Introduction to Ukrainian language

stasya | 20.01.2011 | 7

The first thing one should start from, when learning a new language, is the alphabet.

Knowing the letters and sounds you will encounter during your long journey sure is useful and helps a lot with learning new words.

Once you have mastered the alphabet consider yourself officially in!

To be serious I find it really hard for English-speaking (or people whose native language is based on Latin alphabet) people to actually understand and “see” Cyrillic letters. Very often they confuse letters like “b” and “ь” or “R” and “Я” or “n” and “п” etc., which leads to some sort of mutant words. Can't say I can blame them, but if you want to study well and understand what you're studying you shouldn't mix the letters thus preventing the mess in your head and other people's heads.

Coming to the point, let's look through the actual alphabet:

Upright Italic Pronunciation Tips
Аа Аа /ɑ/ like in "bus"
Бб Бб /b/ like in "best"
Вв Вв /w/a like in "vest"
Гг Гг /ɦ/  
Ґґ Ґґ /g/ like in "ground"
Дд Дд /d/, /dʲ/ like in "deck"
Ее Ее /ɛ/ like in "end"
Єє Єє /jɛ/ or /ʲɛ/ like in "yellow"
Жж Жж /ʒ/ like in "pleasure"
Зз Зз /z/, /zʲ/ like in "zap"
Ии Ии /ι/ like in "trip"
Іі Іі /i/, /ʲi/ like in "bee"
Її Її /ji/ like in "yeast"
Йй Йй /j/ like "j" sound in "play"
Кк Кк /k/ like in "crowd"
Лл Лл /l/, /lʲ/ like in "loud"
Мм Мм /m/ like in "mother"
Нн Нн /n/, /nʲ/ like in "nest"
Оо Оо /ɔ/ like in "folk"
Пп Пп /p/ like in "pride"
Рр Рр /r/, /rʲ/ like in "rest" but harder
Сс Сс /s/, /sʲ/ like in "steak"
Тт Тт /t/, /tʲ/ like in "test" but not so soft
Уу Уу /u/ like in "bull"
Фф Фф /f/ like in "fun"
Хх Хх /x/ like in "heart"
Цц Цц /͡ts/, /͡tsʲ/ like "ts" in "tsunami"
Чч Чч /͡tʃ/ like in "chest"
Шш Шш /ʃ/ like "sh" in "shelf"
Щщ Щщ /ʃ͡tʃ/ combination of "sh" and "ch"
Ьь Ьь /ʲ/ a soft sign
Юю Юю /ju/ or /ʲu/ like in "you"
Яя Яя /ja/ or /ʲa/ like in "yard"

 

Remember:

  1. Ukrainian consonants by themselves are not and can not be soft. Thus don't pronounce letters “р” (r), “т” (t), “ч” (ch), “ш” (sh), “щ” (shch) softly like in English;

  2. “ь” is a consonant, but it can't be pronounced by itself. It's only purpose is to soften consonants before it.

More about letters

Vowels

There are two types of vowels in Ukrainian language:

  1. Hard vowels: а, е, и, і, о.

  2. Iotified vowels: я, ю, є, ї. The name comes from the consonant “й” (iot).

    й + а = я

    й + у = ю

    й + е = є

    й + і = ї

Consonants

You may find the names of the following groups a bit hard to understand or memorize, that's why I recommend to focus on the consonants from each group instead.

  1. Labials (б, п, в, м, ф): these consonants can't be soft and can never be doubled (remember them well, because they will appear in the article about apostrophes).

  2. Post-alveolar sibilants (ж, ч, ш, щ): can't be soft either. They never come in pair with iotified vowels я, ю, є, ї or soft sign ь. Сan be doubled.

  3. Dentals (д, з, л, н, с, т, ц): these letters can be both hard and soft. Can be doubled.

  4. Alveolar (р): this letter can be either hard or soft. It is always hard at the end of a syllable. It is always hard at the end of a word and is never followed by a soft sign. Сan never be doubled.

  5. Velars (г, ґ, к, х): these letters are always hard. Can never be doubled.

 

One more thing. You may find in different sources that the consonants: б, п, в, м, ф / ж, ч, ш, щ / г, ґ, к, х can be both soft and hard (unlike above), which is actually due to a fact that in Ukrainian language we have two categories for “soft”: soft and softened. The second one means that the consonant isn't soft fully, but only in a half. Nevertheless, I don't think you will understand such explanation in full, but still I have to notice this to guard myself from further questions on this.

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horace | 03.11.2011 | #

For iot, it says "like the j in play." Do you mean "like the y?"

stasya | 16.01.2012 | #

I was talking about the sound, that's why I wrote "j". But yes, the letter "y" in "play" is the one that sounds like Ukrainian consonant "iot". It can get tricky at times to make transcription of Cyrillic letters/words with Latin symbols, especially when there isn't one rule for that.

Іван Лопата | 25.07.2012 | #

Well, there isn't one rule for transliteration of Cyrillic because there are several systems. :)

But in these cases anyway I think the best solution would be a phonemic transcription, such as /pleɪ/. Yes, I know it looks nasty to many, but it's the best way to get rid of such confusion when talking about actual language sounds.

Іван Лопата | 25.07.2012 | #

It's good that you added a phonetic description of the sounds, that gives a clue of where and how the sounds are produced in the mouth. Those who know a little of phonetics won't have trouble to understand it.

May I suggest you also add that soft actually stands for palatal, softened for palatalised, and hard for non-palatal. If you think about it, those two traditional grammar terms tell nothing about the nature of those sounds. Moreover, they're terms meant for natives who already speak the language properly.

You produce them naturally in any case because they're part of your native language, but for learners who haven't those sounds in their languages they're hard to pronounce because they don't know what to do with their mouths exactly.

So if they're told, «make this sound soft», they have no clue. What's soft? Just a description of how the sound sounds.

But if they're told, «do the sound as before, but this time touching your palate with your tongue», they know what to do.

I hope it doesn't reads too technical.

stasya | 29.07.2012 | #

Thank you for the suggestion, really. I appreciate every bit of an advice coming from visitors.

Still I don't think I am going to change the table, because I haven't intended to go deep into the sounds of the letters in the first place. Basically this site is supposed to explain grammar rules from my point of view and the way I was taught at school and so on. I would love to add the audio but it's just technically impossible, as well as it requires more resources etc.

Please understand that I am not rejecting your proposal because of my arrogance or something. It's just that the phonetics lies beyond the purpose of this site for the time being. I don't want to just slightly touch it, because it has to be done thoroughly and with audio examples, otherwise it's no use.

Best regards,

Stasya.

Іван Лопата | 16.11.2012 | #

No worries. It's your website and the choice's yours, of course. I appreciate the effort you take to promote your language abroad, when there are so few resources available for studying it, thank you for it.

I just thought you might be interested in the point of view of learners from non-Slavic languages.

I'm also aware of how the very word phonetics has the effect of scaring people off as if it were black magic, even among language professionals, so never mind. :)

hudnut217 | 27.08.2016 | #

How would you phonetically represent in Ukrainian the English long A sound as found in words like "say", "gate", "paid"?