn one of the others.
How different are Ukrainian and Russian?
Now that we’ve explained the history behind Ukrainian and Russian, it’s time to look at some more practical examples. A 62% lexical similarity may sound like a lot, but these two languages are not as similar as many might think. Here are some of the most important differences between Russian and Ukrainian.
Both Ukrainian and Russian use the 33-letter Cyrillic alphabet, but there are four letters in Ukrainian missing from Russian (ґ, є, і, ї), and four letters in Russian missing from Ukrainian (ё, ъ, ы, э).
Learning Russian thinking you will easily understand Ukrainian it’s not a great strategy. While they share a lot of words, some of them are ‘false friends’ and can mean completely different things:
- час (chas) means ‘time’ in Ukrainian and час (chas) means ‘hour’ in Russian;
- неділя (nedilia) means ‘Sunday’ in Ukrainian and неделя (nedelya) means ‘week’ in Russian.
On the other hand, it’s true – there are some similar words that mean the same thing, but also different words with different meanings. Let’s look at some examples:
Sounds and pronunciation
While to a non-trained ear Russian and Ukrainian might sound the same, they actually have several differences when it comes to pronunciation. For example, Ukrainian has a specific sound for “Г г” (similar to [h] in ‘aha!’) which Russian doesn’t have. For this letter, Russian uses the [g] sound which is similar to the ‘g’ in ‘go’ or ‘guard’. As a consequence, it’s very easy to differentiate a Ukrainian speaker from a Russian speaker as Ukrainians sometimes overlook the usage of [g] instead of [h].
Here are some other relevant pronunciation differences between Ukrainian and Russian:
- Ukrainian letters ‘И’ and ‘Е’ have very different pronunciations compared to their Russian counterparts, ‘Ы’ and ‘Э’. While in Russian ‘И’ is pronounced [ee], in Ukrainian is pronounced like a short [i], as the ‘i’ in the English word ‘kill’;
- Ukrainians always pronounce ‘o’ as it is heard whereas Russians pronounce it as [a] or an unclear schwa [ə] depending on the context;
- Ukrainian uses more soft consonants compared to Russian;
- Russian [ы] is deeper than Ukrainian [и] and Russian [э] is more open than Ukrainian [е].
When it comes to grammar, Russian and Ukrainian have similar principles and categories:
- both have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter;
- both have almost the same set of noun cases that apply to adjectives and pronouns as well;
- they both share the same major verb conjugations.
However, there’s a big difference when it comes to endings because the exact word forms are often different or at least not entirely the same.
Furthermore, another thing to notice when talking about differences is that while Ukrainian has a vocative case, Russian does not (Russian has six cases and Ukrainian has seven). It used to have a vocative case, but not anymore – except for a few specific words. For example, a rare situation where it is still used is when addressing God.
Last but not least, Ukrainian has three types of future tense, while Russian has only two.
These are only a few of the differences and similarities between Ukrainian and Russian. As you can see, they are very closely related languages that sometimes share a lot, sometimes not. The different vocabulary, pronunciation, and word forms that have arisen over time make the two languages only partially mutually intelligible to people who don’t have much exposure to the other language.
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