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How similar are the Ukrainian and Russian languages? For example, can I reasonably expect that anybody from Ukraine would be able to understand spoken Russian or be able to read a Russian text?

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    This is my first question on this site - and I would not be surprised if it remains the only question I ask here. I am not really familiar with the Linguistics site - so my apologies if the question is off-topic or if I chose unsuitable tags.
    – Martin
    Mar 26, 2022 at 9:15
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    As a native Ukrainian speaker, I understand Russian as well as my own native language.
    – vitaliy125
    Mar 26, 2022 at 18:50
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    Nitpick: Linguistic similarity and whether a native of country A could understand something spoken or written in language B are not really the same thing. For example, many countries either currently have or historically had specific foreign languages as either mandatory or widely taken optional courses in their primary or secondary education systems, so people from those countries are likely to have basic proficiency in those languages despite them not being similar to their native languages (see for example English in Japan or Swedish in Finland). Mar 26, 2022 at 20:42
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    @AustinHemmelgarn Yes, that is certainly true - and I can confirm it from my own experience. I was born in Czechoslovakia and I was ten when it was dissolved. So I have heard Czech language often on TV and a bit in everyday life, too. And many books and newspapers were available in Czech. I can understand Czech without any problem. But I have heard from several people that this is more difficult for younger people, who were already born after we become two separate states.
    – Martin
    Mar 27, 2022 at 4:33
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    I am Bulgarian (Bulgarian language is also "slavonic") and I am somewhat fluent in Russian. It took me 2-3 weeks of reading news in Ukrainian to fully adapt to its subtleties.
    – fraxinus
    Mar 27, 2022 at 22:23

5 Answers 5

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Ukrainian and Russian are partially mutual intelligible. I as a native Russian speaker can read Ukrainian and usually understand the most but spoken Ukrainian is relatively hard to understand, although partly it is clear too.

Both Russian and Ukrainian are East Slavic languages. The closest language to Russian is considered Belarusian (also an East Slavic language) and therefore Ukrainian is probably the second closest language.

As far as I know there are lots of native Russian speakers in Ukraine who are usually bilingual and given the history of Ukraine and the current political context it's reasonable to assume that Ukrainians generally tend to know Russian better than Russians know Ukrainian because there's virtually no use in knowing Ukrainian in Russia. However, being fluent in Russian in Ukraine is fairly important, for example, as other answers stated, even current Ukrainian president is bilingual which I think is of use for him.

That being said, I think Ukrainians shouldn't have any problems with acquiring Russian quick enough even those who haven't already learned Russian.

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    Given the history of Ukraine and the relative size of the two languages internationally (and in terms of number of speakers), I would expect that Ukrainians generally have better Russian skills than Russians have Ukrainian skills. Mar 26, 2022 at 11:46
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    Plus, there's a significant Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine, and they don't all live in the east. President Zelensky is a bilingual native speaker.
    – jlawler
    Mar 26, 2022 at 21:25
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    @BruceWayne English is unusual in that it has very few other languages that are a short lexical distance from it. The closest comparison might be Scots, which is barely intelligible as you can see in the examples here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_language
    – Mike
    Mar 27, 2022 at 14:38
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    @BruceWayne "Close lexically" is also a somewhat loose description when already the alphabets differ noticably:Ukrainian cyrillic alphabet has Ґ, Є, І, Ї, whereas Russian cyrillic has Ё, Ы, Э (and recently seems to have a tendency to add V and Z) Mar 27, 2022 at 20:53
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    @HagenvonEitzen The writing system and the orthography are only accidental and not a core feature of a language. Lexical closeness is measured by the rate of cognates in a given set of basic words, allowing for some sound shifts. Mar 27, 2022 at 21:04
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The mutual intelligibility of the Slavic languages (going far beyond the pair Ukrainian and Russian) is a fascinating theme for linguistic research, and there are works out there trying to measure the distances, e.g., in terms of lexical distance.

A more difficult question is the psychological one: Does a potentially traumatized Ukrainian person want to be addressed in Russian? It may be worth trying any other common language than Russian before switching over to Russian as language of intercommunication. Some person may have strong feelings in this respect, others not.

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    I don't think there is a psychological barier here (at least, for most people). There is virtually no stigma over the Russian language in Ukraine. There is a great deal of Ukraine where a mixture of the two languages is used in everyday life. A lot of Ukrainan people are fluent only in Russian (without those people being less Ukrainian in other regards). Judging from the torrent of videos from Ukraine now, pure Russian is sometimes used even between Ukrainian military personnel.
    – fraxinus
    Mar 27, 2022 at 22:34
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    +1 for the very relevant first paragraph — but the second paragraph seems like just projecting reactions onto people. Do you have any sources of Ukrainians suggesting anything like that? As other comments+answers mention, plenty of Ukrainians speak Russian as either L1 or an everyday L2 — indeed, portraying Russian-speaking as implying allegiance to Russia has been part of Putin’s propaganda line.
    – PLL
    Mar 28, 2022 at 8:37
  • I can tell you that customs officers on the Polish/Ukrainian border in 2000/2001 had little interest in communicating in Russian until they had received a bribe. First hand experience; but may no longer be true. But back in the day in the parts of Ukraine that I lived in temporarily the language in daily use was Russian with a Ukrainian accent (e.g. г being frequently pronounced as in Ukrainian, but using Russian sentences) and there were no huge animosities between Russians from RU, ethnic Ukrainians in UA or ethnic Russians in UA. In fact many families are/were mixed ethnicity. Mar 28, 2022 at 13:08
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    When I visited Kiev at the end of last year, half people were only-Russian speaking. There are a lot of refugees in my city nowadays, I observe all of them mostly speaking Russian. So there is no stigma about it. But I heard some people that didn't speak Ukrainian in the past, starting to use it more. Mar 28, 2022 at 13:20
  • Of course, not. Even Ukrainian President's office speakers make daily streams in Russian. Russian is the most spoken language in Ukrainian capital city, Kiev.
    – Anixx
    Mar 30, 2022 at 20:44
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You have 2 questions in 1:

  • How mutually intelligible the 2 languages are.
  • What's more practical to help refugees.

In terms of mutual intelligibility, it highly depends on context, an educated (the English equivalent would be having studied Chaucer/Shakespeare in English lit in high school, because a lot of Ukranian words are very similar to old Russian words, that aren't in common use anymore, but would be recognizable to someone who'd encountered them in literature) Russian speaker needs to spend a day to learn to listen to vowel shifts and the different inflections + learn ~150 truly different common words to comfortably follow e.g. Ukranian popular political speeches, debates on talk-shows, etc. because those are aimed towards the masses and use simple language as well as using a bunch of the same foreign loan-words(inflation, corruption, computerization, etc.). A high-school dropout in a specialized setting would really struggle. Conversely if he was with Ukranian high school dropouts, he would probably be OK, since the swearing is identical.

In terms of what's practical to learn to serve refugees, definitely Russian. To get a sense of what language people from different regions use day-day, check out Google Trends and compare different Russian vs Ukranian terms for searches within Ukraine. Here are a couple of examples (last 12 months): Kyiv/Kiev: 13% Kyiv/87% Kiev Cheap tickets: 18% Ukrainian Note that Google counts Crimea and the separatist regions as part of Ukraine for this purpose, so accounting for population, add ~4% to the Ukrainian total.

Interestingly enough, even the result for Russian aggression in the last 30 days, is only 39% Ukrainian.

Even Poroshenko and Zelensky are native Russian speakers who learned Ukrainian to enter politics. Here's a video of Zelensky using his gym time to learn Ukrainian, 3 months before he was elected president: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PohoNwCDOFk And Poroshenko had several infamous lapses, when he forgot the Ukrainian word for something and had to ask his aides, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y57R2ldt8P4 He's asking his aide how to say wallet in Ukrainian.

Also note that refugees are more likely to be from the Russian speaking east. Here's today's video of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist politician Iryna Farion complaining that of the Ukrainian refugees in Poland, 80% are speaking Russian in the streets and the Poles are worried that now Putin will have an excuse to invade to protect Russian speakers in Poland. Now, Farion is an extremist and is probably hyperbolizing, but this is an amusing data-point I thought I'd include.

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    @Džuris you don't remember words better in а foreign language than your own. Also, he was one of the founders of the "Pro Russian" Party of the regions, before he had a falling out and switched to supporting the nationalist Yushenko. That's when he started speaking Ukrainian in public. In private, according to telephone calls leaked by Kolomoisky, to get back at Poroshenko taking PrivatBank away from him: youtube.com/watch?v=gAfQrwN1tKo he still speaks Russian in private(The embarrassment of the call is how much he's swearing, not the language, which surprised nobody).
    – Eugene
    Mar 27, 2022 at 16:40
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    @Eugene while I can only provide anecdotal evidence from myself and my surroundings, "you don't remember words better in а foreign language than your own" is not necessarily true, especially for those that don't use their native language much (expats etc), or actively use another language as much as their native language (people who work in a workplace that doesn't use the country's language etc).
    – ave
    Mar 28, 2022 at 9:07
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    @ave, yes if you've emigrated to a foreign country, you can certainly forget words in your native language, but if you're the president of a country where it's the only official language(certainly in your workplace), use it every day publicly and have made it one of the 3 core tennets of your political dogma(along with the army and church), the only way you can forget basic day to day words, is if it's not your native language.
    – Eugene
    Mar 28, 2022 at 15:26
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    @phoog you're describing your experience as a foreign immigrant. I can see how that could happen. Poroshenko forgot "wallet(and others, I only included one of several examples in the answer), while president of his native country, while championing that language as his #1 political priority.
    – Eugene
    Sep 12, 2023 at 23:08
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    @MWB I said about 150 truly different words to comfortably follow Political speeches and debates on TV talk shows(muuuch bigger in Ukraine and Russia than in the US). This is my experience, I started watching in 2014, to see both sides, it took me a couple days, pausing to look up what I didn't understand. Politicians use simple language for mass appeal, lots of common loan words like reform, computerization, etc. are easy to follow. Some words like wallet in that example, can be parsed from it's parts and understood by a Russian speaker, but understanding vs recall is different
    – Eugene
    Sep 23, 2023 at 16:17
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Russian and Ukranian are mutually intelligeable to a significant degree... perhaps to greater extent than, e.g., French and Italian. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that the situation with understanding is not quite symmetric here:

Ukrainians speaking/understanding Russian
Russian was lingua franca in the USSR and before that in the Russian Empire. Thus, everyone in Ukraine, above certain age, speaks perfect Russian. Moreover, Ukraine had been tied to Russia for much longer than other Soviet subjects, and the two cultures intertwine - e.g., Gogol, Shevchenko, and Babel have been considered classical Russian writers and studied in Russian schools (or at least were studied in the Soviet period). Thus, one hardly could expect here a situation where the post-Soviet generation wouldn't speak Russian - as is the case, e.g., in the Baltic countries. Indeed, in post-Soviet Ukraine one could often see television programs where different participants would speak Ukrainian and Russian - depending on their background - and understand each other. Abroad, until recently, Ukrainians would freely mingle with Russians, and largely treated as "Russians" (often the blanket term for anyone coming from the USSR area). Given large Russian-speaking communities in Europe, United States and Israel, as well as in the former parts of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians will certainly find being able to speak Russian helpful. Certainly, some Ukrainians would be too traumatized to speak Russian... but it is more reasonable to expect that Ukrainians would be much more attuned to the difference between Russian, Russians, Russia and Putin than the non-Russian inhabitants of the hosting countries.

Russians speaking/understanding Ukrainian
The situation is not reciprocal, as few Russians, beyond professional linguists, have ever had need to study Ukrainian - even those living in Ukraine could perfectly survive speaking Russian. This was one of the reasons for the resentment against the Ukrainization policy in post-Soviet Ukraine. The political developments of the last decade however have triggered interest in studying the language among the Russian speakers outside Ukraine... notably in Russia.

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    I agree regarding "the need", but I think those who have - for example - had contact with Church Slavonic texts or another Slavonic language in general will have an easier time comprehending Ukrainian. In spoken language it's a number of words that are different and there are some vowel shifts, I think (e.g. Kharkov/Kharkiv) as well as the pronunciation. As a non-native speaker (to any Slavonic language) I've also discovered "cheats" like Polish ę often corresponding to у in Russian/Ukrainian (ręka). I imagine similar "cheats" can easily be discovered by Russian speakers regarding Ukrainian. Mar 28, 2022 at 13:25
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    @0xC0000022L I wonder how valid is your cheat. The actual predecessor of the Polish ę is the Proto-Slavic ę and that developed into ja (я) in East Slavic. And hence pjať vs. pięć or dziesięć vs. desjať and similar. It is a bit more complicated with the merge of the ę and ǫ nasals and then split into ę and ą, but that is the main equivalent. A more valid cheat would be the Russian ě, when descended from yat, be i in Ukrainian and ie/ia in Polish. белый бедный бес в лес => білий бідний біс у ліс => biedny biały bies w les Mar 29, 2022 at 12:50
  • @VladimirFГероямслава one thing I have learned with those cheats is, that they aren't universal. But it has helped me sometimes "decode" the meaning of a word which at its face was unknown at first. But again, just like with French/Spanish you can also find yourself stumped when you realize that your rule of thumb falls apart. Going by your screen name you are probably native speaker of some Slavonic_ language and taking your arguments you probably know more than the average speaker. I don't know enough about the vowel shifts across Slavonic languages for any serious argument. I cheat 😉 Mar 30, 2022 at 8:09
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Nearly all Ukrainians understand and speak Russian fluently, even from the west of the country (Lviv, Ivano-Frankovsk regions). This is not because the languages are similar but because Russian was the state language in the USSR, and remains an important language of international communication (it is second only to English in the Internet for instance).

If you go to Moldova or Kazakhstan, you will find that a lot of people there also speak Russian, despite the fact that their languages are not as closely related to Russian as Ukrainian is.

On the other hand, Russians have troubles understanding Ukrainian. Here is an interview, made about a week ago, of former Polish president Kwasniewski to an Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon (in Russian), where he tells a story (the link is with timecode) of him being with Putin invited to a celebration of a 10 years jubilee of Ukrainian independence in 2001.

Everybody was speaking Ukrainian on the party. He tells that Putin asked him "How much (of Ukrainian) do you understand?". Kwasniewski replied "about 90%". Putin said "but I understand only 30%". Kwasniewski of course could use advantage of knowing both Polish and Russian.

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