Russian VS Ukrainian - How Different Are The Two Languages? (..Really!)

avatarMille Larsen
11 mins read

Russian and Ukrainian are two East Slavic languages spoken in Russia and Ukraine in Eastern Europe and the Northern part of the Eurasian continent.

The two languages have many things in common, partly because of their shared history from the middle ages, through the epoch of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and finally, the close (although not always friendly) relationship of Russian and Ukraine in today's era.

But how similar are Ukrainian And Russian Actually?

Russian and Ukrainian are closely related, being that they're both East-Slavic languages and in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, they have a lot in common even though other Slavic languages might be closer. Unlike many other Slavic languages, Russian and Ukrainian both use the Cyrillic alphabet, only with a few letters being different. Despite the proximity of the two languages, they aren't mutually intelligible, and speakers of the two languages will often have to rely on Russian, which is a language that most Ukrainians speak in addition to Ukrainian.

The Roots Of Russian And Ukrainian

Ukrainian and Russian are both East-Slavic languages, meaning that they are closely related. They can both be traced back to a common ancestor, Old East-Slavic which was the language spoken in Kievan Rus', a federation between East Slavic and Finnic people in the 7th - 14th centuries.

The Old East-Slavic language can be traced further back to the Proto-Slavic language which is the common ancestor of all Slavic languages, spoken as far back as 4.000 years. If we go even further back, the Proto-Slavic language's ancestor was Proto-Indo-European which in turn is the predecessor of most European languages, English included.

The Old East-Slavic language that turned into modern day Ukrainian and Russian split up around the 14th century. Since then, the dialect that turned into Russian has been influenced by Old Church Slavonic whereas Ukrainian evolved in parallel with West-Slavic languages such as Polish, Czech and Slovak, from which it took a lot of influence.

In other words: Ukrainian and Russian have evolved in two different directions for at least 600 years, which explains why the two languages aren't as close as many people may think.

Add to that that the Russian language went a step further in the 19th century, when the Tsar Peter the Great carried out a campaign with the goal of bringing Russia closer to European culture, namely by adopting a number of words from European languages.

Ukrainian, on the other hand, developed by gradually adapting its written language to the spoken vernacular, meaning that the language evolved more organically.

The Russian And Ukrainian Alphabets And Pronunciation

Ukrainian and Russian both use the Cyrillic alphabet for writing, but with a few differences both in the letters used but also how they're pronounced.

In the following, I'm going to compare the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets and how they're pronounced.

Russian English Ukrainian English
А а "a" as in "father" А а "a" as in "father"
Б б "b" Б б "b"
В в "v" В в "v"
Г г "g" (as in "good", like the Ukrainian "Ґ ґ") Г г "h" (as in "hi")
Ґ ґ  "g" (as in "good", like the Russian "Г г")
Д д "d" Д д "d"
Е е "ye" (as in "yet, like the Ukrainian "Є є") Е е "e" (without the "y" consonant, like the Russian "Э э"
Є є "e" or "ye" (as in "yet, like the Russian "Е е")
Ё ё "yo" (as in "York")
Ж ж "zh" (as in "treashure")
Ж ж
"zh" (as in "treashure")
З з "z" З з "z"
И и "ee" (like "І і" in Ukrainian) И и A little like a mix of "e" and "u" - example
Й й "y" (as in "joy") Й й "y" (as in "joy")
І і "ee" (like "И и" in Russian)
Ї ї "yee" as in "yeast"
К к "k" К к "k"
Л л "l" Л л "l"
М м "m" М м "m"
Н н "n" Н н "n"
О о stressed: "o" (like "sore")
unstressed: "a" (like "father")
О о "o" (like "sore")
П п "p" П п "p"
Р р "r" (a thrilled "r") Р р "r" (a thrilled "r")
С с "s" С с "s"
Т т "t" Т т "t"
У у "oo" У у "oo"
Ф ф "f" Ф ф "f"
Х х "ch" (as in Scottish: "loch" - sounds like you're cleaning your throat) Х х "ch" (as in German "Lichtenstein" - softer and less raspy than in Russian)
Ц ц "ts" (as in "congrats") Ц ц "ts" (as in "congrats")
Ч ч "ch" (as in "chirp") Ч ч "ch" (as in "chirp")
Ш ш "sh" (hard, as in "shut") Ш ш "sh" (as in "shut")
Щ щ "sh"
(soft, as in "sheep")
Щ щ Ш+Ч or "shch" example
Ъ ъ hard sign (preceding letter pronounced "hard")
Ы ы "i" (or closer to a French "u" or a German "ü")
Ь ь soft sign (preceding letter pronounced "soft") Ь ь soft sign (preceding letter pronounced "soft")
Э э "e" (as in "get")
Ю ю "yoo" (as in "universal" Ю ю "yoo" (as in "universal"
Я я "ya" Я я "ya"

As you can see from the above, Ukrainian has 3 letters that don't exist in Russian. These are "Ґ", "Є" and "Ї".

In the same way, Russian has 4 letters than aren't used in Ukrainian, namely Ёё, ъ, ы and Ээ.

As demonstrated in the comparison above, however, most letters are the same, and those who aren't often have equivalent sounds represented by other letters.

The most important differences are the following:

  • "Г г" is pronounced like the "g" in "good" in Russian, whereas it's a "h" sound in Ukrainian. This specific h-sound doesn't exist in Russian.
  • "Ґ ґ" is used in Ukrainian for the "g" in "good" and is comparable with the Russian "Г г".
  • "Е е" is pronounced "ye" in Russian but "e" as in "yet" in Ukrainian.
  • "Є є" only exists in Ukrainian, but is very similar to the Russian "Е е" which is pronounced "ye".
  • "Ё ё" in Russian is pronounced "yo" as in "York" - it has no equivalent in Ukrainian.
  • "И и" is a long "ee" sound in Russian and a short "I"-like sound in Ukrainian. Listen to an example of the Ukrainian here.
  • "І і" only exists in Ukrainian, but is very close to how "И и" is pronounced "ee" in Russian.
  • "Ї ї" only exists in Ukrainian and is pronounced "yee" like in "yeast".
  • "О о" has two pronunciations in Russian but only one in Ukrainian. In Russian it can be pronounced as an unstressed "a" sound like in "father" or as a stressed "o" sound in "sore". In Ukrainian, it is only pronounced like in "sore".
  • "Х х" in Russian, the letter is pronounced like a raspy, guttural sound like you're cleaning your throat, a little like the Arabic "خ" or the Dutch "g". In Ukrainian it is pronounced in a softer way, closer to the "ch" in Lichtenstein.
  • "Щ щ" is pronounced like a soft "sh" sound in Russian, like in "sheep". In Ukrainian, it's more like a combination of the two consonants "Ш+Ч" or "shch" - listen to an example here.
  • "Ъ ъ" is a Russian "hard sign" signifying that the preceding letter should be pronounced "hard". In Ukrainian an apostrophe is used in place of this sign.
  • "Ы ы" is an "i" sound or something closer to a French "u" or a German "ü". In Ukrainian this letter doesn't exist.
  • "Э э" is pronounced like e "e" in "get" in the Russian language, much like the Ukrainian "Е е".

In addition to the above, both Russian and Ukrainian have "hard" and "soft" versions of their consonants, but generally, Ukrainian uses the soft variants much more.

Russian VS Ukrainian Grammar

Russian and Ukrainian have a lot in common in terms of grammar. Many concepts are similar in use and function, but different in execution like it's the case with many related languages.

Like most Slavic languages, Russian and Ukrainian use cases, but where Russian has 6 cases, Ukrainian has a seventh case called the "vocative case", which is used to address people.

Ukrainian grammar also differs from Russian in that it has 3 future tenses as opposed to the two future tenses that exist in Russian. In addition to this, Russian uses modal verbs (like "will" or "shall" in English) to form future tenses, whereas Ukrainian verbs are inflected directly when speaking of the future.

Other grammatical differences obviously exist between Russian and Ukrainian, but these are minor.

Vocabulary In Russian And Ukrainian - How Different Are The Words?

A common misconception about the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian is that they are very close in terms of vocabulary.

It is true that the two languages share a lot of words from common Proto-Slavic roots, but according to some sources, Ukrainian is in fact closer to Polish and much closer to Belarusian than it is to Russian, which, on the other hand, shares more vocabulary with Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian and even Belarusian than it does with Ukrainian.

The fact that most Ukrainians speak some level of Russian might be some of the reason for this misconception. People simply get the impression that the two languages are mutually intelligible because the two nationalities seem to understand each other, but this is only true because Ukrainians tend to be fluent in Russian alongside Ukrainian.

In addition to the centuries that the two languages were separated from one another, one of the reasons for the relatively low lexical similarity might be the historical language reforms that Russian went through under Peter the Great in the 19th century. In this period, many words from European languages such as French, Italian, German and Latin were "imported" into the Russian language.

An example of these changes is the names of the months of the year. In Russian, the twelve months are adapted to the names commonly used in European languages, whereas the Ukrainian months refer to something that symbolically or metaphorically describes the month like "Січень" for January, which means "to cut" or "Квітень" for April which refers to flowers.

The common Slavic roots of Ukrainian and Russian isn't always a unifying factor either. The two languages have a lot of "false friends" - or words that exist in both languages but have different meanings.

  • "рожа" in Ukrainian is "rose", whereas in Russian, it's "mug".
  • "неділя" means "Sunday" in Ukrainian but "week" in Russian.
  • "Лихой" means "dashing" in Russian, but in Ukrainian "wicked".
  • "Печеня" means "roast" in Russian, but "cookie" in Ukrainian.
  • "уродливый " is "ugly" in Russian, but "handsome" in Ukrainian

And the list goes on.

So.. How Close Are Ukrainian And Russian Really?

Russia and Ukraine share a border that's close to 2.300 kilometres long (or more than 1400 miles). They also share hundreds of years of history, a common linguistic ancestor and an alphabet.

Despite all of this, Ukrainian and Russian aren't the closest languages in the Slavic language family, and they're not even mutually intelligible.

Some do in fact argue that Ukrainian shouldn't be considered as an East-Slavic language at all, being that it has more in common with West-Slavic languages such as Polish, Czech and Slovak than it does with Russian.

If you're an Ukrainian speaker, don't count on being able to get by in Russia while only relying on Ukrainian. It wouldn't work. As a Russian speaker, however, you'd have no problems in Ukraine. This hasn't got anything to do with linguistic proximity, though, but more with the fact that most Ukrainians speak Russian as a second language.

So should you learn Russian or Ukrainian?

Russian will get you further, because it'll allow you to get by, not only in Russia and Ukraine, but in a wide range of countries that speak Russian as a second language. Ukrainian is mainly an advantage in Ukraine, and it remains the better choice for communicating with Ukrainians.

In terms of difficulty, whether you study Ukrainian or teach yourself Russian represents pretty much the same challenge. One disadvantage with Ukrainian might be that it's a language with less learning materials available, however.

If you're interested in learning Ukrainian or Russian, go have a look at my study time calculator which you can use as a tool to help you plan your language learning process and schedule in the future.