Linguistic differences between Ukrainian and Russian

As I promised you in my previous article today I’m going to speak about the differences between Ukrainian and Russian. First of all I have to disappoint you as you will hardly find any good material for learning Ukrainian, And most of all exercise books are too academic for travellers and polyglot explorers. To be honest for me it was even hard to find a good dictionary or a phrase book for Ukrainian. But if you are planing to make a longer trip to Ukraine for learning the Ukrainian language there are courses at the universities of Kyiv and Lviv. And by the way the city of Lviv is in the west of Ukraine and has therefore much more native speakers of Ukrainian than Kyiv. As Kyiv is in the middle of the country sometimes you will hear and read more Russian on the street than Ukrainian. Of course both languages are very similar to eachother and both use the Cyrillic alphabet although with some slight differences about which I’m also going to tell you in this article.

Three Eastern Slavic languages out of one

The reason why Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian are so close to eachother is that originally the Western Slavic branch consisted only of one language and Ukrainian and Belarussian where nothing but Russian dialects. As the territories of Ukraine and Belarus belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Ukrainian and Belarussian started developing in a different way than Russian did. A typical phenomenon is that Ukrainian and Belarussian adapted a lot of Polish vocabulary. For instance the Russian word for onion is лук (luk) while in Ukrainian it’s цибуля (cybul’a) which is a result of the Polish form cebula. The word for skin in Russian is кожа (kozha) while in Ukrainian it’s шкіра (shkira) which also has been adapted from the Polish form skóra. Ukrainian also started adapting German words through Polish like for example the word рахунок (rachunok) which means bill. In Polish it’s rachunek and in German Rechnung. Russian uses the form счёт (stchot). There are some even more grave differences and false friends in both languages which you should know if you want to avoid any inconvenience. For example if you say ти уродлива (ty urodliva) to a Ukrainian speaking woman you make her a nice comliment as it means you are gorgeous. But please don’t say that in Russian as it means the opposite. As I monetioned Ukrainian also uses the Cyrillic alphabet however there are some slight differences. Ukrainian and Belarussian also use the Latin i which has existed in Old Russian before but disappeared and has been replaced by the Cyrillic letter и. In Ukrainian this letter is pronounced as y and not as i like in Russian. Just take a look at the words for beer and winter! In Russian you say пиво (pivo) and зима (zima) and in Ukrainian (pyvo) and (zyma). Another difference is the letter г which in Russian is pronounced as g and in Ukrainian and Belarussian as h. So the word for head in Russian is голова (golova) while in Ukrainian and Belarussian it’s (holova).

What is surzhyk?

Many people living in the former Soviet Union were used to speak Russian everyday. And as Ukrainian and Russian are very close to eachother for many Ukrainian speakers it’s hard to separate both languages. So they start a sentence in Ukrainian but end it in Russian. This mixture of Ukrainian and Russian is called суржик (surzhyk) and is still being spoken by many inhabitants of the elder generation. Since the recent political developments in Ukraine surzhyk seems to disappear as many Ukrainian people tend to speak Ukrainian more fluently just to distance themselves from Russia. However there’s one man in Ukraine who got very popular for speaking surzhyk. It’s Andrey Danilko who you might also know as the fictional character of Verka Serduchka. This fictional character with a huge silver star on the head published many songs which became pop classics in Ukraine. In 2007 Verka Serduchka also represented Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest in Helsinki coming second. His song was a subtile criticism against Russia which caused him some trouble and a ban on Russian stages. However I know many Russian people who love his or her music and sing along his or her lyrics. In a press conference Andrey Danilko was asked which language he considers as his mother tongue. He answered that his mother tongue is neither Russian nor Ukrainian but surzhyk. On Ukrainian TV you will still hear both languages in one TV programme. It often happens that the presenter asks a question in Ukrainian and the interviewee answers in Russian as he comes from the east of Ukraine where Ukrainian is taught at school but almost nobody uses it in everyday’s life. If you will go to Kyiv as I did you will have the opportunity to speak both Ukrainian and Russian … and of course surzhyk.

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