Ukrainian-Ukrainian, Russian-Ukrainian and Polish-Ukrainian: language and cultural influences

In recent weeks, as my study of Ukrainian language continues, I was fortunate to find a coworker at my company who is a native Ukrainian speaker, and happy to help me. As we’ve been talking, I’ve come to learn some interesting things about how various cultural influences have affected it.

The Saint Sophia Cathedral, in Kyiv, modeled after the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople at a time when Kyivan Rus and the Byzantine Empire had close relations. Rbrechko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, the greeting I learned in Duolingo for “good morning” was добрий ранок (sounds like “dobree ranohk”), but then my Ukrainian co-worker explained that there are actually two common greetings. The first one is the aforementioned добрий ранок, and the other is доброго ранку (“dobroho ranku”). What’s the difference? The first one (добрий ранок) is a more Russian-style greeting, while the second (доброго ранку) is more native Ukrainian. Similarly, добрий день vs. доброго дня

To clarify, both are very common greetings in Ukraine, and no one would look at you weird for using either one. It’s just that one shows considerable Russian influence, while the other doesn’t. Also, since Ukraine is a relatively big country in Europe, it has some regional variation, so you might hear one more commonly in one regions versus another.

It turns out there’s a lot of this Ukrainian. There’s a lot of words and phrases that come from Russian, but not actually Russian-language, while other similar words and phrases show a more native Ukrainian background.

Another example my friend explained to me is how Ukrainian language frequently derives words from Russian, especially when translating from Russian sources. For the ongoing war, a common term is понесли втрати (ponesly vtraty, “suffered loses”), which derives from the similar Russian term понесли потери (poniesli potieri). However, in a more native Ukrainian way, you can also say зазнали втрат (zaznaly vtrat). The native, Ukrainian way is noticeably different than Russian, but it’s sometimes more expedient to use Russian-derived terms instead.

Sometimes this difference in phrasing reflects generational gaps too, with older generations often using more Russian-influenced terminology and phrasing versus the younger, post-Soviet generation more keen on using native Ukrainian more, to say nothing of the politics behind it all.

However, I didn’t want to just talk about Ukraine and Russia, another interesting thing that I found is that I noticed a lot of words that sounded vaguely like Latin to me, or Latin-derived. A prime example is Вино (sounds like vih-noh) for “wine”. This sounds fairly close to the Latin “vinum”, and not the Ancient Greek term οἶνος (“oinos”), which is surprising given how much closer Greece is to Ukraine. This may be due to influence from nearby Polish, a Catholic culture, despite its Orthodox heritage which derived from the Byzantine Empire.

Numbers, too, reflect some interesting patterns:

No.UkrainianLatinGreekRussianPolish
1один (odin)unusένα (ena)один (odin)jeden (ye-den)
2два (dva)duoδύο (duo)две (dve)dwa (dva)
3три (trih)tresτρία (tria)три (tri)trzy (tshih)
4чотири (chotihrih)quattuorτέσσερα (tessera)четыре (četyre)cztery (chte-rih)

The number four in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish more closely resembles Latin than Greek. Could this reflect some kind of eastward influence from the West? Honestly, I wish I knew more about the subject, but it’s fascinating how various cultural centers in Europe, both near and far, converged in places like Kyiv, and how the language reflects these layers of influence.

Published by Doug

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