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A Palimpsest of the Past

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March 14, 2022 11:33 a.m.

One of the many fascinating dimensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is rooted in language. When this story moved to the center of our news in the United States almost a decade ago I had the rough and incorrect sense that Ukrainian was something like a deep regional dialect of Russian — distinct but certainly mutually intelligible. But this is not the case. One of my guides in learning about this has been our Josh Kovensky, who is a fluent Russian speaker and lived in Ukraine for three years working as a journalist before coming to TPM. He’s described it to me as more like the difference between some of the more proximate Romance languages, like Spanish and Italian. He describes being able to get some of the gist of what someone is saying in Ukrainian. But it’s imperfect at best. Basically it’s someone speaking a different language. I have also heard it compared to the difference between English and Dutch — two closely related West Germanic languages which are not remotely mutually intelligible.

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