It was fifteen years since the previous time I had visited Kyiv (i.e. Kiev, as we used to call it), so when I was there recently people kept asking me what differences I could see around me on this, my second visit.
Physically, visually, there were obvious changes. There were quite a few new buildings — new sports stadia, new bridges across the river, new hotels, new office blocks, new (rather ugly, I thought) high-rise residential blocks. And motor traffic on the streets was much heavier, with traffic jams everywhere.
But what about the linguistic situation? That has clearly changed, too. I was struck by the fact that nearly all street names, shop signs and advertisements now seem to be in Ukrainian rather than in Russian. That’s different from the situation fifteen years ago. Only in my hotel did I see Russian signs to the exclusion of Ukrainian, but of course the hotel is mainly for visitors from elsewhere, not for locals. Likewise in the university I think I heard less Russian spoken, more Ukrainian; though there are still plenty of academics who are clearly more at home in Russian.
My hosts kindly took me to a music recital in celebration of the composer Lysenko and to a performance of a Kalman operetta Сільва (the English title of which, I have since discovered, is the Gypsy Princess). Both were entirely in Ukrainian.
How do I know this? Although I speak neither Russian nor Ukrainian, I can recognize the difference between them in writing and, less confidently, in speech. In writing, the letters ы and э are used in Russian but not Ukrainian, while є, і and ї are used in Ukrainian but not in Russian. In place of the Russian hard sign, ъ, Ukrainian uses an apostrophe.
To an outsider’s ear the two languages sound pretty similar. One difference is that Ukrainian has less vowel reduction than Russian: you get unstressed o, which in Russian would be reduced to a ~ ɐ or ə. Another is the distinctively Ukrainian consonant ɦ, which is of high frequency in running speech. ‘Programme’ is програма pɾoˈɦɾama. Canonically this is a voiced glottal fricative, though in practice it sometimes seemed to me to be devoiced.
There are a whole lot of words in which Ukrainian has the vowel і corresponding to Russian о, as in the prefix під- pid ‘under-, sub-’, which is Russian под- pod. Although the two languages share much of their vocabulary (give or take a sound change or two), there are also numerous obvious differences. ‘Language’ is язык jaˈzɨk in Russian but мову ˈmovu in Ukrainian. Where Russians thank you by saying спасибо spɐˈsʲibə, Ukrainians say дякую ˈdʲakuju.
The relationship between spelling and sound is confusingly different in the two languages. In Russian, the letters и and е imply palatalization of the preceding consonant, while in Ukrainian (if I’ve got it right) they do not. The corresponding Ukrainian palatalizing vowel letters are і and є, which are not used in Russian. The twin-dotted Ukrainian ї stands for ji. And words can begin in Ukrainian with the letter й, which is not possible in Russian.
In the picture you see the name-badge I was given. My surname is transliterated as Уелз, which would be read in Ukrainian as ueɫz. Given that the language has no initial w, that’s fine. But if read in Russian it would come out as ujeɫs, which is not so good. In Russian transliteration my name is Уэлз.