Languages using the Cyrillic alphabet — Russian, Ukrainian, Macedonian and many more — are sometimes conflated. To someone unfamiliar with Ukrainian and Russian, they might look alike initially, but they’re distinct languages that come from the same language root.
While it’s true that Ukrainian and Russian have certain similarities, they also have many, many differences. In the same way that English and German branches off from each other hundreds of years ago, so too did Russian and Ukrainian. Here, we’ll dive into this history of the two languages, the biggest differences and where they stand today.
A Shared Language Family History
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.
Divisions In The Early 20th Century
By the time the Russian Empire was destroyed in the October Revolution in 1917, the differences between the languages were already at the level they are 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, and 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 by the ’80s, however, and were completely reversed when Ukraine became an independent country in 1991.
The Main Linguistic Differences
Because of their shared past, Russian and Ukrainian do have a lot of words in common. Both of them also use the Cyrillic alphabet, too. But exactly how similar the two are — linguistically — 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 languages? 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.
Linguistic And Geopolitical Borders
As already stated, Russian and Ukrainian are separate languages. Any remaining debate over the fact is not really about vocabulary and alphabets. Throughout history, language has been a way for groups to form identity and rally around a cause. There’s no scientific way to prove that two languages are separate, so people can play up or play down differences to suit a certain narrative. When someone equates Russian and Ukrainian — particularly given the situation today — it’s not rooted in linguistic fact, it’s an argument about nationhood.
As the two languages stand today, there are about 30 million Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine and 138 million Russian speakers in Russia. The difference in size reflects the large difference in the two countries’ respective populations. The legacy of the USSR’s occupation of Ukraine means many Ukrainians speak Russian as a second language (and almost all have some knowledge), whereas comparatively few Russians speak Ukrainian. While there might be a certain amount of mutual intelligibility, knowing one of the languages is not enough to be able to speak the other.
This article was originally published on December 19, 2017 and has been updated.