How different or similar are Polish and Ukrainian?

Both Polish and Ukrainian are Slavic languages from the Indo-European family.

In late 2016, I started learning Ukrainian and have in the past dabbled with Polish.

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As I already speak Russian, Ukrainian grammar was very familiar but the vocabulary was not obvious as it is a lot closer to Polish than I had expected.

The fact is that both Polish and Ukrainian have a lot in common but how different or similar are they really?


History of the Polish and Ukrainian languages

Both languages are derived from the Proto-Slavic language, Ukrainian having developed from the East Slavic language branch while Polish is from the West Slavic branch.

Today Polish is the official language of Poland while Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine and the unrecognized republic of Transnistria in Moldova. Polish is also an official language of the European Union.

During the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ukraine came under the domination of Poland and this resulted in cultural Polonization.

Gradually the official language of Ukrainian provinces under Poland was changed to Polish and many Ukrainian nobles learned the Polish language and adopted Catholicism during that period.

This has left a big influence on the dialects of Ukrainian spoken in the west of modern-day Ukraine where the vocabulary is closer to that of Polish than the Ukrainian spoken in the center of the country.

Both Poles and Ukrainians have significant diasporas around the world and I’ve even traveled to parts of Brazil with significant Polish and Ukrainian ethnic communities (videos below).


So what are the similarities between Polish and Ukrainian?

1. Both Polish and Ukrainian orthography is largely phonetic – there is a consistent correspondence between letters.

2. As for grammar, Polish, as well as Ukrainian, is a highly inflected language, with relatively free word order, although the dominant arrangement is subject–verb–object (SVO). There are no articles, and subject pronouns are often dropped. In both languages nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numerals are inclined by numbers, cases, gender.

3. The main similarity is on the lexical level. Many words are basically the same, like for example:

Цибуля – Сebula (onion)
Врода – Uroda (attractiveness)
Фарба – Farba (paint)
Ув’язнення – Uwiezenie (imprisonment)
Дах – Dach (roof)  

Moreover, the months of the year do not come from the Roman gods (like in most Indo-European languages, including Russian) but from the natural elements that characterize each period:

Polish Ukrainian English
1 Styczeń Січень January
2 Luty Лютий February
3 Marzec Березень March
4 Kwiecień Квітень April
5 Maj Травень May
6 Czerwiec Червень June
7 Lipiec Липень July
8 Sierpień Серпень August
9 Wrzesień Вересень September
10 Październik Жовтень October
11 Listopad Листопад November
12 Grudzień Грудень December


So what are the differences between Polish and Ukrainian?

1. The main difference is in the ortography. The Polish langauge uses the Latin script, while the Ukrainian is written in Cyrillic. The Polish alphabet includes certain additional letters formed using diacritics: the kreska in the letters ć, ń, ó, ś, ź and through the letter in ł; the kropka in the letter ż, and the ogonek (“little tail”) in the letters ą, ę.

2. With respect to pronunciation, it is pretty regular in Polish. Once you learn the rules, you should be able to guess how a word is pronounced. With the exception of six monophthongs, the same as in Ukrainian, Polish additionally has two nasal diphthongsę, ą. Stress is almost always on the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable, while in Ukrainian it isn’t fixed.

3. While there are similarities in the grammar, Ukrainian tends to closer to that of Russian than Polish.

I took a Ukrainian language class for around 10 days with another student who spoke Polish and he found Ukrainian grammar quite distinct from Polish while it all seemed reasonably straightforward to me having already learned Russian.

If you are planning a trip to Eastern Europe, I encourage you to learn at least a little of both of these different yet related Slavic languages.

Have you learnt or do you speak Polish or Ukrainian? If so, write to me your thoughts and experiences with these 2 languages in the comments section below. I read all comments I receive.

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