Monday 2 April 2012


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.


  1. Nice comparison!
    A bit of a trap is that large areas of Russian share the features of unreduced o and of ɦ. (Isogloss map.)

  2. Very interesting.

    Further to your comments on Ukranian г, I've often wondered if learned Greek words come into Russian via Ukranian, because Greek initial h surfaces as г g in Russian. For example гимн, гелий, гомеопатия for hymn, helium, homoeopathy.

    This would make sense if the words were borrowed first into Ukranian with г for ɦ, and thence into Russian. (Alternatively it could be to do with Lipman's observation that г represents ɦ in some Russian dialects, which I didn't know until just now.)

    1. Pete

      Russian standard pronunciation used to be more like present-day Ukranian.

      The г for h question has been discussed before on the blog — most recently here.

      I'm not sure when standard pronunciation of /g/ changed from that of the more southern dialects to that of the north — standard secular, that is, the Church still says ɦ. I get the impression that the shift in standard secular pronunciation was completed in the nineteenth century. The shift in spelling lagged behind — completed some years after the war with Гитлер (Hitler).

    2. Thanks for the explanation, David. I have long wondered why foreign names beginning with h have traditionally been transliterated into Russian with "г" rather than "x." If "г" was formerly pronounced ɦ, then it would be closer to h than is the sound of "x" (which is, of course, x).

      Are you sure, though, that ɦ persists in ecclesiastical Russian and that it has not been replaced by x? For instance, I understand that the word "Бог" is pronounced box (though I suppose even Slavic languages with /ɦ/ tend to realize it as x in final position). Would Russian speakers who go into the church acquire a completely new phoneme?

    3. Actually, [box] is fairly rare among younger speakers (such as myself). On the other hand, idioms/interjections with Бог (e.g. слава Богу 'whew', ради Бога 'for the love of God') do tend to preserve the fricative.

    4. MKR

      My wife assures me that Господи помилуй (Κύριε ἐλέησον Kyrie elision, Lord have mercy) — a phrase which a congregant may repeat a hundred times or more in a single service — is pronounced with ɦ.

      The church use probably explains the secular pronunciations described by Pavel.

    5. Pavel

      My wife, who is not a younger speaker, uses Бог pronounced box in Бог с тобой/ Бог с вами (literally 'God with you') as an introduction to a gentle disagreement or objection.

    6. Yes, I would class Бог c тобой as an idiom, and I use the fricative pronunciation too (although it does not feel unnatural to have the stop). On the other hand, I tend to perceive the fricative when actually talking about God as old-fashioned and/or affected. Maybe that's just me, of course.

    7. ad David,

      your wife, accompanying us all along in these discussions since times immemorial, a St. Dunstan of Howard Pyle's 'Robin Hood' deserves a great 'spasi Bog' from all of us.

  3. The Russian spelling convention which disallows initial й in words of foreign origin is relaxed when that origin is felt to be relevant. For example

    • Foreign place names such as Ню Йорк (New York)
    • Words based on the Greek letter-name iota: йот, йотизация etc
    • Words based on iodine with element-name symbol i: йод, йодоформ etc
    • the culturally exotic йог (yogi)

    This is a different sort of convention than the one that spells John's surname as Узлз. In that case the vowel sound can't be conveyed by standard spelling patterns. In the above examples, the sound could be conveyed by Ню Ёрк, ёт, ёд, ёг etc.

  4. "My surname is transliterated as Уелз, which would be read in Ukrainian as ueɫz."

    So Ukrainian does not have devoicing of final consonants? That is another (and to me surprising) difference from Russian.

    1. It says here, "Most Slavic languages exhibit final devoicing, but notably Serbo-Croatian and Ukrainian do not."

    2. Indeed, Ukrainian and The South Slavic Language Without A Name are the only (standardized) Slavic languages without final devoicing.

  5. So Modern Russian g is the reflex of a historical ɦ? This is surprising.

    That would mean the letter Г (standing for g~ɣ in the original Greek) was chosen to represent ɦ and then this sound later changed, coincidentally, to g!

    1. No ɦ, h or x turned g in any Slavic language; they are re-interpretations of signs or analogies.

    2. No coincidence involved. Cyrillic was first devised to write Old Bulgarian (aka Old Church Slavonic), where Г is firmly /g/.

    3. There was no sound change, just a change in the prestige pronunciation. Гидро- et al. are essentially spelling pronunciations.

    4. Pete

      There are different histories to distinguish.

      1. The history of letter Г is exceptionally simple
      • It was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet to represent what we would now call the Greek /g/ phoneme.
      • It was copied from the Greek alphabet to represent what we would now call the Slavonic /g/ phoneme.

      2. The histories of the /g/ phoneme are similar but distinct
      • In Greek it developed into two sounds according to position: fricative before a front vowel, stop elsewhere. (The nasal variant is not relevant here.)
      • In Slavonic it developed into two sounds — also a stop and a fricative —but basically with one sound in any single dialect.
      • Standard Ukrainian developed exclusively from dialects with fricative ɦ
      • Standard Russian speech for a long time copied the ɦ dialects, but then switched to copying the g dialects.
      • The Standard Russian amendment of Church Slavonic continues to use ɦ and secular Standard Russian retains the pronunciation in expression of religious origin.

      All these sound changes happened in an age of literacy, so both Greek and the Slavonic languages retained the Г spelling, whatever the sound.

      3. The history of spelling loanwords in Russian followed (with a time lag) the changing ascendancy of dialects in Standard Russian pronunciation.
      • When the /g/ phoneme was realized as a fricative, the foreign words spelled with H were heard as similar to /g/ — i.e. sounding like ɦ — and were spelled with Г.
      • When Standard Russian pronunciation shifted to a g pronunciation, the transliteration of H as Г continued —through inertia— until late in the twentieth century. Spellings such as Гитлер gave rise to pronunciations that were glaringly different from the German pronunciation of Hitler, but this was tolerated.
      • Finally, the mismatch was no longer acceptable. Russian spelling transliterated the H of new loanwords as Х a letter pronounced with the nearest sound in the Russian inventory—a voiceless fricative.

  6. @Lipman: No ɦ, h or x turned g in any Slavic language

    Can you elaborate?

    1. Please don't take that for a cheap tit-for-tat, but what do you mean?

  7. Well, I'm afraid I mean that I misunderstood you on my first reading ;) For some reason, I thought you were saying that x etc. turned into g in all Slavic languages... So no elaboration is needed any more. Sorry for any confusion.

  8. 'Although the two languages share much of their vocabulary'

    Ukrainian seems to literally teem with lexical Polonisms, such as 'dyakuyu' for 'thank you', or 'radyanski' for 'sovetskiy' (Councils', like the Soviet, i.e. Councils', Union) as does also Byelorussian, little wonder given the centuries of political community with the double Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. But, pundits say, Ukrainian and Byelorussian have also preserved a few old East-Slavic words, lost, or substituted-for with loanwords from Old Church Slavonic, in Russian. Unfortunately, I can't give examples off the top of my head.

    Concerning the relative sound of both languages, RU and UKR, some say the latter sounds 'lighter' (less dark), less 'throaty', somewhat Southern-Slavic-like, than the former. That's impressionism but you lingusts do better not to shrug it off. May be due to the lack of vowel reductions in Ukrainian (John's observation above).

    1. Wojciech

      There's a shortsection on pan-Slavic lexis in The Slavonic languages.

      Examples of Russian incorporating Southern forms, usually through Church Slavonic, where Ukrainian and Belarusian do not are of the type
      • Ukr/Bel Volodýmyr vs Rus Vladímir
      • Particples in Russian but rarely the other languages formed with -ʃtʃ- : e.g. Rus кипящий vs Ukr киплячий 'boiling'

      They concentrate on these two differences because they enrich Russian with words of a more abstract or literary register — highfalutin' град alongside homely город, for example. This looks like the way our ancestors enriched English through borrowings from French or — for a higher register still — from Latin.

      Similarly, but from a non-Slavic source, Russian (and some ether languages) replaced all the Slavic month names with Latin equivalents while Ukrainian, Belarusian and Polish (and some others) for the most part stayed Slavic.

      There's an interesting section on measures of lexical similarity between languages.
      • By glossometric analysis (which I don't pretend to understand) the
      closest pairs include Belarusian/Ukrainian, Russian/Ukrainian, and Polish/Ukrainian.
      • By comparing lexical retention vs substitution, the pairings among these languages are more numerous and partly different: Belarusian/Ukrainian, Russian/Belarusian, Polish/Belarusian, Russian/Ukrainian.

    2. There is no doubt a great deal of common Slavic lexis but again there are striking differences, the situation here resembling to an extent that between German and Dutch (which separated about the same time as the Slavic dialects). Like: Dutch 'mens', German 'Mensch' for 'human being' but Dutch 'maatschappij' and German 'Gesellschaft' for 'society. Polish: 'społeczeństwo', Russian 'obshchestvo'. (The suffix is the same, though).

      There are 'sexier' examples of Ukr/Bel being closer to Proto-Eastern-Slavonic than Russian than those you quote --- but I can't, helaas, remember them for the moment.

      Re names of months, I think Russian is in the minority here, most Slavic languages have preserved the Slavic names, though they not always be identical (modulo diffferent phonetics/spellings) (misleadingly, sometimes).

      Again, I am being impressionistic here, but I'd say that at least Ukrainian is marginallly closer to Polish than it is Russian, lexically. Most of the Polonisms are calques rather than direct loanwords, though sometimes it's difficult to decide which and sometimes it's fifty-fifty.

    3. Names of months... not always identical

      This brings back a funny off-topic memory: I once almost booked a flight on a Croatian airline in the wrong month. I thought, "This is easy, I can do it in Croatian". Luckily, at some point I noticed that listopad 'the month of falling leaves' was the third from the end of the list. Polish listopad is November, while Croatian listopad is October. Doesn't make sense when you think of the climate. And now upon double-checking this on Wikipedia, I see that seemingly Sebrian has Октобар. So much for Serbo-Croat.

    4. According to The Slavic languages, Croatian uses both Slavic and Julian month names. The remaining language to use Slavic names is Czech — but Slovak doesn't.

      The Croatian November/Belarusian January is disconcertingly similar to the Russian word for 'calf's foot jelly'.

    5. It's 'studzieniec' or something of this sort, flesh jelly in Polish too. Anyway, Polish uses Slavic names too, has never used the Latin names.

    6. Yes, I missed styczeń.

      As far as I can tell, Belarusian 'January' and Russian 'calf's foot jelly' are not just cognate but identical. The Russian word is familiar to me because it's the ultimate dish to serve at parties — probably because it takes for ever to prepare, which signals how much you value your guests.

    7. 'studzieniec' comes from 'studzić', to cool something down. A month that cools us down. In jelly technology: you have to cool the thing down in order for it to become jelly-like.

      But it seems to me that to most Slavs, in whose languages such names are used, their etymologies are no longer transparent. No more that it is transparent to Tom, Dick and Harry that 'Wednesday' is Wodan's, and 'Thursday' Thor's day, let alone Friday Frigga's day or whatever this goddess was called by the Anglo-Saxons.

  9. 'мову ˈmovu' -- language in Ukrainian, says John.

    I don't want to be a Zoil or (still less) a Beckmesser, but for aught I understand 'language' is 'moвa' (mova) in Ukrainian, the former quoted by John being of another (than nominative) case, probably of the accusative.

    Likely, a Polonism that one too: we say 'mowa' (with a 'w', ['mɔva]), though this be a somewhat stylistically marked variant of 'język'.

  10. In Russian orthography, for certain pairs of 'hard' (non-palatalised) and 'soft' (palatalized) consonant phonemes, the same consonant letter is used for both. The immediately following vowel letter is used to disambiguate. Thus:

    • и the letter for the forward allophone of /i/ signals that the preceding consonant sound is a palatalised ('soft') phoneme
    • ы the letter for the back allophone of /i/ signals that the preceding consonant sound is a non-palatalised ('hard') phoneme

    When stressed, these allophones sound to our ears as i and y repectively.

    In Ukrainian phonology the two vowel allophones grew so close to each other that a single letter was used in Ukrainian orthography. The choice was и — letter ы was dropped.

    So Ukrainian и, unlike Russian и

    • can represent the sound y
    • can be used in writing immediately after a consonant letter when the consonant sound is 'hard'.

    However, a new i sound developed in Ukrainian as a distinct phoneme. It's largely found in words where the Russian cognate has the /e/ phoneme (stressed and unstressed allophones) spelled by letter е. Hence the Ukrainian spelling Киів where Russian has letter е representing an unstressed sound.

    Since the Ukrainian i phoneme is forward of the y phoneme, it's not surprising that letter i took on the function of Russian letter и in signalling a palatalised consonant — leaving Ukrainian letter и to fulfill the signalling function of Russian ы.

    The equation with Russian е may explain під corresponding to Russian под. Historically, e and o sounds alternated and to this day stressed ˈjo is represented by letter e — often modified to ё.

    I read in Paul Cubberley's chapter on Alphabts and Transliteration in The Slavonic Languages that Belarusian orthography also dropped one of the Russian letters. However, they kept ы and dropped и — using і in its place.

  11. I am wondering about Уэлз, and in particular how it compares with the standard Russian word for Wales, Уэльс, clearly originally a transliteration from English. (I doubt many would pronounce it in English with s rather than z, but that distinction is unimportant in Russian, which has devoicing of word-final consonants, so I suppose the transliteration may as well reflect the spelling instead.)

    I am not a phonetician, but to my ear the realisation of /l/ sounds the same in Wells and Wales (I myself would occasionally vocalise it, but feel I am equally likely to do so in both words), and the difference between those two words in English seems to be purely in the vowel phonemes. So then, my naive transliteration of (RP) Wales would then be Уэйлз, with an explicit diphthong and an unpalatalised l, but this is clearly not the actual accepted word. It's interesting that palatalisation so affects the preceding vowel sound that Уэльс is a reasonable transliteration to capture the diphthong.

    1. I was of course referring to the country of Wales, but I now see that the town of Wales, Alaska is Уэйлс according to Wikipedia -Уэйлс_(Аляска) - even with an explicit footnote saying that Уэльс shown on a map is wrong. Unless someone can persuade me that the difference in transliterations captures some essential difference between BrE and AmE that I'm unaware of, I'll assume it's basically random...

    2. For what it's worth, in Serbian John's surname and the westernmost part of Great Britain are homophones: both are Vels (Велс).

    3. And, I, myself, ask who else would prefer a more visibly comprehensible, a more visually obvious spelling for the last name Wells? I see an unusual association of letters. The last name itself is associated with an easy going, regular kinda guy. It seems that the point is missing. Thanks.

    4. I think the westernmost part of Great Britain is pronunced something like ˌardnəˈmʌrxən

      (sorry, couldn't resist)

  12. @David Crosbie: Thanks for clarifying.


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