On Friday, Buzzfeed reporter Mike Giglio recounted on Twitter the ordeal he and translator Elena Glazunova had when held by pro-Russia separatists near the breakaway town of Slovyansk, in eastern Ukraine. After being arrested, they were taken to an undisclosed location, along with some other unfortunate journalists, and held for a few hours, kept in a state of confusion that was likely also felt by their captors. Giglio later shared this absurd moment from his detention:
To prove that I was a U.S. citizen as advertised, the woman asked me to name the U.S. capital, then to pronounce the word “garden.” I passed, but a British journalist wasn’t so lucky, receiving two stiff punches from one of the armed men when the English-speaking woman questioned the integrity of his accent. “Are you American?” the woman demanded of the poor man.
I was confused as to why an American reporter would be forced to speak the word "garden" in such circumstances and so decided to ask some Slavic language experts. They expressed bemusement when told of Giglio's interrogation -- "This is silly," says Volodymyr Dibrova, who teaches Ukrainian at Harvard University -- but kindly offered some pointers on the basic distinctions between Russian and Ukrainian pronunciation (there are obviously clear differences in lexicon, as well).
The separatists are on the lookout for supposed interlopers from western Ukraine, whose accent when speaking in Russian would probably give them away. In his viewing of amateur footage and videos coming out of eastern Ukraine, Dibrova has noticed many of the pro-Russian fighters demanding of others "where are you from?" -- a paranoia, perhaps, that spurred Giglio's detention.
But why "garden"?
The first obvious distinction between typical Ukrainian and Russian speech is the Ukrainian habit of voicing a sort of breathy, throaty "h" sound while Russians would more likely voice a "g" sound. "We have both sounds in Ukrainian, but 'h' is much more frequent," said Svitlana Melnyk, a lecturer at the University of Indiana. (I somehow doubt Giglio would have thought to say "harden".)
Marc Greenberg, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Kansas, adds that the Russian word for a town or city -- gorod -- comes out as "horod" in Ukrainian; in Ukrainian only can the world also be used to mean "garden."
Vowels are treated differently as well. A Ukrainian speaker would tend to pronounce vowels fully and as they are written. "Unlike Ukrainian pronunciation," says Melnyk, "Russian speakers tend to use short, traduced vowels." The word for ‘milk’, for example, while written the same in Cyrillic, is pronounced məlako in Russian and moloko in Ukrainian. The unaccented "o" in Russian turns into an "a" whereas in Ukrainian it always remains an "o".
Tiny subtle intonations can give you away. Ukrainian does not employ what linguists call "consonant devoicing," whereas, in Russian, certain consonants disappear when spoken.
But this is a very crude sketch. As Greenberg notes, the Russian spoken in eastern Ukraine, as well as southern Russia, "shades into Ukrainian"-- the "h" for "g" swap, for example, is hardly a guide to political affiliations in the region.
This gets to the rather complicated and controversial role of language as a whole in the present conflict. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, "language has been used as a proxy for identity," says Greenberg. Putin and his officials have championed the cause of Russian-speakers, invoking a nostalgia for a shared homeland that works well in certain corners of the former Soviet world like Crimea and the breakaway territory of Transnistra.
But, says Harvard's Dibrova, "the truth is that Ukrainians are bilingual" and that there are plenty of “Russian-speakers” whose first language has little to do with their sense of national belonging. "This 19th century view of national identity is becoming dimmer and dimmer," Dibrova says. But -- as the violence in parts of the country worsens and the threat of war looms -- not dim enough.