Language of the Month: Ukrainian

FACT SHEET

украї́нська мо́ва
Language family: East Slavic (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 40 million native speakers
Writing system: Cyrillic
Official language in: Ukraine
Recognised minority language in: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia

HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE

The history of the modern Ukrainian language goes back over a thousand years to a language called Old East Slavic. This language was spoken in the 10‒15th centuries in the medieval monarchy of Kievan Rus that stretched from the Black Sea in the South all the way to the White Sea in the North.

Throughout the centuries, various regional languages started to emerge in the state, including Ukrainian and Belarusian, which is one of the closest relatives of Ukrainian. (Although both languages were affected by various other languages over the years, there is still a degree of intelligibility between them today.)

Throughout its turbulent history, Ukrainian was greatly influenced by Polish and it shows some effects of the Tatar and Turkish languages, as well.

Up until the 18th century, Ukrainian was a mostly spoken vernacular. However, the wave of Romantic nationality that spread across Europe also reached what’s Ukraine today and played an important part in creating modern Ukrainian, with Ivan Kotliarevsky writer, poet and playwright being in the forefront of the movement. He published his mock epic, “Eneyida” in 1798, which is considered the first literary work published in modern Ukrainian.

In the soviet era (1922-1991), Ukraine – or the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as it was known then – was part of the Soviet Union. In these decades the status of the Ukrainian language was ever-changing, starting from a short era of Ukrainianisation in the beginning to its use being persecuted in the later years.

In the last 30 years a revival of the language could be observed and there is a thriving, rich literary culture in the country.

USEFUL PHRASES

Hello! Вітаю (Vitayu)
My name is… Мене звати… (Mene zvati…)
Yes Так (tak)
No Ні (ni)
Please Будь ласка (bud laska)
Thank you Дякую (d’akuju)

WHAT DO THE LINGUISTS SAY?

With regards to its pronunciation, unsurprisingly, Ukrainian sounds very similar to other Slavic languages like Polish and Belarusian. But how could you recognise it if you are not familiar with this language family?

According to Elena, one of our translators working with Ukrainian, “to someone who has never heard any Slavic language, Ukrainian would sound melodious, expressive and rich in intonation.”

To Andriy’s ears, Ukrainian is “rather euphonic, with a balanced number of fricative, sibilant and obstruent consonants” (think a good mix of sounds like p, t, f, s, sh).

If you’d like to give pronouncing Ukrainian a try yourself, check out this website: Ukrainian Alphabet: Full Guide With Examples & Pronunciation. You may also find some other useful resources on this website for learning Ukrainian.

As Elena says, a learner of Ukrainian has mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, the next step is to memorise all the different case endings. Conjugation and various cases might pose a bit of a challenge for English speakers wishing to learn the language. Luba and Andriy agree with her, they both cite conjugation as one of the main differences between English and Ukrainian. For example, nouns have 7 different cases and are also conjugated for different numbers (singular and plural). Verbs are not that straight-forward either, as there are 4 tenses, 2 voices, 3 persons and the two numbers.

AND that’s not all! Ukrainian also has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter which all have different endings.

Apart from providing us with some grammatical guidance, we’ve also asked Elena, Luba and Andriy to recommend us some great pieces of Ukrainian literature to introduce us a bit more to the language and culture of the country.

If you haven’t heard Ukrainian before, have a look (or rather listen) at Serhiy Zhadan’s poem, “Птах” (“Bird”) that is a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark. Some consider this contemporary poem to be an alternative anthem of Ukraine. (Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the poem yet, however, listening to the words in Ukrainian is quite captivating, even if you don’t speak the language.)

Andriy’s favourite line is by Taras Shevchenko: “Учітесь, читайте, і чужому научайтеся, і свого не цурайтеся” which could be translated as “Learn and read, learn from others and do not shun your own”.

Luba’s favourite poem is “Любіть Україну” (“Love Ukraine”) by Volodymyr Sosiura which you can read it in English by clicking here.

If you are interested in learning more about Ukrainian culture and literature, you may also want to check out a British academic and translator, Uilleam Blacker’s Twitter page.

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