Sunday, July 17, 2011

Apples to Oranges

I gravely offended someone today by suggesting that Ukrainian and Russian are so closely related that speaking both Ukrainian and Russian is a mild attempt at being bi-lingual. Now, I realize that Ukraine and Russia are separate countries and, yes, I also know that their languages differ. However, I kind of have Bernard Comrie on my side. He said in The Languages of the Soviet Union, that Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian are "very close to one another, with very high rates of mutual intelligibility....The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent....Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart."

Ukraine was separate from Russia until the seventeenth century/eighteenth century so their language did develop certain characteristics that Russian did not. However, let's be honest, they're really quite similar. It helped that Ukrainian was banned in favour of standardized Russian. The USSR did away with a lot of Slavic variations—and this was both a bad and a good thing. For example, this was good because it was the first time the Cyrillic alphabet was ever standardized. Standardization is not a bad thing, in my opinion. I mean, go try to read a letter from the 1700s in English and you'll be shocked with how unstandardized language makes things really confusing really fast. On the flip side, standardization is bad because it puts a languages in a dormant-ish state, which means that they won't develop as they might if no rules had been imposed.

Anyway, I suggested to this girl that Ukrainian and Russian were like Mexican Spanish verses European Spanish or, to make a point of proximity, Austrian German verses German German.

There are some grammatical differences, more pronunciation differences, and even more vocabulary differences. However, I wagered that Ukrainian and Russian are pretty darn similar—their classification as separate languages has more to do with nationalism than it has to do with linguistic reasoning. Otherwise we should be classifying subclasses of other languages as separate languages.

As an example, let's translate "What's that?" into multiple languages.

In Ukrainian: Що це таке? (sho tsuh tah-kyuh; I'm guessing here)
In Russian: Что это такое? (shto eh-tuh tah-koy-yuh; not guessing)

In Arabic...well...wait. You can't really just translate a phrase like that because the 'amiyya dialects in various regions are so wildly different that you'd have to translate the sentence into multiple dialects, just to be fair.

We'll do two that I'm familiar with, for my ease, though there are several other dialects from which we could choose.

In Jordanian: شو هذا؟ (shoo hatha)
In Egyptian: اي دا؟ (eh dah)

Jordanian Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are separate dialects of one language—Arabic—but Ukrainian and Russian are separate languages entirely?

That doesn't even make sense.  At least, not to my brain.

I mean, how fair is that that my husband, who studied Arabic and slaved away to learn the different rules of fusHa and Egyptian 'amiyya only to be sent to Jordan on his study abroad (forcing him to learn Jordanian 'amiyya) can only claim Arabic as one language, but if you speak Ukrainian and Russian you're a fully fledged bi-lingual.

It just seems "mildly" bi-lingual, if you ask me.

I tried to smooth things over and told her that I agree that Russia and Ukraine are completely separate countries with different cultures (hey, I get that—I'm from Canada and we're not just the 51st state; we're different, yo!), and that although I think Russian and Ukrainian are very similar languages they are technically (usually) classified as separate we're cool, right?

She was too mad already, though, so my trying to smooth things over was a complete failure (which I still feel really bad about).

She told me that comparing Russian and Ukrainian is not even possible; even though there is a high level of mutual intelligibility she posited that the languages were not closely enough related to be considered related at all. It was like comparing apples to oranges, she said, and besides, "only Ukrainians understand Russian; Russians think they can understand Ukrainian but they don't understand it at all." Then she told me that having learned English, she is able to understand Spanish perfectly and asked if that meant that I thought Spanish and English are the same language.


No, I don't. And neither does anyone else.

Spanish is a West Iberian, Ibero-Romance, Gallo-Iberian, Italo-Western, Romance, Italic language.

English is an Anglic, Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic, Germanic language.

They're both Indo-European, but so are Russian and Ukrainian (which both also happen to be East Slavic, Slavic, Balto-Slavic languages).

So who is comparing apples to oranges now?

*sigh again*

I really enjoy talking to people who are able to agree to disagree. Just because I think one way doesn't mean that I can't respect you because you think something else. Why does everyone have to get so angry? If you read this and want to comment about it, do so, but do so with civility. I'll be more likely to try to understand your point of view if you don't come across as...vindictive.

By the way, did you know that in the 1950s a Survey of English Dialects was completed, which "aimed to collect the full range of speech in England and Wales before local differences were to disappear?" In that survey gramatical differences in English dialects were recorded, apart from the dozens upon dozens of words that differ between dialects. By now most of the gramatical variations have disappeared, but I never even knew that there were gramatical differences in English dialects. It only makes sense, I guess.

I have to wonder—are British English and American English becoming more similar or more different? Will they one day be classified as separate languages? Or will they so completely merge that one day I will put my "mardy child down for a kip in her nappy" and feel perfectly comfortable saying so?

Are Russian and Ukrainian become more similar or more divergent? Because the use of Ukrainian is no longer banned (obviously since Ukraine is no longer part of the USSR and can chose to speak however they'd like) is Ukrainian becoming a more popular language? I mean, I know that Ukrainian is gaining it should naturally follow that it would continue to develop separately from Russian.

However, our communities are much more interactive than they were, even in the 1950s so it seems that our languages should be slowly becoming more alike instead of more drastically different.

I don't know; but one day, I really want to go to graduate school.


  1. I'm pretty sure it was not a matter of linguistics... but more about cultural and political issues...
    Ex-USSR countries have a hard time reconciling to their (tough) past...
    I even heard very bright Polish people claim that life had been much easier under German occupation than when they were part of the Communist Bloc under USSR rule. I remember being quite appalled!

  2. Well, I can speak both american English, and Canadian. so I'm bi lingual.

  3. Nancy, you just tell the hyper-Ukrainian nationalist types to calm down. I lived in Ukraine. The languages are mutually intelligible and anyone who tells you differently is from so far west in Ukraine as to be practically Polish. They might think they are not mutually intelligible if you are from Lvov (sorry khokhols and khokhlushki, call it whatever you want, I'll always call it Lvov) or Uzhgorod but in Kiev they can and do speak Russian and anywhere east of the Dnieper does. In the Donbass most people don't even consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian. (Some don't even consider themselves Ukrainian by nationality but I won't start that argument here.) As a Russian speaker I cannot understand everything someone speaking Ukrainian says but the same would be true of the Muscovy dialect. (I actually find the Ukrainian accent charming but when Russian is spoken it seems the most clear to my ear when spoken by folks from Siberia (Novosibirsk). That said I understand cultural hackles being raised but people need to relax and realize that just because a Brazilian doesn't speak Spanish it doesn't mean there isn't a lot of mutual intelligibility between the languages, especially in areas where there is territorial contiguity. Hugh Nibley said if you traveled from Rome to Paris on foot back at the turn of the century and tried to determine where Italian ended and French began you'd have a tough time. The two groups historically are as closely related as any of the other groups I mentioned. (I would argue more closely.) So despite the atrocities of the Soviets in Ukraine, and they were atrocious, (the Holodomor comes to mind) there is a long shared history that makes them closer in temperment, outlook and opinion than a lot of other people whose languages are mutually intelligible.

  4. Yeah, see, I lived in Voronezh...which is closer to Ukraine than Moscow. Russian is spoken differently in Voronezh than in Moscow and I'm assuming it's a more "Ukrainian" Russian.

    I suppose what we have between Russian and Ukrainian is a a good exaple of the dialect continuum. Where does one language end and another begin?

    And, yes, I think that Russian and Ukrainian are right beside each other on the continuum, whereas Russian and Vietnamese are a little farther apart. And I'm relieved that I'm not the only one who thinks so. :)