For untrained ears, Russian and Ukrainian may sound extremely similar to one another. In fact, some people may falsely believe that Ukrainian is a dialect of Russian. A close look at both languages, however, shows that despite sharing the same linguistic roots, Russian and Ukrainian are distinct in multiple aspects.
In this article, we will provide a brief account of these languages’ shared history, and then delve deep into the main differences that set Russian and Ukrainian apart.
A Common History
The fact that Russian and Ukrainian sound so much alike has to do with their shared origin. Just like English and German or Spanish and Italian, these are two separate languages that derive from the same sub-group of the Indo-European family: the Eastern Slavic stem.
Believed to have splintered just before the 13th century, these languages grew apart as Ukrainian became more and more influenced by Polish and Slovak languages and Russian started to borrow characteristics from Old Church Slavonic.
It was a single man, Peter the Great, who helped Ukrainian even more distant from Russian in his attempt to make Russian more akin to Western languages. At the same time, political tensions between the two kingdoms resulted in a ban of the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire, more specifically, in the Eastern region of present-day Ukraine.
But the shared history between these two languages was far from over. When the Soviets occupied modern-day Ukraine in the early 20th century, Russian spread throughout the country like never before. In fact, Russian became the main language taught in schools throughout the Soviet Union, which not only explains the similarities between both languages but also accounts for the prevalence of Russian speakers in Ukraine today.
Since the early 1930s, time, politics and cultural differences have pushed Russian and Ukrainian apart, and they have given way to the differences I will analyze below with the help of our native teachers.
If you were to compare English with German, you would find that the letters used in these languages are almost identical, with a few exceptions. Ä and ẞ, for example, are extremely common in German but are nowhere to be found in English.
The case of Russian and Ukrainian is quite similar: while they share a mostly similar version of the Cyrillic alphabet, there are a few significant differences to set them apart. The most noticeable of them are:
- The Ukrainian alphabet has “Є є,”, “Ґ ґ,” “Ї ї,” and “І і.” These letters (and the sounds they represent) are non-existent in Russian.
- The Russian alphabet has “ы,” “Ё ё,” and “ъ.” The Ukrainian alphabet lacks these letters.
The idea that two languages must be the same because they share the same writing system is a common misconception. To understand why it would be wrong to assume that Russian and Ukrainian based on this argument, our Ukrainian teacher, Maryia, suggests taking English and Dutch as a parallel case.
Though these languages have exactly the same 26 letters, you would never say they are the same language because they share a writing system, would you? Nor would we say that Spanish and French are the same because they share most of their characters. Russian and Ukraine may look equally strange to English speakers, but this doesn’t mean that they are variations of the same language.
Russian and Ukrainian present a lexical similarity of about 60%, which means that 6 out of 10 words will be identical or very similar in both languages. While 60% might sound like a big number, it turns out Ukrainian is lexically closer to Belarusian than it is to Russian. As a matter of fact, there is a higher similarity between most of the Romance languages than there is between Russian and Ukrainian:
|cat||gatto ✓||gato ✓||Кот ✓||Кіт ✓|
|love||amore ✓||amor ✓||любовь ✓||любов ✓|
|person||persona ✓||persona ✓||человек ✘||людина ✘|
|school||scuola ✓||escuela ✓||школа ✓||школа ✓|
|life||vita ✓||vida ✓||продолжительность жизни ✘||тривалість життя ✘|
Russian and Ukraine also present significant differences in some key grammatical concepts.
Our Russian teacher Mischa says that, in order to understand why so many people claim Russian is hard to learn, we need to delve into its robust case system. ‘Case’ refers to the form a word (usually a noun) takes depending on the function it performs in a sentence. The English language, for example, has just three cases: genitive/subjective (I), genitive/possessive (mine) and accusative/objective (me). When Argentine pop-star Lali infamously said “I love she” after being asked about Lady Gaga in an interview, she failed to remember (or ignored altogether) that the personal pronoun “she” becomes “her” when it acts as a direct object in a sentence.
If you (like Lali) believe the English system case is difficult, wait till you hear there are six grammatical cases in Russian. In this language, grammatical case gets marked on regular nouns (table, woman, chair, city), pronouns (you, we), and even people's names in three extra cases: instrumental (for temporal relation), prepositional (it answers the question “about whom?”), and dative (for indirect objects). Ukrainian words, on the other hand, are declined for all these cases while providing a seventh one that has been termed as vocative. This is the case people use when calling someone by name, greeting them, or retaining someone’s attention during a conversation.
In the table below, you can see how case works in the Ukrainian language by paying attention to the different forms of the word ‘woman’.
бачить мене.Zhinka bachyt mene.
woman sees me.
|Here, "zhinka" is in
the nominative or subjective case,
which means ‘woman’ is the subject in this sentence.
Я бачу жінку.
see the woman.
|In this example, “zhinka”
(“woman”) corresponds to the accusative
case, as it acts as the direct object of the verb ‘see’.
rozmovliaiu z zhinkoiu.
|I speak with the woman.||Here, “Zhinka” is instrumental. We use the instrumental case when we say that we
are doing something with someone.
By now, it is clear that Russian and Ukrainian have at least as many differences as similarities. When it comes to pronunciation, these differences may not be noticeable enough for someone who doesn’t speak any Slavic language, but they should be quite salient for people who are familiar with either Russian or Ukrainian:
- Russian has fewer ‘soft’ consonants.
- Russians pronounce the ‘o’ as an ‘a’, whereas Ukrainian pronounces the ‘o’ as an ‘o’.
- The Ukrainian “И” and “Е” represent different sounds compared to their Russian equivalents, “Ы” and “Э”.
- Russian doesn’t have a sound for “Г г.”
- Ukrainian pronunciation tends to follow spelling in a more straightforward fashion than Russian
What's the hardest aspect of Russian?
According to our Russian teacher, Svetlana, the hardest aspect of learning Russian might be the pronunciation of certain letters such as "р", "ы", and clusters with letters "ж", "ц", "ш", "щ", "ч". Students also find it hard to master the use of ‘the soft sign’, Ь, which makes the preceding consonant soft.
Are Russian and Ukrainian mutually intelligible?
While most Ukrainians speak Russian or at least are able to understand it, only a very small number of Russians are fluent in Ukrainian. This phenomenon is called asymmetrical mutual intelligibility.
Is Ukrainian closer to Russian or Polish?
From a grammatical and morphological perspective, Ukrainian is closer to Russian: they both have East Slavic roots. However, in terms of vocabulary Ukrainian is closer to Polish, from which it has borrowed a large number of words.
Is Ukrainian harder than Russian?
No. Phonetically, Ukrainian has fewer soft consonants than Russian. Besides, pronunciation tends to follow spelling more closely than it does in Russian. On the other hand, Ukrainian has more grammatical cases than Russian, but this is not usually a problem for students.
So, which language will you learn first, Russian or Ukrainian?
At Language Trainers, we offer personalized courses for students of all ages and levels both online and in-person. All you have to do is send us a quick message, and we’ll pair you up with a native teacher of either language for a free trial lesson so that they can assess your current level, get to know you, and come up with a tailor-made course based on your interests and goals! Contact us now and get started!