Ukrainians are a strong people with a proud language history
The cruel, unjustifiable war in Ukraine makes us feel so helpless, frustrated by our inability to do much to help, either individually or collectively. What can we do? Make charitable donations; urge our government to apply the most effective pressure; maybe welcome a refugee into our home… I know that writing a piece like this does not do anything to help in a tangible way, but, in solidarity with those who are witnessing the horrors being done to their country, here is a very brief background to the language of Ukraine. Knowledge, as someone once said, is power…
The vast majority of European languages derive from the original source called Proto Indo-European (PIE). This split into several main language families, such as Slavic, Romance/Latinate, and Germanic, which then sub-divided into the individual languages we would recognise today.
It can be tempting to think of each group as having one dominant language and others as corruptions of this original. This is simply not true! Of all the different languages (not dialects!) spoken in mainland Spain for example, it is purely an accident of history that Castilian Spanish rather than Catalan or Galician is recognised as standard, and is the version that has become the second most-spoken language in the world, in terms of pure numbers of native speakers.
As for the Germanic group of languages: a native of Amsterdam or Copenhagen would quickly correct you if you tried to tell them that they were speaking a dialect of German, and they would be correct to correct you!
The same thing is true of accents. When the Romans were looking for the best site for their administrative centre, they might have chosen Norwich, or Winchester, or stayed in Colchester, but they went for London, and it stuck. The style of English that developed in the London area came to be considered as ‘standard’, and that stuck as well. If Claudius Caesar had had a greater fondness for hiking in the Dales, they might have chosen York as their capital, and BBC news readers would pronounce graph and laugh to rhyme with taff, not scarf!
So what about Ukrainian?
Ukrainian, it somehow pleases me to state, is definitely not a dialect of Russian, but a proud language in its own right. The oldest mention of Ukrainian as a distinct language dates back to 858 CE, which allows plenty of time to have developed separately from the other Slavic languages, and makes it two hundred years older than the version of “English” that we recognise today. In fact, there are three distinct dialects (not just accents) in Ukraine: Northern, south-eastern and south-western.
Ukrainian and Russian are more different from each other than, say, Danish and Norwegian; a better comparison would be Portuguese and Italian. Similar enough for speakers of either language to have a good head-start in understanding each other, but clearly distinct. Purely in terms of how much vocabulary is shared, Belarussian is the closest relative of Ukrainian with 84%, then Polish (70%), Slovak (68%) and then Russian with 62%.
Ukrainian is a rich language, with about 250,000 words. This puts it on roughly level pegging with French and German, although how words are counted is always a thorny issue.
Does the French word “fond”, for example, count as one word, or several, as it can mean background, bottom, essence, or even [it] melts…?
Ukrainian has an extra possessive pronoun that is missing in English, and indeed most other languages.
The English words his and her are already less ambiguous than their French counterparts, where the word changes according to the gender of the object, not of the person who possesses it
Sa voiture = Her car / His car (car is feminine in French – we have no idea about the owner!)
Spanish is even murkier:
Su coche = His car / Her car / Their car / Your car (formal register)
English is clearer until we have a sentence such as this:
Sally drove her sister home in her new car.
Whose new car is it, do we suppose, on hearing this sentence? We might assume it is Sally’s own car, but the grammar allows for it to belong to the sister as well.
In Ukrainian this problem is solved by the introduction of a completely new word.
Joho and jiji mean his and her respectively, but when it refers back to one’s own possession, it would become “svij”. This word is gender-neutral, and indeed works for both singular and plural persons. There is no ambiguity because it necessarily refers back to whoever is the main actor, the subject, of the sentence.
I am sorry to say that my own knowledge of the Ukrainian language is more accurately described as ‘zero’, than ‘patchy’, so I will have to leave it there in terms of technical explanations.
At a language competition two years ago (in Italy) Ukrainian was voted the second most beautifully melodic language in the world (after Italian)
Lingo, A language spotter’s Guide to Europe, by Gaston Dorren (Publisher: Profile Books)
Ukrainian is a language which we, at SameSky languages, do not currently offer, but why not have a go at learning a few words/phrases. FunEasyLearn.com, Duolingo.com and Loecsen.com are all good places to start, online, for free.