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Difference Between Ukrainian and Russian Language

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Both Ukrainian and Russian languages belong to the Slavic language family. However, there are many differences between the two languages.

The main difference between the Ukrainian and Russian languages is that the Ukrainian language is the official language of only one country (Ukraine), whereas Russian is the official language of five countries (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).

There are also many differences in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax. Foreigners often have a hard time telling the difference between Ukrainian and Russian, but this article will explain how the two languages differ.

This video also clearly illustrates the historical and grammatical differences between Ukrainian and Russian:

Ukrainians can easily understand Russian, but Russians have a difficult time understanding Ukrainian. As a matter of fact, Ukrainians commonly speak and hear both Russian and Ukrainian in Ukraine.

What is Ukrainian?

Ukrainian is a Slavic language spoken by the majority of the population of Ukraine. It is the official language of Ukraine, but it is also spoken by Ukrainian diasporas in Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, and the USA. There are an estimated 35-40 million native Ukrainian speakers, of which 91% are living in Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian language is based on the Ruthenian language, an old Slavic language. Ukrainian first appears in written form in the late 16th century.

At a linguistic event in Paris in 1934, Ukrainian was chosen as the second most beautiful language in terms of melody after Italian.

What is Russian?

Over 150 million people speak Russian worldwide, making it the most widely spoken Slavic language. This language is closely related to Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish. It evolved from the Common Slavonic language spoken in Eastern Europe in the 9th century.

Although the first Russian dictionary was published in 1783, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the modern form of the language was introduced, carried out by Peter the Great. He added words from Latin, French, German, and Italian to the language.

Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Today, the modern Russian alphabet has 33 letters: 21 consonants, 10 vowels, and 2 other types of letters.

Russian is a difficult language to learn for English speakers because it has a very different alphabet called "Cyrillic".

Differences between the Ukrainian and the Russian language

Alphabet

It may seem that the Ukrainian and Russian alphabets are the same, but if you look closely, there are some differences between them. Although both alphabets have 33 letters, the Ukrainian alphabet has 22 consonants while the Russian alphabet has 21 consonants.

In addition, there are some letters in the Ukrainian alphabet that are not in the Russian alphabet and vice versa. 

  • Ukrainian letters that are not present in the Russian alphabet: Ґґ, Єє, Іі, and Її
  • Russian letters that are not present in the Ukrainian alphabet: Ёё, ъ, ы, and Ээ

Grammar

The grammar construction of the Ukrainian language is closer to European languages while the Russian language has completely different grammar forms. 

Ukrainian has some verb conjugations that Russian does not have as the pluperfect. In Ukrainian, there are 3 forms of futures (2 imperfective forms and one perfective form) while in Russian there are only two (one imperfective and one perfective form).

Russian has six cases (nominative, accusative, prepositional, genitive, dative, and instrumental), whereas Ukrainian has seven (the one that is added is called the vocative case).

Pronunciation

Ukrainian is pronounced as written, while Russian is not and has many pronunciation exceptions. 

In addition, the sound of the Russian language sounds stiffer than Ukrainian which has a softer pronunciation. Ukrainian, like Italian, is often described as a musical language by linguists.

Some letters shared by Ukrainian and Russian languages are not pronounced in the same way and therefore do not produce the same tone. For example, the letter "E" sounds like [ye] in Russian while it sounds like [e] in Ukrainian.

Ukrainian incorporates a high number of soft-sounding consonants, whereas the Russian language has more hard-sounding consonants. Russian also uses a lesser amount of consonants in general.

Vocabulary

Many Ukrainian words are actually closer to Polish while the majority of Russian words are derived from Old East Slavic. Some Russian words, such as "бутылка - butylka" (bottle), are closer to French (bouteille) due to the influence that Peter the Great had on the Russian language. At that time, French was an unofficial language of the Russian aristocracy in Russia and especially in Saint Petersburg.

Learning

The Russian language is harder to learn than the Ukrainian language because the Russian language has difficult grammatical construction. 

As Ukrainian is also close to Polish, Czech and Slovak languages, learning Ukrainian will make it easier for you to learn many Eastern European languages. As a result, you will be able to understand fewer languages naturally if you learn Russian.

Comparison Chart: Ukrainian Vs Russian Language

AreasUkrainianRussian
Native speakers40 Million150 Million
Language familyEast SlavicEast Slavic
Official language inUkraine, Crimea, TransnistriaRussia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan
Alphabet number of letters3333
Number of consonants2221
Forms of future32
Number of cases7 (vocative, nominative, accusative, prepositional, genitive, dative, and instrumental)6 (nominative, accusative, prepositional, genitive, dative, and instrumental)
PronunciationUkrainian pronounces 'o' as 'o' and has a mostly phonetic alphabet. Russian pronounces 'o' as 'a'.

Similitudes Between Ukrainian and Russian Language

  1. They both use the Cyrillic script and have similar grammar structures. 
  2. They are both considered Slavic languages developed from the Old East Slavic, used in the medieval times of Kievan Rus (a federation of states formed in the 9th century in Eastern Europe). 
  3. They share 80% similarity in their writing, so the written form of the language is often mutually intelligible.
  4. Ukrainian and Russian are both heavily inflected languages. This means that words change depending on how they are used in the sentence. For example, nouns, adjectives, or pronouns are inflected by their gender, case, or number. These inflections are usually shown at the end of the noun, adjective, or pronoun.
  5. They both have 3 noun genders - feminine, masculine, and neuter. 
  6. The verbs in both languages change depending on their tense, mood, number, or voice. 
  7. Ukrainian and Russian share 62% lexical similarity, in terms of vocabulary. This is considered a relatively low percentage for closely related languages, and doesn’t necessarily mean that 62% of their vocabulary is the same. Rather, it means that 62% of the words have a similar meaning, form, or origin. As a comparison, English and German share a 60% lexical similarity.

FAQ

Can Russian understand Ukrainian?

It is a bit difficult for Russians to understand the Ukrainian language when speaking. However, they understand Ukrainian in written form quite easily. 

Can Ukrainians understand Russian?

In Ukraine, most of the population can speak Russian and 15% consider it to be their mother tongue. However, it’s very uncommon for Russians to speak or understand Ukrainian. 
The majority of Ukraine dominates the Ukrainian language as its native. It is the Eastern parts of the country that frequent Russian. 
There is also a spoken language called Surzhyk in Ukraine, which is a mixture of both Ukrainian and Russian. A number of Ukrainian people also use Surzhyk in their daily lives.

Do Russian and Ukrainian speak the same language?

In Russia, Russians speak Russian. In Ukraine, people are used to speaking Ukrainian and Russian languages. It is even possible for two people to speak Russian and Ukrainian simultaneously during a conversation.

Is Ukrainian closer to Russian or Polish?

It may seem surprising, but the Ukrainian language is closer to Polish than to Russian. Indeed, the vocabulary and sentence construction is very similar.

Is Ukrainian or Russian easier to learn?

The difficulty of learning each language is more or less equal. Ukrainian is slightly more related to Polish, which can be helpful if you also wish to learn the Polish language or have some current knowledge of it, however, only marginally. On the other hand, Russian textbooks or language classes are likely easier to come by. 

Conclusion

When we consider the history of Ukraine, we may come to the conclusion that Russia had a lot of influence on Ukraine (good but also bad) and vice versa. 

However, the Ukrainian language is quite different from Russian. Indeed, we have seen that there were differences among the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet of Ukrainian and Russian. There are also many differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar that separate the Ukrainian language from the Russian language.

References

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About the Author: Tom Vincent

Tom Vincent graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and social studies. He then started his higher education at the University of François Rabelais in Tours with a DUT Information Communication. To expand his knowledge, he also followed a professional degree in e-commerce and digital marketing at the Lumière University of Lyon. On this project, he is in charge of articles covering language, industry and social.
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2 comments on “Difference Between Ukrainian and Russian Language”

  1. This short and contrastive presentation of Russian versus Ukrainian is quite informative; in spite of some 'Romantic' accents in the context with referral to the 'beauty' or 'softness' of Ukrainian when compared with Russian. Italian influence in Ukrainian is hard to sustain; the only Romance in the neighborhood of Ukraine is Romanian, which is indeed very close to Italian. There are also non-discriminatory means used to differentiate between Russian and Ukrainian; in special, with referral to writing. Writing with Roman letters or with Cyrillic script is an option. We can transliterate Chinese with cyrillics or letters just the same. That choice is an option that speakers of a language or another may take in their history.

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