Ukrainian is an East Slavic language, one of three members of this language group, the other two being Russian and Belarusian. Written Ukrainian bears resemblances to these two languages, but with several notable differences. Historically, Belarusian and Ukrainian diverged from Old or Middle Ruthenian language. Spoken literary Ukrainian, however finds a closer similarity for native speakers with Slovak. Spoken Ukrainian also exhibits marked similarities to Polish vocabulary, which some attribute, in part, to an influence of Polish upon Ruthenian and Ukrainian.
Scholarship on the early history of the Ukrainian language was hampered by the lack of Ukrainian independence. Thus, much of the early scholarship of the language was viewed through the lens of foreign neighboring conceptions. The existence of a separate Ukrainian language was not generally accepted even 100 years ago (see the 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica, for instance). Soviet historiography manifested an ideology of three brotherly East Slavic nations. Russian scholars tend to admit a difference between Ukrainian and Russian only at later time periods (fourteenth through 16th centuries). Some Ukrainian scholars see a divergence between the language of Halych-Volynia and the language of Novgorod-Suzdal by the 1100s. Some European and American linguists concur. During the time of the incorporation of Ruthenia (Ukraine and Belarus) into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ukrainian (Rus'ian or Ruthenian or Little Russian or Little Rusian or Malorusian) and Belarusian diverged into identifiably separate languages.
See also Ruthenian language.
Beyond the polemics of national pride and imperialist conceptions, the continuous presence of Slavic settlements in Ukraine, since at least the 6th century, provides an underlying ethno-linguistic factual basis for the origins of the Ukrainian language. The westernmost areas of modern-day Ukraine lay to the south from the postulated homeland of the original Slavs.
Immigration of Slavic tribes to the Western Slavic and Southern Slavic portions of Eastern Europe led to the dissolution of Early Common Slavic into three groups by the seventh century (East Slavic, West Slavic, South Slavic). During this time period, some East Slavic elements could have already provided a Slavic identity to the Antes civilization (of which nothing but an Iranian name is known).
Kievan Rus’ and Halych-Volynia
During a period of overlordship by the Khazars, the territory of Ukraine, originally settled by Iranian (post-Scythian), Turkic (post-Hunnic, proto-Bulgarian), and Finno-Ugric (proto-Hungarians) tribes, was progressively Slavized by several waves of migration from the Slavic north. Finally, the Varangian ruler of Novgorod, called Oleg, seized Kiev and established the political entity recently called Rus' after the Rus' proper area near Novgorod. Some theorists see an early Ukrainian stage in language development here; others term this era Early East Slavic or Old Ruthenian/Rus'ian. Russian theorists tend to amalgamate Rus' to the modern nation of Russia, and call this linguistic era Old Russian. Some hold that linguistic unity over Rus' was not present, but tribal diversity in language was present.
The era of Rus' is the subject of some linguistic controversy, as the language of much of the literature was purely or heavily Old Slavonic. At the same time, most legal documents throughout Rus' have been written in a purely East Slavic language (supposed to be based on the Kiev dialect of that epoch). Scholarly controversies over earlier development aside, literary records from Rus' testify to substantial divergence between Russian and Ruthenian/Rusyn forms of the Ukrainian language as early as the era of Rus'. One vehicle of this divergence (or widening divergence) was the large scale appropriation of the Old Slavonic language in the northern reaches of Rus' and of the Polish language at the territory of modern Ukraine. The large role for Old Slavonic, borrowed from the Christian worship service, was caused by the assimilation of large numbers of Finno-Ugric and Turkic tribes to the relatively small native Slavic-speaking settlements in Ukraine. As evidenced by the contemporary chronicles, the ruling princes of Halych and Kiev called themselves "Russkie," which contrasts sharply with the lack of self-appellation for the area until the mid-19th century. Modern term for the country, Ukraine, is derived from the Russian word for border area, which had been used originally to denote "ukraines" in Karelia, Ural, and elsewhere.
One prominent example of this north-south divergence in Rus' from around 1200, was the epic, The Tale of Igor's Campaign. Like other examples of Old Russian literature (e.g., Byliny, the Russian Primary Chronicle), it survived only in Northern Russia (Yaroslavl-Nizhegorod belt) and was probably written there. It shows dialectal features characteristic of Kursk-Seversk dialect with the exception of two words which were wrong interpreted by early-19th century German scholars as Polish loanwords.
Post-independence: Lithuania/Poland, Muscovy/Russia, and Austria Hungary
After the fall of Halych-Volynia, Ukrainians mainly fell under the rule of Lithuania, then Poland. Local autonomy of both rule and language was a marked feature of Lithuanian rule. Polish rule, which came mainly later, was accompanied by a more assimilationist policy. The Polish language has had heavy influences on Ukrainian (and on Belarusian, too). As the Ukrainian language developed further, some borrowings from Tatar and Turkish occurred. Ukrainian culture and language flourished in 16th and first half of 17th century, when Ukraine was part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ukrainian was also the official language of Ukrainian provinces of Crown of Polish Kingdom. Among many schools found in that time, the Kijovian Academy, founded by the Orthodox Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, was the most important. The substance of Ukrainian culture didn't stand the anarchy of Khmelnytsky Uprising and following wars. Kijovian Academy was taken over by Russia and most of Ukrainian nobles and schools switched to Polish. Gradually the official language of Ukrainian provinces of Poland was changed to Polish as well, while Russian part of Ukraine used Russian widely.
After the partitions of Poland, the Ukrainian language was banned from printing by Alexander II of Russia, in the Ems Ukaz, that retarded the development of the Ukrainian language. At the same time, in Galicia, Ukrainian language was widely used in the education and in official documents.
During the seven decade long Soviet era, the Ukrainian language, in law and theory, held the position of the principal local language in the Ukrainian SSR. However, practice was often a different story: Ukrainian always had to compete with Russian, and the attitudes of the Soviet leadership have often been unfavorable to Ukrainian.
(Note: The Soviet Union had no official languages. Still it was implicitly understood in the hopes of minority nations that Ukrainian would be used in the Ukrainian SSR, Uzbek would be used in the Uzbek SSR, etc. However, Russian was used in all parts of the Soviet Union, so it was in a privileged position — although formally all languages were held up as equal.) Often the Ukrainian language was frowned upon and thought to be inferior to the Russian Language, which led to its suppression. As an effect of the suppression of the Ukrainian language, in many parts of Ukraine, notably most urban areas of the east and south, Russian is still widely spoken.
Soviet language policy in Ukraine is divided into six policy periods
- Ukrainianization & Tolerance (1921–1927)
- Persecution & Russification (1928–1957)
- Khrushchev Thaw (1958–1962)
- The Shelest period: Limited Progress (1963–1972)
- The Scherbytsky Period: Gradual Suppression (1973–1989)
- Gorbachev & Perestroika (1990–1991)
Early Soviet rule: rapid Ukrainianization
First, the Soviet regime found itself as the occupying power in a nation that had just undergone a large-scale national awakening. This necessitated a policy of strategic concession to national language development in order to win the allegiance of the population (1921–1927). Following the loss of independence during the post-WWI era (1918–1921) the Russian Bolshevik occupation regime pursued a strategic policy of putting down roots. This necessitated a policy of Ukrainization, both of the government and party personnel, and an impressive education program which raised the literacy of the Ukrainophone rural areas. Newly-generated academic efforts from the period of independence were co-opted by the Bolshevik government. The party and government apparatus was overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian, largely urban Russians and Jews — and these were cultivated with courses on the Ukrainian language. Simultaneously, the newly-literate ethnic Ukrainians migrated to the cities, which became rapidly largely Ukrainianized — in both population and in education.
Persecution and Russification
The Stalinist era, characterized by massive repressions and many other hardships, followed. Many Ukrainians often emphasize that the repressions were applied earlier and more fiercely in Ukraine and were therefore anti-Ukrainian; some others assert that Stalin's goal was the generic crushing of any dissent, rather that targeting the Ukrainians in particular.
The Stalinist era also marked the beginning of the Soviet policy of encouraging Russian as the language of (inter-Republic) Soviet communication. Although Ukrainian continued to be used (in print, education, radio and later television programs), it lost its primary place in advanced learning and republic-wide media. Ukrainian was considered to be of a secondary importance, and an excessive attachment to it was considered a sign of nationalism and so "politically incorrect". At the same time, the new Soviet Constitution adopted in 1936 stipulated that teaching in schools should be in native languages.
The major repressions started in 1929–30, when a large group of intellectuals was arrested and most were executed. In Ukrainian history, this group is often referred to as "Executed Renaissance " (розстріляне відродження in Ukrainian). "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" was declared to be the primary problem in Ukraine. The terror peaked in 1933, four to five years before the Soviet-wide "Great Purge," which, for Ukraine, was a second blow. The vast majority of the leading scholars and cultural leaders of Ukraine were liquidated, as were the "Ukrainianized" and "Ukrainianizing" portions of the Communist party. Soviet Ukraine's autonomy was completely destroyed by the late 1930s. In its place, the glorification of Russia as the first nation to throw off the capitalist yoke had begun, accompanied by the migration of Russian workers into parts of Ukraine which were undergoing industrialization, and the mandatory teaching of classic Russian language and literature. Ideologists warned of over-glorifying Ukraine's Kozak (Cossack) past, and supported the closing of Ukrainain cultural institutions and literary publications. The systematic assault upon Ukrainian identity in culture and education, combined with use of artificial famine upon the peasantry - the backbone of the nation - dealt Ukrainian language and identity a crippling blow from which it would not completely recover.
This policy succession was repeated in the Soviet extension of the occupation of Ukraine to the Western Ukraine. In 1939, and again in the late 1940s, a policy of Ukrainianization was implemented. By the early 1950s, Ukrainian was persecuted and a campaign of Russification has begun.
The Khrushchev thaw
With the death of Stalin in the late 1950s, a general policy of liberalization of the anti-national language policies of the past was implemented (1958–1963). The Khrushchev era which followed, saw, unlike the Soviet policy of Ukrainianization of the 1920s, a policy of relatively lenient concessions to local development of the languages on the local and republican level. Journals and encyclopedic publications advanced in the Ukrainian language during this period. Yet, a decision to allow parents to choose the language of instruction for their children, unpopular among patriots in the non-Russian republics, meant that non-Russian languages would slowly give way to Russian in light of the pressures of survival and advancement. The gains of the past, already largely reversed by the Stalin era, were offset by the removal of the requirement to study the local languages (the requirement to study Russian remained). Parents were free to choose the language of study of their children, but they too often chose Russian, that guaranteed the resulting Russification. In this sense, some analysts argue that it was not the "oppression" or "persecution", but rather the lack of protection against the expansion of Russian language that contributed to the relative decline of Ukrainian in 1970s and 1980s. According to this view, it was inevitable that successful careers required a good command of Russian, while knowledge of Ukrainian was not vital, so it was common for Ukrainian parents to send their children to Russian-language schools, even though Ukrainian-language schools were available. In addition, the complete suppression of all expressions of separatism or Ukrainian nationalism also contributed to lessening interest toward Ukrainian. So, for many Ukrainians at this time, Russian language was a valuable asset, while Ukrainian was more of a hobby. In any event, the mild liberalization in Ukraine and elsewhere was stifled by new suppression of freedoms at the end of the Khrushchev era (1963).
At the close of the Khrushchev era, a policy of repression of Ukrainian was re-instituted.
Later, the Soviet Ukrainian language policy was divided into two eras: first, the Shelest period (early 1960s to early 1970s), which was relatively liberal towards the development of the Ukrainian language. The second era, the policy of Shcherbytsky (early 1970s to early 1990s), was one of gradual repression of the Ukrainian language.
The Shelest period
The Communist Party leader Petro Shelest pursued a policy of the defense of Ukraine's interests within the Soviet Union. He proudly promoted the beauty of the Ukrainian language and developed plans to expand the role of Ukrainian in higher education. He was removed, however, after only a brief reign, for being too lenient on Ukrainian nationalism.
The Shcherbytsky period
The new party boss, Shcherbytsky, purged the local party, was fierce in suppressing dissent, and used the Russian language at official functions. His policy of Russification was lessened only slightly after 1985.
Gorbachev and Perestroika
The management of dissent by the local Ukrainian Communist party was more fierce and thorough than in other parts of the Soviet Union. As a result, at the start of the Gorbachev reforms, Ukraine under Shcherbytsky was slower to liberalize than Russia itself. Thus, on the eve of Ukrainian independence, the nation had already been transformed into "Russians," or more commonly, Russianized Ukrainians, or people of the "Little Russian" or "homo Sovieticus" mentality. The Russian language was the dominant vehicle, not just of government function, but of the media, commerce, and modernity itself. This was substantially less true of western Ukraine, which escaped the artificial famine, Great Purge, and most of Stalinism. And this region became the piedmont of a hearty, if only partial renaissance of the Ukrainian language during independence.
Independence in the modern era
Since 1991, the independent Ukraine has made Ukrainian the only official state language (under last census the percentage of Ukrainian speaking population rose to 67% and the Russian has decreased to 24%). Minority languages, including Russian, are permitted to be used at the local level, both governmental and commercial. Ethnic Russians have migrated in large numbers to better economic opportunities in Russia, and Russians, mixed families and Russophone Ukrainians have come to self-identify as Ukrainians. The educational system in Ukraine has been transformed over the first decade of independence from a system that is half-Ukrainian to one that is overwhelmingly so. The government has also mandated a progressively increased role for Ukrainian in the media and commerce. Due to lack of a coordinated policy and supportive export tax laws in neighboring Russia, however, the Russian-language predominance in the print media has only increased since independence.
In two presidential elections (1994 and 2004), the adoption of Russian as a second state language was an election promise by one of the main candidates (Leonid Kuchma in 1994, Viktor Yanukovych in 2004). This promise contributed to Kuchma's win by bringing him the support of the eastern and southern regions. He was President for ten years, but never made Russian a state language.
History of Ukrainian literature
The literary Ukrainian language may be subdivided into four stages: 1) the Old East Slavic (7th – 11th centuries); 2) Old Ukrainian (12th-14th Centuries); 3) Middle Ukrainian (14th - 18th Centuries); and, 4) the Modern Ukrainian (since the end of the 18th century to the present). A lot of literature has been written in the Old and Middle Ukrainian language eras: legal acts, polemical articles, science treatises and fiction of all sorts.
Influential literary figures in the development of the Modern Ukrainian literature included the philosopher Hryhori Skovoroda, Mykola Kostomarov , Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and Lesia Ukrainka. The literary language is based on the dialect of Poltava region, with heavy influences of the dialect spoken in the west, notably Halychyna. For most of its history, Russian letters were used for written Ukrainian (for example, by Shevchenko). The modern writing, which introduced several distinct letters (І, Ї, Є, Ґ) and modified usage of another (И), has been developed in the late 19th century in Austrian -controlled Galicia.
- Cyrillic letters in this article are romanized using scientific transliteration .
Old East Slavic (and Russian) o often corresponds to Ukrainian i, as in pod/pid "under". This also happens when Ukrainian words are declined, such as rik (nom): rotsi (loc) "year". Also, the letter Г renders different consonants in Old East Slavic and Ukrainian, see language notes in Cyrillic alphabet. Ukrainian Г is the voiced cognate of Old East Slavic Х (and so is often transliterated as Latin h), while the Russian (and Old East Slavic) one is pronounced the same as English g, as in good or as the French g in gateau. Russian speakers from Ukraine often use the 'soft' Ukrainian Г, in place of the 'hard' Old East Slavic one.
Ukrainian case endings are somewhat different from Old East Slavic, and the vocabulary includes a large overlay of Polish terminology. Russian na pervom etazhe "on the first floor" is in the prepositional case. The Ukrainian corresponding expression is na pershomu poversi, which sounds ungrammatical to the Russian ear. -omu is the standard locative (prepositional) ending, but variants in -im are common in dialect and poetry, and allowed by the standards bodies. The x of Ukrainian poverx has mutated under the influence of the soft vowel i (k is similarly unstable in final positions).
The Ukrainian language is currently emerging from a long period of decline. Although there are almost fifty million ethnic Ukrainians worldwide, including 37.5 million in Ukraine (77.8% of the total population), only in western Ukraine is the Ukrainian language prevalent. In Kiev, both languages are spoken, a notable shift from Russian occurring due to an influx of migrants from the western regions after the independence. In northern and central Ukraine, Russian is the language of the urban population, while in rural areas Ukrainian is much more common. This is also true of much of the south and the east. In the Crimea Ukrainian is almost absent. Use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine can be expected to increase, as the rural population of Ukraine (still overwhelmingly Ukrainophone) migrates into the cities and the Ukrainian language enters into wider use in central Ukraine. On the other hand, the vocabulary of Ukrainian is still limited and is not as extensive as that of more developed languages, like English, German or Russian. This can largely be attributed to the lack of a prolonged period of encouraged development. As a result, not as many linguists, poets and writers extended the vocabulary of the literary language.
Several modern dialects of Ukrainian exist:
- Ukrainian proper (spoken in the central part of the nation, and around Kyiv).
- A mix of Ukrainian and Russian, with varying proportions, spoken in some rural regions of the east, south and center. This is commonly referred to as "Surzhyk".
Galician, in the region of the Carpathian Mountains, several sub-dialects developed in areas under the influence of different languages (Polish, Czech, and Slovak). The linguistic differences are minor, but those of identity remain serious.
Ruthenian; these Galicians tend to associate themselves with Russia.
Rusyn, identifying themselves as Ukrainian.
- Nash, mostly from the Slovak region, identifying themselves as Slovak, Ukrainian, or Galician. Nash literally means "our own".
Ukrainian is also spoken by a large emigre population, particularly in Canada. The founders of this population primarily emigrated from Galicia that used to be part of Austria-Hungary before World War I and between the World Wars belonged to Poland. Their vocabulary reflects somewhat less russification than the modern language of independent Ukraine — for "store/shop" they might prefer kramnytsya (cf. Polish kramarz, orig. German) to mahazyn (cf. Russ. magazin, orig. French), whereas in Ukraine mahazyn is much more common and kramnytsya somewhat self-conscious.
The Ukrainian language has six vowels (a, e, i, y, o, u) and one semi-vowel j. The combination of j with some of the vowels is represented by a single letter (ja = я, je = є, ji = ї, ju = ю). jo and jy are written using two letters (jy is used in certain dialects only).
Most of the consonants come in 3 forms: hard, soft (palatalized) and long, for example, l, lj, ll or n, nj, nn. In writing the vowels change the preceding consonant from hard to soft or vice versa. In special cases, for example, at the end of the word a special soft sign is used to indicate that the consonant is soft. An apostrophe is used to indicate the hardness of the sound in the cases when normally the vowel would change the consonant to soft. The letter is repeated to indicate that the sound is long. Ukrainians tend to pronounce long sounds where the letters are doubled in other language, English or Russian, for example.
Sounds dz and dzh do not have dedicated letters in the alphabet and are rendered with two letters (дз and дж). Yet, they are single sounds rather than two sounds d z and d zh, pronounced separately. dzh is like English g in huge, dz is pronounced like ds in pods.
The Ukrainian alphabet is almost phonetic with the exception of the three sounds that do not have dedicated letters and complex but intuitive (for a native) rules of the change of softness or hardness of the consonants by the following vowels.
Ukrainian language has 5 tenses:
- present: читає
- past: читав
- pre-past: був читав
- future complex: буде читати
- future simple: читатиме
All verbs in Ukrainian fall in either of two categories: perfect or imperfect. In order to express the idea that the action is finished one has to use a perfect verb, an imperfect verb does not have a perfect form and vice versa.
For example, the verb pysaty (write) is an imperfect verb. For the perfect form there exist a number of related verbs each expressing slightly different aspect of have written : napysaty, zapysaty, perepysaty, prypysaty, dopysaty, spysaty, etc.
In the present and future tenses, verbs are conjugated according to the person and number. Like in Russian, however, the past tense does not indicate the person, but instead gender.
- Orest Subtelny. Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. ISBN 0-8020-5809-6.
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:34:49