The Joys of Studying Ukrainian

I’ve been doing Ukrainian homework for the last two hours, and I wanted to take a break and vent about it, but seeing as everyone in my house is fluent in Ukrainian, they probably couldn’t sympathize. So I’m taking to my blog (and by that, I mean the Word document where I save my blog posts) to give voice to my frustrations.

First off: the Cyrillic alphabet. At first, I thought it would be an easy alphabet to learn because some of the letters are familiar. Well, let’s just say I was very wrong. My language teacher divided the Cyrillic alphabet into 3 categories: True Friends, False Friends, and New Friends. True Friends are the letters that are the same in the English alphabet: A, E, K, M, O, and T. They look the same in Cyrillic and make the same sounds—so far, so good. Next, False Friends: B, H, P, R, X, C, and Y. These letters conspire against me every time I read Ukrainian, because while they look familiar, they make entirely different sounds. In Ukrainian, B = v, H = n, P = r, X = h C = s, and Y = oo. So the word Привіт in Ukrainian is pronounced “priveet.”  No me gusta! The last category is New Friends: letters that look like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We have: Г (h), Ґ (g), П (p), Ф (f), Д (d), З (z) Л (l), Б (b), Є (ye), Ж (zh), И (i) И with a squiggly (y), Ц (ts), Ч (ch), Ш (sh), Щ (shch), Ю (you), Я (ya), and let’s not forget Ь (soft sign—has no sound, but changes how the rest of the word is pronounced).

For me, reading the Cyrillic alphabet is something like mental gymnastics for the out-of-shape. My brain must have turned to mush in the 8 months since I finished college, because it is taking forever to pick up Ukrainian! And the false friends trip me up every time—it’s enough to make me long for the days of the Arabic alphabet, because while you had no true friends in Arabic, you had no false friends either. It was all new friends, and once you mastered them they were quite friendly. But Cyrillic, on the other hand, waits until you’re reading a sentence smoothly before throwing in a “P” that really sounds like “r,” or a “B” that goes “v.” And it tricks you, because you’ve always thought “P” meant “p” and B meant “b.” Not anymore.

My host mother watches me write sentences in Ukrainian and sometimes gets frustrated by how long it takes and tries to do it for me. I’ve had to stop asking her for help on my homework, because she’d rather just do it for me! Which would be awesome, except then I wouldn’t learn Ukrainian. So it looks like I’ll have to suffer on in silence. Enough complaining on my part, the rant is now concluded. : )

A very dear Egyptian friend of mine once said that you are not fluent in another language until you can swear like a native speaker. This friend knows maybe 100 words of German, but people think he’s fluent because he swears like he speaks German every day! I’ve always remembered this advice, so when we had a lull in Ukrainian class, I asked Natalia (language teacher) to share some common Ukrainian curse words. Before I tell you her response, a quick description of Natalia: she is 22, and she recently finished her degree in English. Now she trains Peace Corps Volunteers Ukrainian, and basically baby-sits us during PST (Pre-Service Training) and makes sure we know enough Ukrainian to survive and be productive volunteers. She reminds me a lot of Alexis Bledel, who plays Rory on Gilmore Girls if you’re familiar with that TV show. She’s very petite, with wide blue eyes. And when I asked her about cuss words, her eyes got even wider and she gave an emphatic “no!” She said we’ll pick those up in due time, and that she won’t contribute to our knowledge of bad words before we can even speak Ukrainian properly.

So for now, I guess I’ll have to sound like a foreigner. I probably would anyways, seeing as I can’t roll my rrrrs very well yet. I can if the “r” is in the middle of the word, but I can’t if the “r” comes at the beginning. So I’m sure the lack of a rolled r would give me away much faster than my lack of curses. But speaking of bad words, I had a hilarious conversation with one of my fellow cluster-mates that I’m going to share. There are 5 of us in our cluster, and we will all be English teachers very soon. So we were discussing what we would tell our students when they ask us for American cuss words. We don’t want to contribute to the delinquency of minors, nor do we want to say anything that would threaten the professionalism we want to have as teachers and Peace Corps Volunteers. So I said I wouldn’t tell them any bad words. Maybe something like “crap” or “dang,” but nothing really bad. My friend Andy had obviously put much more thought into this than I had, because he was prepared with faux swear words to teach his students, hoping he’d hear them running around calling each other these words! The first: carpet bagger. He said he’ll tell his students to only use it for really bad people, and only in a very low tone of voice. You Carpet Bagger! I almost peed my pants laughing when he told me. Another favorite: melanogaster. Andy said it’s the scientific name for some type of fruit fly, and it is abstract enough that no student would ever know what it really was (I didn’t, and I’m a native speaker!). I thought it would be funny to hear Ukrainian kids try to say “melanogaster” but carpet bagger is definitely my favorite. I might have to bust that out on my kids if I need a good laugh.

On that note, I have to get back to my Ukrainian homework. But seeing as most of this blog was about Cyrillic, I’ll close with some Ukrainian in those dreaded letters.

ЛЮБOB,

КАТЯ

(Love Katya!)

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4 thoughts on “The Joys of Studying Ukrainian

  1. Alyssa Johnson says:

    Yes! yay for cyrillic! Russian is so similar to some of the words you put in here. Glad your so advanced already. Though I’m sure being surrounded by no English is definitely helping. It will become easy pretty quickly. Love reading your blog. Can’t wait to read more!

    Love in Russian = люблю

    я тебя люблю! = I love you!

    Hello in Russian (informal) = привет!

  2. Alyssa Johnson says:

    ugh, definitely meant *you’re

  3. Meghan Bryant says:

    And just think, the Russian alphabet is slightly different too 🙂 Have you learned the word bleen yet? It is like crap and is said by everyone (at least in Crimea)

  4. Nancy Gill says:

    Funny story about the carpetbagger! I think I will teach that to my grandkids but tell them never say in front of Mom and Dad. Think it will fly??? Doubt it. I really enjoy readubg your blog – really interesting hearing about the problems of living in a foreign country. I have never had a desire to leave the US (other than Canada) and probably never will. Mari’s exchange student from Moscow is visiting this week and we having a party at my house Wednesday nite. It would have been nice if you would have been able to meet him – I think he has an important job at a bank in Moscow. Keep us posted with your blog – keep your faith and remember the reasons you wanted to join the PC – you will be very proud of yourself along with everyone else.

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