Illustration by Sveta Sobolev.
There’s a rumor going around that most of the languages using the Cyrillic alphabet — Russian, Ukrainian, Macedonian and many more — are more or less the same language. Ok, maybe not all of them, but at least the Slavic ones? For instance, Ukrainian and Russian, they have a lot in common, right? There’s a lot of speculation: Some say that Ukrainian is a fake language and just a vernacular of Russian (and there’s apparently even fake evidence of that!). In order to know for sure, let’s take a closer look at these two languages and their histories.
One Old East Slavic to rule them all
Both Russian and Ukrainian come from the same roots: Old East Slavic. Back in the times of Kievan Rus‘ — cradle of the modern Russian-speaking world — the dialects of the language were spoken by ancestors of modern Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians (which is, by the way, the correct name for people with Belarusian citizenship — Belorussian refers to that country during the Soviet era).
After the decline of Rus’, the division of the state and the formation of new states, these dialects started evolving into two very distinct languages — comparable to Spanish and Portuguese. By the mid 17th century, there were huge differences between Russian and Ukrainian: while Russian was being spoken around Moscow, Ukrainian territories were being torn between multiple countries (such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Rzeczpospolita, the ancestor of modern Poland). This really influenced the languages, with Ukrainian mixing in some Polish, Hungarian, Austrian and Romanian grammar and vocabulary. Russian, on the other hand, evolved steadily into the modern form we know now.
Back in the USSR
By the time the Russian Empire was destroyed in the October Revolution in 1917, the differences between the languages were already at the level it is today: Russian and Ukrainian were completely different. Since the Soviet Union’s official language was Russian, it had become an official language of the Ukrainian SSR as well. Russian blossomed, but Ukrainian faced yet another instance of suppression: Up until the 1930s the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had supported Ukrainization, only to reverse these policies abruptly. Schools were switched to Russian, Ukrainian newspapers and publications canceled. A large group of Ukrainian intelligentsia were arrested and executed (this group is often referred to as the “Executed Renaissance”). The policies had softened, however, by the 80s, and were completely reversed when Ukraine became an independent country in 1991.
We Need To Go Deeper
But there should be some similarities between the languages, right? They do have a lot of words in common! Both of them also use the Cyrillic alphabet… and this is where things get complicated. Again.
Both of the alphabets consist of 33 letters; Russian has the letters Ёё, ъ, ы and Ээ, which are not used in Ukrainian. Instead, Ukrainian has Ґґ, Єє, Іі and Її. The pronunciation of words and letters varies as well: И in Russian is pronounced like [ee] in the words “seed” or “meet”. In Ukrainian, “И” is pronounced like a short [i], as in “kill” or “live.”
How about words that are written the same way in both Russian and Ukrainian? Surprisingly, they could mean totally different things! For example, приклад: in Russian, the word means “rifle butt,” while in Ukrainian it means “example.”
Months in Russian have a lot in common with other European languages: Январь/Yanvar’ — January, Февраль/Fevral’ — February, while Ukrainian saved the Slavic names: Січень/Sichen’ (meaning “the one that cuts”) — January, Лютий/Lyutyi (meaning “the harsh one”) — February.
The grammar in both languages is similar, but, predictably, there are a few differences: While Ukrainian includes the past continuous tense, there are only three tenses in Russian (past, present and future). In Ukrainian, one might say “I am waiting for you” — Я чекаю на тебе; however, there is no need for a conjunction in Russian: Я жду тебя. Ukrainian also uses forms of “to be”: бути and while Russian has the word itself — быть — it is completely omitted in the present tense.
Do you read me?
Of course, there are more people in the world that speak Russian natively (according to Wikipedia, around 260 million) as opposed to Ukrainian (39 million). Just look at the land area of the countries: even though Ukraine is the biggest European country, Russia is the biggest country in the world.
All things been said… what to do with all the differences between the languages? No worries! Since nearly every native Ukrainian is bilingual, the chances are good that you will understand each other. So onward with your next language journey!