Of all the Slavic languages, Ukrainian is the second most commonly spoken. Usually it’s classified as an Eastern Slavic language, together with Belarusian and Russian, but because of Ukraine’s central location among the Slavic nations, the Ukrainian language is also historically connected to the West Slavic and the South Slavic languages.
Brief history of the Ukrainian language
Ukrainian has been a distinct recognizable language since the middle of the eleventh century. Then the Slavic languages began to diverge; Russian, for example, assimilated many words of Scandinavian and Tatar origin. While Ukrainian remained true to its Old Slavic roots, it was not able to develop freely over the centuries because of political conditions. Ukrainian was at best a subordinate language under occupying powers, at worst it was forbidden in print. These conditions discouraged a unified standard language and encouraged the growth of regional dialects and the assimilation of Russian words in the east and Polish words in the west. Nevertheless, there exists in Ukraine today a standard Ukrainian language that is taught in school and used in literature and understood by all Ukrainian speakers.
The Ukrainian language is written by an adaptation of Cyrillic, an old Slavonic alphabet named after St. Cyril, the ninth-century Christian missionary to the Slavs. In the 860’s Cyril and his brother St. Methodius translated the Holy Scriptures into the language later known as Old Church Slavonic. In order to do this, they devised an alphabet based on Greek characters with adaptations from Hebrew. Various versions of that alphabet are used today by Russians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Macedonians, as well as by Ukrainians.
A few letters of the Ukrainian alphabet correspond to certain English letters, both in appearance and in the sounds they represent, although the Ukrainian vowels have only a single sound and don’t cover the range of the corresponding English vowels; examples are K, M, T, A, E, and O. Many Ukrainian letters have equivalent sounds in English but look quite different: Б is B, Г is H, П is P, Ц is TS, and Ч is CH, to name a few. Perhaps most confusing for those unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet are the letters that look like Roman letters but in Cyrillic represent quite different sounds. Thus, B is V, C is S, P is R, and H is N.
The Ukrainian alphabet has 32 letters
The Ukrainian alphabet has 32 letters with sound values. Special note should be made of the difference between the Г (H) and Ґ (G). Since independence, linguists in Ukraine reintroduced the letter Ґ, which the Soviet government had dropped in order to make the Ukrainian language conform more closely to Russian. There are a relatively small number of Ukrainian words that contain the Ґ and they’re primarily of foreign origin such as Ґетто, ghetto. During the period in which the Ґ was banned, the letter Г (H), did double duty as replacement for G. As Ukrainians know which words are pronounced with a soft “H” sound and which take the hard “G” sound, some feel that the reintroduction of the infrequently-used character Ґ originated from political overreaction, the linguistic equivalent of changing the names of streets that had perfectly innocuous names.
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Perhaps in due time the linguists will decide that the Ukrainian language can get along perfectly well without the Ґ character, and it will die a natural death. For the meantime, we are listing it in the alphabet. While it doesn’t occur frequently, and is rarely found in printed materials in Ukraine, it’s especially useful to a non-native-Ukrainian speaker who can’t distinguish the H from the G sound in Ukrainian words.
Mastering the alphabet may be the most difficult part of learning to read Ukrainian because the pronunciation is simple and clear-cut. The Ukrainian alphabet is absolutely phonetic: each letter has a single pronunciation in every usage. A stress put on a vowel does not change its pronunciation. We need mention only a few other points about the Ukrainian language: There is no pattern to accentuation; stress may fall on any syllable in a given word. However, Ukrainian tends to have only one stress per word. Ukrainian sentence construction is more flexible than English. The Ukrainian language is highly inflectional; endings of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives change according to gender and according to case.