“This word — I do not think it means, what you think it means”: Idiosyncrasies of the Ukrainian Language

Ukrainian is a difficult language — the hardest part about it is memorizing and correctly using all seven cases (Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive, Instrumental, Locative, and a case for formal address). Ukrainian also rarely uses the verb “to be” in the present tense and has no articles. Despite its difficulty, though, Ukrainian has grown on me and now I can speak it well enough to communicate most of what I need to say. My vocabulary isn’t huge, but I can usually explain my way around words I don’t know.

My friend and fellow PCV, Kate, suggested a while back that I do a blog post on some of the idiosyncrasies of Ukrainian. (I’ve written about Surzhyk, the Russian-Ukrainian mixture, before, but I can’t seem to find that blog post to link it for you.) It took us PCVs a while to figure out that some Ukrainian words are not used in the way that they’d be literally translated to English. Here are my favorites:

  • The first two sort of act as a pair: вже (vzhe) and зараз (zaraz).
    • вже literally translates to “already” or “yet.” However, in daily Ukrainian communication it is often used to mean “right now.” A common sentence in which this meaning comes out: “Я вже іду” (ya vzhe idu). Literally, this translates to “I already go/am going.” In this context, however, it roughly means, “I’m coming right now” or “I’m on the way” or “I’m just leaving.” I love this! Usually it means something will happen rather quickly.
    • Which brings me to зараз. This word literally means “now.” But if we put зараз into the above sample sentence and say “Я зараз іду” (ya zaraz idu), it can’t mean “I’m coming now” because  “Я вже іду” means that… So in this context, зараз means “in a minute” or “in a little while.” Now if we translate the sample sentence, it means “I’m going/leaving in a minute.” зараз is also often used alone to mean something like “we’ll get to it.” For example, if one of my pupils asks me if we will go over the homework but I don’t want to do it just yet, I’ll say “зараз” to indicate that we will do it sometime during the lesson, just not right now (even though зараз literally means “now”)…are you confused yet?
    • Summaryвже literally means “already, yet” but is often used to mean “right now.” зараз literally means “now” but is often used to mean “in a minute.” Fun, no?
  • Next up: saying goodbye on the phone or at the end of a conversation/visit. Most commonly used in my area is the phrase, все, папа” (vce, papA — though even here in Ukrainian-speaking territory, people in my town usually say vcyo, the Russian version). Literally, this means “all/everything, bye,” which sort of works. A better translation is “that’s all, bye” — this easily indicates that the conversation or visit is over and hints to the other person that the speaker needs/wants to go. всеis a wonderfully versatile word and can be used in many contexts: at the bazaar when you’ve asked for everything you need and are ready for the seller to tell you how much to pay; after rattling off a monologue to indicate that you’ve reached the end of it…
    • все is also often paired with another versatile word, давай (davai). This is one of PCVs’ favorite Ukrainian/Russian words because, like все, it can be used in many different situations. давай literally means  “come on” and is often used in that context as well as to mean “let’s go.” At the end of a telephone conversation, many people say goodbye and hang up after saying “все давай” (vce davai, literally “that’s all, let’s…”). Sort of a funny way to hang up the phone without actually saying goodbye, but it works.
  • Aside from давай, another way to say “let’s go” is to say “пішли!” (pishly) to your group of friends. This is actually the past tense of the verb “піти” (peetY), to leave/depart. So пішли literally means, “we/you all/they left.” Doesn’t make sense. “пішли!” actually means, “let’s go!” in this context.
  • Similarly, when a person is leaving a place to go somewhere else — such as when I’m leaving my friend’s shop to go home — he/she says “я пішла” (ya pishla, for a girl) or “я пішов” (ya pishov, if he’s a boy). Again, these are past tense forms of піти, so they literally mean “I left.” But again here they indicate “I’m going” or “I’m gone!” You can also put them together with another word we learned today and say “все, я пішла,” which I like to translate as “that’s all, I’m out.”

I hope you enjoyed some insight into the Ukrainian language. It really is fascinating and it’s fun to pick up little tidbits like this; the longer I live here, the more hidden meanings I pick up.

P.S. The quote in this post’s title is from The Princess Bride, in case you didn’t get it.


5 thoughts on ““This word — I do not think it means, what you think it means”: Idiosyncrasies of the Ukrainian Language

  1. Amanda Lucille says:

    Out of curiosity, do they really say “все, папа” in the West? In my part of Ukraine we say, “все, пока” – пока (pronounced pah-kA – Russian word, Russian phonetic rules regarding o/a) and when used as an interjection пока means “so long” or “see you again.”

    In Ukrainian though, папа usually means… the Pope. Although my host grandmother in the village used to use папа to describe a particular type of bread, so maybe it’s also colloquial in some sense?

    • taplatt says:

      Depends on the emphasis, I think. In Ukrainian, (second syllable emphasis) means “bye” — the equivalent to the Russian . At least that’s what I was told/understood…interesting. Thanks for the insight!

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