Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Some notes about the Ukrainian language
Since my summer course is coming to an end, I think it’s time for me to write about my impressions of the Ukrainian language:
1) Ukrainian is HARD.
It’s funny…I (reluctantly) took French in high school and college, and before this summer I would have told you that it was the absolute hardest language. However, after taking Ukrainian, I realize that the process of learning French was actually much quicker and much, much easier than the process of learning Ukrainian. Ukrainian is just so utterly different from English. According to the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State, Ukrainian is a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English. This means it has “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” and takes, on average, 44 weeks or 1100 class hours to master. Other Category II languages include Farci, Vietnamese, Thai, Hindi, Hungarian, Urdu, and Hebrew.
French, Spanish, Italian, etc. are all Category I languages. They are closely related to English and take only 23-24 weeks or 575-600 class hours to master.
2) Ukrainian differs from English in interesting, but often frustrating ways.
First of all, Ukrainian uses a different alphabet than English. For me, the most noticeable consequence of this was that vocabulary did not stick in my head like it sometimes did in French. It’s very hard to memorize a word that looks different from anything you’ve heard in English and sounds different from anything you’ve heard in English.
For example, in French, the word for “blue” is simply “bleu.” It’s easy to retain in your memory because it looks English and sounds English. But in Ukrainian, it’s блакитний, which is pronounced kind of like bla-ke-tnee. Now, how on earth am I supposed to remember that?
Unlike English, Ukrainian is a declined language, which means that nouns and adjectives have different endings, depending on how they are used in a sentence. In English, we use word order and intonation for basic meaning; very few of our words change endings. In Ukrainian, however, it is the endings that convey meaning. Word order is flexible, something that is just used for emphasis and subtle shades of meaning. This definitely takes some getting used to… Ukrainian speakers can just throw the words out there any which way they want, but the meaning of the sentence is still retained.
So, for each noun and adjective you encounter in Ukrainian, you must learn their particular pattern of endings, based on the noun’s gender, number, and the case required for the function of the noun in the sentence.
The idea of case is something we don’t have in English. The best way to think about case is that it is a road map that tells you where things are going in a sentence and how they connect together. There are seven cases in Ukrainian: nominative, accusative, genitive, prepositional, dative, instrumental, and vocative. There are general uses for each one (dative for indirect objects, vocative for direct address, etc.), but there are secondary and tertiary uses as well. And, because case is so important, you can’t swallow your endings while speaking Ukrainian. You have to be thinking closely about it all the time.
And verbs… oh the verbs… they’re another story altogether. Conjugation seems so simple at first. Unlike English and French, there aren’t a lot of tenses in Ukrainian – just past, present, future, and imperative. However, Ukrainian is unfortunate enough to possess a little thing called “verbal aspect.” Basically, each verb has two forms, imperfective and perfective. The imperfective is used to denote the occurrence of an action, with focus on the action itself: action in progress, incomplete, repeated. The perfective, on the other hand, denotes a whole action, with focus on the result, inception, or limited duration of the action. Some boundary of the action is expressed in the verb itself.
For example, the sentences “Have you taken out the garbage?” and “Did you take out the garbage?” would require different verbs in Ukrainian. Ugh. It’s hard.
3) Despite all of this, Ukrainian is a charming, beautiful language.
Here's just one reason why I love Ukrainian: The word for “flip-flops” - в'єтнамки - sounds like “Vietnamki” and is derived from the Ukrainian word for a Vietnamese female.
This time next week, I’ll be on the plane to Kyiv. I can’t wait!