Ukrainian or Polish: help me choose which one to learn
June 22, 2006 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Ukrainian or Polish: What language should I learn?

I may need to travel to Poland and the Ukraine to further my genealogy research, since my ancesters and relatives on my mother's side are from there. I'd like to learn a language, but which one (and why)? Is the Ukrainian and Polish language similar enough that if I learned one I could understand the other (like Spanish, Portugese and Italian)?
posted by rinkjustice to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Make no small plans. Learn them both.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:49 PM on June 22, 2006

Polish is prettier.

No, they aren't similar enough, in my opinion. They are just similar enough to get you into trouble because you THINK you understand what a word means but it means something else entirely.

disclaimer: I'm basing this on learning Russian and then trying to understand Polish.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:50 PM on June 22, 2006

Polish is prettier? How so?
posted by rinkjustice at 12:54 PM on June 22, 2006

It's just a softer sounding language, imo.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:57 PM on June 22, 2006


In my (maybe biased) opinion, in Poland you will get help from people who speak English or you can get a translator.

In Ukraine, Russian will be good enough, most people speak / understand it. In Ukraine (again this is based on my anecdotic evidence) some people do not speak their mind, as "somebody maybe be listening" and, sometimes, there is (yes, even now!). Thus, understanding a subtle nuance would be helpful. Plus, I think it is much easier to get course materials for Russian than Ukrainian.

This advice is based on some assumptions, if they are wrong, so is the advice. Also, pay attention: The Ukraine
posted by MzB at 1:10 PM on June 22, 2006

No, they are not similar enough that learing one would allow you to understand the other (this is also true of the Romance languages). However, it does mean that knowing one will make learning the other substantially easier, so that it may actually be feasible to learn both. But don't count on your Ukrainian getting you by in Poland, or vice versa.

Here are the ethnologue stats on the languages, if that's useful to you.

I can also suggest that from purely anecdotal experience, you are more likely to find Ukrainian speakers in Poland than Polish speakers in Ukraine. (Although ethnologue does note that Ukrainian speakers are the largest minority language group in Poland, so that may be legitimate.)
posted by miagaille at 1:22 PM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Russian is definitely easier to learn just because there are a lot of great learning resources available. In my (limited) experience even the Russian-English dictionaries are head and shoulders above the Polish- or Ukrainian-English dictionaries.

But Russian is the language of the colonizers, at best, and many people don't want to speak it even if they know it. Also, the younger generations (under 30) haven't been forced to learn it- so they haven't. A lot of people will prefer to speak to you in English over Russian, even if their English sucks.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:26 PM on June 22, 2006

I think Polish is prettier, too; it's smooth and rhythmic, and sounds sort of like a middle ground between other Slavic languages that have more distinctive (and sometimes less appealing) sounds - for example, Czechs sound like they're from Chicago, in my opinion, and South Slavic languages aren't nearly as melodic. Ukrainian has too many palatal consonants for my taste (ty, dy, ny, etc.) - more like Russian and Slovak. Too much saliva-sound for my taste, though it appeals to some.

Polish also gets extra points for having a 'rz/ř' sound, which is just neat and impressive if you can master it. Also it has cool grammar and orthography but still uses the Latin alphabet. If you happen to speak German, though, you'll find that many Poles do as well, so that might be another reason to choose Ukrainian or Russian.

It does appear (to my insufficiently schooled eyes) that there is a fair amount of shared vocabulary - you can at least make an educated guess about the meaning of the word in one Slavic language if you speak another. However, this is much more useful for reading signs and counting than it is for communicating. Keep in mind that in Ukraine, you can get by with Russian (L'viv being the notable exception), and Russian might be more useful in the long term if you only want to learn a language for the purpose of this research - learning Russian would do you well in Ukraine and might be useful for travel another time, and there's simply a massively larger population of Russian-speakers in the world whom you might someday wish to converse with. However, people are much less able and willing to use Russian in Poland and other "more European" Slavic countries since "the changes", as far as I know - most who are old enough to have studied it have deliberately forgotten it by now.

Where are your ancestors from? You should research the history and demographics of the particular region before deciding - you might find that they're from a Polish-speaking area in Ukraine or vice-versa. This is quite common in central/Eastern Europe (for example, I live in south-eastern Hungary, practically in Romania and really nowhere near Slovakia, yet there's a huge population of native Slovak speakers here, which you'd never guess just by scanning a map).
posted by xanthippe at 1:33 PM on June 22, 2006

xanthippe: I have a great grandmother who was born in Tostev, Ukraine and a mysterious great grandfather who was born in Hinkiwci, Zaleszczyki, Galicia. My great great grandfather was born in Redodube(?), in the province of Chartowka(?), Poland, but I can't qualify the location. This was the spelling given by my grandmother (unless I mis-heard).
posted by rinkjustice at 1:52 PM on June 22, 2006

Hmm. Looks like learning Russian might be the answer...
posted by rinkjustice at 1:55 PM on June 22, 2006

I find Ukranian girls much better looking then Polish girls. Also most people in Ukrane speak Russian and Ukranian, while other places speak only Russian, so you're probably better off learning Russian then Ukranian.
posted by delmoi at 1:56 PM on June 22, 2006

Speaking from personal experience, you can get around in Poland, make yourself understood, and so on, with Ukrainian, English, and some Russian. In particular, knowing Ukrainian and some Russian will make you very able to read Polish and to pick up Polish words and phrases. Getting around Western Ukraine with Polish might be harder, though maybe one in four people there can speak Polish, just because of the literacy barrier.

I may be biased, but if you're going to both countries, and all other things are equal, I say learn Ukrainian. It's really Simplified Generic Slavic (very few idiosyncracies compared to other Slavic languages), and will give you a great leg up on all three Slavic subfamilies, especially on your Polish vocabulary. In fact, if you just plain spoke Ukrainian in Poland you'd sound like a retard, but you'd be understood pretty well.

Older people in Poland will often know Russian, and everyone in Ukraine does. (With one exception for a very young, very rural, Galician kid I met.) But you will get a ton of respect and credibility for speaking one of the two other languages—especially if you go to Ukraine speaking Ukrainian. They've got a bit of a Rodney Dangerfield complex on that score, and they will love you to death.

Now, the quality of learning resources is going to affect things. Routledge publishes excellent reference grammars of both, but you may have trouble getting a good Ukrainian-English dictionary out of country. Do not buy the one published by Hippocrene, which does not have accent marks, does have vocabulary that is now obsolete, and is darned hard to look at. Teach Yourself publishes a right good little text for Ukrainian, though, which includes enough glossary to probably meet your needs.

A couple of final notes: L'vivians are really not so hostile to Russian speakers as everyone would have you believe. To domineering ethnic Russians who've made no attempt to say even 'please' or 'thank you' in Ukrainian, yes. But you're not one of those.

FWIW, I find Ukrainian by far the nicest on the ear. It hasn't got nearly so much palatal twistiness as Russian, it hasn't got those blasted nasal vowels like Polish, and the g->h softening just makes everything milder.

Off-topic: I recommend you contact Walter Rusel of the Ukrainian Genealogical and Historical Society of Canada (Box 0, Blaine Lake, SK, Canada, S0J 0J0). I met him in L'viv two years ago, where he was collecting boxloads of maps and other research materials to bring back. Also, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finished a microfilming project with the L'viv Diocese of the Greek Catholic Church at about that time, so if your people were Catholic, that's definitely worth a shot.
posted by eritain at 2:55 PM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ukrainian women are hotter eh? Let me give this a try:
Я іноземець. Я вас кохаю!

P.S. All the comments thus far have been terrific and several are worth best answer. Thank you all (and more insights are welcome).
posted by rinkjustice at 3:34 PM on June 22, 2006

If your main reason for learning either of these languages is tracking down your ancestors, I'd go with Polish The region you are interested in, what is now the western Ukraine (Zaleszczyki for example) was, in the time of your grandparents and great grandparents (known as the inter-war years in these parts), part of the 2nd Republic of Poland. That includes Lwów/L'viv/Lviv. Materials from that time would be in Polish.

During my travels in Lwów, I found that almost everyone spoke either English or Polish. When they didn't, my mom would just speak to them in Polish, they'd speak to her in Ukranian and they just understood each other. Ukranians in western Ukraine are also more likely to speak polish than Poles in eastern Poland.

I'll just add that all the Ukranians I've met in Poland have been absolute GENIUSES. Most of them speak 4-6 languages and had doctorates before turning 25.
posted by jedrek at 4:35 PM on June 22, 2006

Rinkjustice: I emailed a cousin who has done exactly the same thing you want to do: He learned Polish and traveled to Poland to do genealogy research. I think he's even been to Galicia/Lwów. From what I have picked up second hand, I would second jedrek's advice to learn Polish for the research; western Ukraine was part of Poland as recently as the period between WWI and WWII. (When the Germans lost and the Soviets won, the boarders pushed away from the USSR and toward Germany.)

If your family is ethnically Polish, the records will most likely be Catholic Church records written in Polish. If they are Ukrainian, they will be in Eastern Orthodox churches in Ukrainian. The difference in religion helped to keep the two populations distinct- Catholics in Galicia were Catholic, and Ukrainians were Orthodox.

If you study some Polish history, this is a good place to start. Poland has a very rich history which is quite unappreciated in North America, even where I grew up in (heavily Polish) Buffalo, NY. It has only been through looking into genealogy that I've begun to appreciate the history of my ancestral homeland.
posted by Doohickie at 9:42 PM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Poles were Roman Catholic, and Ukrainians were either Orthodox or "Greek Catholic" (culturally Orthodox but administratively Catholic). I'm not sure which language was used for recordkeeping among the Greek Catholics; Church Slavonic used to be used for the liturgy.
posted by eritain at 5:19 AM on July 1, 2006

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