Learning Ukrainian: progress report #1

Today is Exelauno Day, so named because “Exelauno” means “march forth” in ancient Greek. My Greek 2 teacher used to celebrate it because he had gone to Roxbury Latin School, where it is (or at least was) an official holiday. More on that in another post in a week or so. Today we honor the one million refugees who have been forced to leave, i.e. “march forth” from, Ukraine, and in particular their inspirational leader, Володимир Зеленський, who has remained when he could have left. This is why I began the process of learning Ukrainian through Duolingo. Today is my fourth day, and my first weekly progress report (so it’s just three days’ worth, but each subsequent report will cover seven days).

Don’t let anyone tell you that Ukrainian is easy, despite the claim in this image! The difficulties have nothing at all to do with the (modified) Cyrillic alphabet, even though that’s what first intimidates Americans. Always remember that language is speech, not writing; writing is merely a representation of speech. If you wish, you can represent Ukrainian in the Roman alphabet, as American newspapers of course do—that doesn’t make learning the language any easier! But for you, the reader of this blog, I will gloss all Ukrainian words in the Roman alphabet. (I didn’t need to do in my opening paragraph.)

This post is just a brief summary of my progress so far. If you want a more comprehensive view of the basics of the language, check out this article in the Duolingo blog.

Here are a few random bullet points that I’ve noticed so far:

  • I’ve learned 105 words in my first three days. A few of them shouldn’t count, like студент (/student/ = ‘student’) and вікторія (/viktoriya/ = ‘Victoria’).
  • I wrote above that Ukrainian uses a “modified” Cyrillic alphabet. A quick glance at a Ukrainian text will reveal five letters that you are unfamiliar with if you only know “standard” i.e. Russian Cyrillic: ґ є і ї ‘
  • Nouns are complicated, with more cases than Latin or even Russian! (Actually, to be fair, although Latin is conventionally supposed to have five cases, there are a few nouns that have two more, the locative and the vocative, which bring the total to the same as Ukrainian.)
  • There is no definite or indefinite article, just as in Latin and Russian.
  • Speaking of Russian, you can find more comparisons between these two Slavic languages.
  • The verb “to be” is omitted in the present tense. So, for example, ‘Where are the cars?’ is just де машини? /de mashyny/ ‘where cars’.
  • There are a lot of confusingly similar short words, such as там (/tam/ = ‘there’), та (/ta/ = ‘and’), and так (/tam/ = ‘that’).
  • There are too many words for ‘and’: a (/a/), i (/i/), же (/zhe/), й (/y/), невже (/nevzhe/), проте (/prote/), та (/ta/)!
  • At this point the word order sometimes looks strange to me. For instance, Чий це дім ‘whose this house’ means “whose house is this?”
  • Most of the vocabulary looks initially strange to me, since I’ve never learned any Slavic languages except for a small amount of Serbo-Croatian many years ago, but there are three saving graces: Ukrainian is an Indo-European language, so my linguistic knowledge often helps; the aforementioned Serbo-Croatian still helps a bit, even though it was decades ago; I read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange several times (though not recently), and the teen slang in that book is based heavily on Slavic words.

More in next week’s progress report. Stay tuned.

Categories: Linguistics