Lately, I started taking up the Ukrainian language, which is something very outside my comfort zone. In my younger years, I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese for 2 years in college, and of course Japanese, so Asian languages tend to be familiar even if I am not fluent. I have also dabbled in Latin, Sanskrit and Ancient Greek over the years, but I am not particularly good at either one.1 Even so, I have zero experience with Slavic languages, so it’s been a totally new experience for me, and yet, to my surprise an oddly familiar one.
Having spent weeks on DuoLingo practicing basic, basic Ukrainian I started to notice some patterns.
For example, the phrase моя мати (moya matih) and мій кіт (miy kit). The first means “my mother” and the second means “my cat”. After a bit of sleuthing, I figured out that “my” will conjugate depending on the gramamtical gender of the noun. In this case мати is a feminine gender word, and кіт is masculine. There are “neuter” gender nouns as well.
Grammatical gender? Ancient Greek,2 Latin, and Sanskrit all had masculine, feminine and neuter genders for nouns. Modern Western languages tended to drop the neuter gender (e.g. modern Spanish or French), but it’s fascinating to see that Ukrainian, and Russian evidentially, retain all three. You can also see grammatical gender with words like студент (“student”, male student) vs. студентка (“student”, feminine student).
But even more fascinating is that Ukrainian nouns have seven grammatical declensions:
- nominative (“the student”)
- genitive (“of the student”)
- dative (“to or for the student”?)
- accusative (“verb the student”)
- instrumental (“with or by means of the student”)
- locative (“on the student”?)
- vocative (“hey, student!”)
Seven declensions? The only language I know that had that many was ancient Sanskrit (eight total, including ablative)! Latin had five, and Ancient Greek only had four. Adjectives also behave like Latin, Greek and Sanskrit in that they agree with the noun in case, number and gender.
I haven’t really gotten into verbs much yet, but I do notice that they inflect too, depending on who speaks it (I eat vs. you eat), so I wouldn’t be surprised if it fits a similar pattern to other European languages.
All this is to say is that Ukrainian language, and much of the eastern European Slavic language family represents a linguistic “cousin”, with fascinating relics from much earlier Indo-European languages, and yet full of innovations and adaptations as well.
1 I confess I dabble in language study a lot, but not very good at follow-through. Japanese is the only language I’ve really committed too long enough to develop any skill, but since I married into the culture, it’s been a worthwhile experience. I suppose that’s what really keeps one going: personal value in learning a language more so than just idle intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, even learning another language a little bit is a worthwhile experience. I dabbled in Korean at one point due to the KPop craze at the time, and it’s nice to still be able to real Hangeul, and to encounter the only other language I know that has any grammatical similarity to Japanese (through convergence, not genetic origin). Similarly, my time spent learning Vietnamese, which I don’t get to use much anymore, was a fascinating time when I got to study abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam. Plus it was fascinating to see how Chinese influenced Vietnamese in the same way that Chinese influenced Korean and Japanese even though they were all unrelated languages! In that sense, any foreign language study is a worthwhile investment.
2 The term “Ancient Greek” is kind of vague and nebulous. There’s Homeric Greek (e.g. the Greek of the Iliad), Classical Greek (e.g. Attic dialect), Koine Greek (e.g. the Hellenistic Period and the New Testament), Byzantine-era Greek and so on. There’s even Archaic Greek, which is poorly attested due to lack of sources. So, when people talk about “ancient Greek” it’s important to be clear which one. Greek as a language is a fascinating continuum from the archaic period all the way to modern times. One of my co-workers is Greek American and she loves to swap tips with me as she is also learning both ancient and modern Greek.