A Brief Primer on Russian, Belorusian, and Ukrainian

By Dianne Loyet

The popular perception of languages is that there is one (superior) “language” and multiple (inferior) “dialects.” From such a standpoint, one might assume that Russian is the East Slavic “language,” and Belorusian and Ukrainian are just “dialects.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no linguistic distinction between “language” and “dialect.” All languages are made up of many dialects, and the social and geopolitical contexts influence which dialect becomes dominant and is considered a mainstream language used by officialdom, academia, and the media. Arabic provides a good example. Modern Standard Arabic is based on the language of the Koran and is used for official purposes throughout the Arabic speaking world. Students of Arabic first learn this language and then must also learn how the Arabic of countries of interest differ from Modern Standard Arabic. Nevertheless, they are all “Arabic.”

Like most of the modern languages of Europe, Russian, Belorusian, and Ukrainian belong to the Indo-European language family. The homeland of the Indo-Europeans appears to have been the steppes north of the Black Sea. From this area, successive waves of Indo-Europeans migrated, most notably the speakers of Celtic, Germanic, and Italic languages who spread westward into Europe. The Slavs appear to have been among the last to leave the Indo-European homeland, and they traveled the shortest distance from it. Their migration resulted in the Common Slavic language spreading out over most of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe.

From 500-1000 CE regional dialectical changes began to differentiate the Common Slavic language into three main groups of languages: West Slavic, South Slavic, and East Slavic.  Sound changes in this period–the opening of syllables, palatalization, loss of fleeting vowels, and evolution of nasal vowels—resulted in distinct differences. All the dialects experienced these changes, but with different results.

A good illustration is the opening of syllables. In Common Slavic, the word for ‘head’ was *gal-va. The first syllable, gal- is “closed”, i.e., it does not end in a vowel. Across Slavic dialects, closed syllables were “opened,” meaning that changes to words occurred so that each syllable ended in a vowel. In South Slavic dialects, this was achieved by reversing the order of sounds in a syllable so that the syllable now ended in a vowel. The South Slavic form of *gal-va (head) became gla-va. In East Slavic, syllables were also opened, but by adding a vowel after the consonant. As a result, in East Slavic, *gal-va became go-lo-va. So East and South Slavic words for “head” –“glava” and “golova”– illustrate how different dialects can undergo the same kind of change but produce different results.

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, sound changes, as well as changes in syntax, morphology, and lexicon, further differentiated three groups of East Slavic dialects from one another, starting the process which resulted in today’s modern East Slavic languages, Russian, Belorusian, and Ukrainian.

It is perhaps an interesting coincidence that the current leaders of Russia and Ukraine actually share the same first name. You can see the similarities between the names of Vladimir Putin, and Volodymyr Zelensky. Their name comes from that of Vladimir the Great, the prince of Kievan Rus’ who accepted Orthodox Christianity on behalf of his kingdom (now Ukraine) in 988 and is a Russian Orthodox saint. President Putin’s name is the South Slavic form, whereas Zelensky’s is the East Slavic form.

Geography, of course, played a significant role in further differentiation of the East Slavic languages. For example, some place names in Ukraine, such as Mariupol, end in –pol due to the proximity to Greec. Also, religion was an important influence on all East Slavic dialects. The Eastern Orthodox faith was brought to East Slavs by native speakers of South Slavic. The original language of the faith is known as Old Church Slavonic, and it was a written as well as spoken language. Despite the conservative nature of church languages, Old Church Slavonic did differentiate into regional written and spoken languages which interacted with spoken East Slavic dialects. This resulted in further differences among Russian, Belorusian, and Ukrainian. All three languages are written in Cyrillic characters today, but the alphabets of each are not identical. The same character may not represent the same sound in all three languages. Also, there are characters in one language that are not used in the other two languages.

Most importantly, there have always been noticeable similarities in dialects where speakers of two east Slavic languages share a border. This cross-border sharing is not unidirectional; it goes both ways because the dynamics of human linguistic interaction are heavily influenced by local context. So it should not be assumed that linguistic similarities between Russian and Ukrainian or Belorusian, for example, were a result of Ukrainian or Belorusian borrowings from Russia.

Western perception of East Slavdom has also been erroneously influenced by a mistranslation. At the end of the Great Northern War treaty documents were mistranslated from Russian to other European languages. The title claimed for the tsar of Russia was (in Russian) “Emperor of All Russia”. However, it was mistranslated as “Emperor of All the Russias”. This title stuck in the popular imagination, and it led to the belief that there were three  Russias—Russia proper, White Russia (Belorus’) and Little Russia (Ukraine or even “the Ukraine”).

There have been military conflicts between and among East, West, and South Slavic nations for centuries. Since the end of the Cold War, South Slavic groups in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have fought each other as well as Albanian groups over territory in the South Slavic region of the former Yugoslavia. In contrast, the two distinct regions of the former Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

It is the will of a people—not facts about their culture or history—which determine how they will govern themselves. Respecting cultures and languages is vital—but they should never be considered a legitimate basis for territorial expansion.