Updated: May 1
With the recent exacerbations involving Ukraine, the nation is once again turning a fearful eye to the east, as the threat of war lingers in its shadow. Yet, in all the strife, the language of Russian and Ukrainian play a large role in the dissidence. For centuries, Ukraine’s seemingly endless battle for statehood reflected a dueling and bitter linguistic alchemy between Slavic languages. To better understand the current crisis, it is necessary to examine the history and complexities of language.
The Troubled History Of Ukraine
Ukraine has a profound history of being dominated by outside powers and a limited history of national independence. It was independent for a few years after World War I, and then for a short time in the 1600s. As we will see, in its struggle for sovereignty, language was always involved.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became independent again and Ukrainian became the official state language. The country was under Russian dominance for many centuries, and it’s one reason why there are so many ethnic Russians living there. In Ukraine, One in three speak Russian as their native language, while the rest speak Ukrainian.
It is this language ratio that makes the subject of the Ukraine-Russia discussion divisive. Politically, much of the country sees Moscow as the culprit for Ukraine’s historical emancipation and something to resist, while the rest view Russia as a brother land, with sentiments of heritage to the former Soviet Union.
Interestingly, even its former name, “the Ukraine,” labeled it as a geographical region more than an independent country. Historians believe the name meant “the borderland,” or the country “in-between,” in the Slavic language.
After claiming independence in 1991, Ukraine was divided, and the current ideologies reflect that. Yet the division is defined by language, with around two-thirds of Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian, mostly in the west, while others to the east speak Russian. The language divide is only a blurry part, and it’s a moniker for a more complex ideological and political divide.
Catherine The Great And Stalin
To understand the significance of the current crisis, we must look at how the division started blurring back in the 1700s. Looking at history also clearly demonstrates how much languages impact the current situation.
It began when Russian leader Catherine the Great enforced making Ukraine more Russian by importing ethnic Russians and imposing laws requiring schools to teach Russian rather than the Ukrainian language. While this continued until the 1950s, like today, she also positioned Russian troops on the borders, and in the 1800s the Ukrainian language was banned.
In the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin unleashed the Ukrainian famine that killed several million Ukrainians. He later repopulated the area with ethnic Russians. In the 1940s, he also relocated ethnic Tatars and again replaced them with Russians.
During this period, Russia’s focus was on Ukraine’s east, which had a bountiful amount of fossil fuels and metals, as well as fertile farmland. Even today, Ukraine’s linguistic dividing line remains the line between the rich farmland of the east and the forests of the west.
It is because of this history that many Ukrainians dislike Russia, yet there is still a significant population of families living in Ukraine that have deep connections to Russia and Soviet-era sentiment. It is this national and linguistic conundrum that took centuries to create, and that is a major component of the ongoing crisis.
The Shared History of Slavic Languages
For more than a thousand years of documented history, the Slavic language has often been a polarizing force in global politics. The Slavic languages consist of Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Belorussian, Czech, and many others. While the Slavic languages are closely related to each other and often sound the same to non-native speakers, they are different in many ways.
The linguistic similarities of the Slavic languages in religion, culture, and especially politics, have traveled different roads in history, and the Ukrainian and Russian languages are constantly changing the Eastern European landscape.
Like many other languages, both Russian and Ukrainian have similar linguistic stories. These two languages are derived from the Indo-European family, or more specifically, the Eastern Slavic branch.
Historians believe these languages split around the 12th and 13th centuries, with Ukrainian, considered more influenced by Polish and Slovak languages, while Russian’s prominent influence was the Old Church Slavonic.
When Peter the Great tried to Westernize the Russian language, it helped further separate Russian from Ukrainian. Ukrainian was at one time banned from the Russian Empire altogether in what is now the eastern half of Ukraine.
Yet, the influence that Russia had on the Ukrainian language continued after the Soviets spread Russian throughout the country during the Soviet occupation.
As initiated by Catherine the Great, Russian became the predominant language taught in schools throughout the Soviet Union, and because of the Russian Orthographic Reform of 1917 and 1918. This helped meld some of the current characteristics of the two languages, and it also reveals the prevalence of Russian speakers in Ukraine today. Because of these similar origins, the distinct categories of politics and culture often clash.
The Similarities of Ukrainian and Russian
While Ukrainian and Russian share a mostly analogous alphabet, they are still two different languages. This is true for English, German, and Dutch, as they have some of the same vowels and conjugations. There are some important differences between the Ukrainian and Russian alphabets:
· The Ukrainian alphabet has “Ґ ґ,” “Є є,” “Ї ї,” and “І і,” but the Russian alphabet does not.
· The Russian alphabet has “ы,” “Ё ё,” and “ъ,” but the Ukrainian alphabet does not.
While it’s very subtle, these differences become important when spoken, as the sounds are different in each language. If you consider that Italian and English only have five letter differences, you can better understand how Ukrainian, and Russian, are differentiated by sounds.
Ukrainian and Russian have approximately 60 percent of the same vocabulary. When looking at the vocabulary, Ukrainian is more like Belarusian than Russian. Concerning vocabulary, Russian and Ukrainian have greater differences than most Romance languages, but they share common themes.
For communication in Ukrainian and Russian, the region of the country plays a large part in mutual intelligibility. Different regions all have different dialects, so a Ukrainian that lives close to Russia would understand Russian easier than someone located in the western half of Ukraine.
Ironically, the written form of both languages is understandable because they share the same alphabet. A Russian that has no exposure to Ukrainian could read a document written in Ukrainian and mostly understand it. In linguistic terms, they have an 80% commonality in their writing.
While the writing between the two languages is similar, noticeable differences exist in some grammatical concepts.
· Ukrainian uses -mo ending for first-person plurals.
· Ukrainian uses ‘ as an alternative to the hard sign.
While many changes have occurred in the phonological and phonetic systems of the Slavic language since its early origins in Indo-European, the most fascinating and important sound shifts occur between Common Slavonic and Old Russian. There was a loss of voiceless vowels known as jers, and the inclusion of "akan’je," which is heard in all Slavic languages.
To non-native speakers, spoken Russian and Ukrainian sound the same, yet they are a little different in pronunciation. While they are approximate in sound, native speakers, or speakers of a particular region, would be able to tell the difference. This is another hot point in certain areas of Ukraine, and this is especially true today.
· Ukrainian has numerous soft consonants.
· The Russian language doesn’t have a sound for “Г г.”
· Ukrainian pronounces the “o” as “o” whereas Russians pronounce it typically as an “a.”
· Ukrainian is a phonetic language. Its pronunciation often follows the spelling.
· The Ukrainian “И” and “Е” have different pronunciations contrasted to their Russian equivalents, “Ы” and “Э”.
While Ukrainian and Russian are alike, linguistically speaking, Ukrainian has a more viable connection to Polish than it does with Russian. Some Ukrainians don’t understand or speak Russian, yet because Ukraine is a former Soviet Territory, many Ukrainians grew up speaking or learning Russian. Today, around 60 percent of Ukrainians speak both languages, so it is an amalgam of sometimes conflicted dialogue.
The Geopolitical Issue of Language
The drama of the Ukrainian language is increasingly politicized, especially in the onslaught of Russia’s continued military action against Ukraine. After the independence of the Ukrainian language following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the language has struggled to be respected by much of the country and in many semblances of everyday life.
Since the 1990s, efforts to constrain and support the use of Ukrainian in addition to Russian have created geopolitical strife that remains present today. It also came to represent independent Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity issue.
The Ukrainian society, too, has an existing bias toward the predominant role Russia played in the country’s history. Yet, these sentiments are as divided as the national visage, with the country’s eastern and western sides supporting vastly different, stoic viewpoints.
The Language In Nation-Building
Language has always played a large role in Ukrainian nation-building, with an acute awareness of the linguistic divide between both Poles in western Ukraine, and the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. Both sides have fed the national-liberation movement and coddled ethnic convocation.
Ironically, the Ukrainian language became independent before Ukraine became a sovereign state. The “Law on Languages in the Ukrainian SSR” gave the Ukrainian language the predominant status of an official state language, yet it predated the creation of the post-Soviet Ukrainian state by more than two years. The communist parliament, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, passed the bill in 1989 in a country that was, at the time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Since then, the language predicament has involved discussions on the official status of using Ukrainian alongside Russian, and it brought heated debates in parliamentary elections.
The New Language Law
With the backdrop of the growing Ukrainian crisis, the Language Law passed in 2019 brought new optimism to many Ukrainians. The provision stipulated, among other things, that print media establishments registered in Ukraine must publish in Ukrainian.
It also stated that publications in other languages must also include a Ukrainian version that was equal in content, volume, and method of printing. Distribution centers had to have at least half of their contents in Ukrainian. The new state law also required Ukrainian to be used in most aspects of daily life.
Just as in the previous laws, the New Law focused on enhancing the status of the Ukrainian language throughout society, with broad measures to make certain media and public services helped promote it.
Most would agree that the Ukrainian government has every right to promote its state language and expand its national identity. Yet, most sociologists concur that it should implement a fair balance in its language policy to negate discrimination against linguistic minorities.
Yet the New Language Law seemed to be accepted in public opinion. A 2019 poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center revealed that 69% of Ukrainians approved of preserving Ukrainian as the country’s only official state language, yet agreed to maintain the freedom to use Russian in private life. As with any law related to language in Ukraine, amendments to the Language Law are on the political docket.
The Complications Of A State Language
To further complicate the language question, the national status of Ukraine as a sole state language convoluted the pro-Russian political forces in providing any sort of formal status to the Russian language. Politically, granting such status now involves a constitutional majority in the Parliament and the passing of a national referendum.
To counteract this, in 2021, the law “On the Principles of State Language Policy in Ukraine” attempted to expand the reach of the usage of the Russian language. The new law contained the phrase, “regional or minority language,” designed to give the Russian language semiofficial status in many regions of Ukraine.
This, of course, was implemented to prevent the spread of the Ukrainian language into civil service and nearly every other component of culture and politics. As a good example of the intricate wordplay both countries use as “provisions,” the law stated that the use of the regional or state language, which of course meant substituting Ukrainian with Russian, was allowed.
In many ways, instead of promoting multilingualism with an admitted knowledge of the state language, the law provisions imposed preconditions for linguistic segregation, marginalizing the position of the Ukrainian language. This subtle linguistic rancor is obvious in both countries, and it’s one of the issues that fuel the instability.
At the same time, provisions like this are detrimental to Ukraine’s people, the many ethnic monolingual Russians living in Ukraine are also affected. With the absence of practical incentives to allow the use of Ukrainian, the result is less Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism and a forced incentive to speak Russian. The social faults of this are numerous, as ethnic Russians eventually would be forced to avoid any sort of interaction with Ukrainians.
Despite the law’s intentions, because it recognizes Ukrainian as the state language, it resulted in an expansion of Russian into public use, at the expense of the Ukrainian government. Its implementation suggested that its benefits could only be enjoyed by the larger, dominant Russian language. Many years after its independence, traditional prejudices against the Ukrainian people still exist.
How Social Media Influences Language
Earlier in 2021, a Ukrainian Facebook user posted a picture of a McDonald’s electronic menu screen offering Ukrainian and English language options. The text on the screen suggested that the Russian language option had been removed. The post was seen by a Ukrainian pro-Kremlin social media star who insisted the menu language choices were divisive towards the Ukrainians who speak Russian.
Soon, Ukrainian media outlets brought the post to life, and call for boycotts and protests grew. The Ukrainian Embassy thanked McDonald’s for its support on the language issue, while the Russian Embassy accused the restaurant of excluding minority languages. As tempers rose, few seemed to care that McDonald’s made clear that there never was a Russian-language option on the company’s electronic menu.
While all of this seems benign, it underscores how language emotions are manipulated by the media, and how easy it is to destabilize a country, especially during a country in crisis. It also demonstrates the linguistic disparities created by decades of historic strife, and how these disparities remain a flashpoint.
Can Language Heal?
With the current dour political climate in Ukraine, it’s obvious that any attempts to beguile the standing Ukrainian language will be precarious. With the enormous weight of the history of Ukraine and Russia, it seems the fractured region has no fortitude. Any attempts to revise the Language Law now would be fruitless and could escalate things into a national crisis. Yet, the politicization of language does not reflect the daily reality of bilingual Ukraine, where both Ukrainian and Russian are spoken across the country.
This linguistic fluidity is so common that it’s not unusual to hear both languages spoken in a single conversation. Yet, in that conversation, two people are not just speaking to one another, but understanding words, feelings, and emotions. Language is powerful. Maybe those two people, seated in a cafe, speaking the same languages in the same country, can change a dichotomy.