10 Things To Know About the Ukrainian Language

February 29, 2024
How has the Ukrainian language survived centuries of imperial pressures, cultural revivals, and modern challenges to maintain its identity and vitality?

Ukraine's linguistic and cultural landscape has been shaped by a rich history of influence, hardships, and resilience. From the formation of a common literary language amidst dialectal diversity to the challenges of imperial censorship and assimilation policies, the Ukrainian language has had a turbulent history.

Prof. Larysa Masenko, Doctor of Philology and a leading researcher at the Institute of the Ukrainian Language of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, spoke with UkraineWorld about the Ukrainian language's centuries-long history, stages of development, and struggles caused by Russian linguicide practices.

1. The Ukrainian language emerged in the 6th-7th centuries AD, as the Proto-Slavic language deteriorated. According to scholar Yuriy Shevelov, the period of Ukrainian language development from the mid-9th century was known as Proto-Ukrainian, and from the end of the 14th century as Old Ukrainian.

In the medieval proto-Ukrainian state of Kyivan Rus, dialectal varieties of Old Ukrainian were used in everyday speech, while Church Slavonic was used for literary writing. By the 14th century, spoken Old Ukrainian had begun to permeate Church Slavonic more strongly.

2. The period between the 14th and 17th centuries marked the next stage of Ukrainian language development. The Old Ukrainian written language, which had already absorbed many phonetic, lexical, and grammatical features of the vernacular language, was used in legal documents, religious, polemical, and historiographical literature spread over a larger territory of modern Ukraine and adjacent lands.

3. Beginning in the second half of the 17th century, when a significant portion of Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire, Russian authorities pursued a harsh assimilation policy toward subjugated peoples, including Ukrainians. Throughout the 18th century, the Russian official language gradually replaced the Old Ukrainian written language in the administrative and business sphere. The introduction of the Russian language into higher spheres of public life disrupted the Ukrainian language's organic connection to its previous written tradition.

The only complete forms of the Ukrainian language that remained were oral forms of everyday communication. The living speech of the people, as well as oral folk art, served as the basis for the new era of literary Ukrainian.

4. The publication of I. Kotliarevsky's poem "Eneida" in the late 18th century marked the beginning of the development of the Ukrainian literary language. The author used peasant dialects as a common foundation for verbal art. Taras Shevchenko was instrumental in the establishment of the modern Ukrainian literary language, combining everyday conversational language with linguistic and stylistic features of Ukrainian folklore, as well as Old Church Slavonic elements of a solemn style. He discovered linguistic resources for developing a high poetic style. Along with the advancement of Ukrainian literature, the literary Ukrainian language evolved. Literary works written in Ukrainian formed a common literary language based on individual dialects, which played a unifying role.

5. The development, functioning, and spread of the common literary Ukrainian language concerned the Russian imperial authorities, prompting a series of bans on its use. The most well-known of these are: 1) The Valuev circular of 1863 that introduced censorship restrictions on the publication of books in the Ukrainian language; 2) the Ems Ukaz (Decree) of 1876 by Alexander II that completely banned Ukrainian printing, importation of books printed in Ukrainian into the empire, and the use of the Ukrainian language in theater, church, and music.

Despite their efforts, the Russian authorities were unable to halt the development of the Ukrainian language and literature. The political and linguistic situation in Ukraine's western regions, which were then part of Austria-Hungary, facilitated the dissemination of Ukrainian books by not suppressing the identity of the people who lived there. Ukrainian writers living in Ukrainian territories within the Russian Empire published their works in the western regions of Ukraine.

6. The first decades of the 20th century - the era of the Ukrainian People's Republic (1917-1921) and the Ukrainization period of the 1920s under the Bolsheviks - were marked by the rapid development of the Ukrainian language. Scholars from the established linguistic institutions of Naddniprianshchyna (modern Ukraine's former Russian Empire territories) collaborated with colleagues from Western Ukraine to standardize the literary Ukrainian language: Ukrainian Orthography was compiled, a number of terminological dictionaries were prepared and published, and dialect research was initiated.

7. However, during the Soviet period, Ukraine's linguistic space was significantly deformed as a result of coercive Russification achieved through linguicidal practices. Starting in the 1930s, the Soviet regime resumed imperial Russification policies, which included the transformation and eradication of the Ukrainian language.

During this period, three factors can be identified. Firstly, during the Stalinist terror era, the social base of the Ukrainian language was sharply narrowed, including as a result of the Holodomor of 1932--1933, which took the lives of millions of Ukrainian peasants.

Second, the Soviet regime carried out mass repressions, destroying almost all Ukrainian linguists who were working in the 1920s on lexicography, terminology, dialectology, and standardization of the Ukrainian literary language. Their linguistically progressive educational activities were accused of "Ukrainian fascism," "harmful activities on the language front," and "separating the Ukrainian language from the fraternal Russian one." They were prohibited from publishing dictionaries or conducting scientific research.

Third, in order to achieve deeper assimilation, the Soviet authorities interfered with the internal structure of the Ukrainian language, implementing a so-called reform that artificially brought the Ukrainian and Russian languages closer together. Indigenous Ukrainian vocabulary was removed from dictionaries or pushed to the margins through restrictive remarks. The Ukrainian language was also deprived of the ability to choose its own borrowings from other languages. Foreign words were supposed to enter the Ukrainian language via Russian.

8. The situation in the linguistic and cultural domains only improved in the 1960s. As terror in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) weakened, a protest cultural movement emerged aimed at preserving the Ukrainian language, resisting Russification, and returning to 1920s cultural practices.

However, the Soviet authorities traditionally responded to Ukrainians' growing patriotic sentiment with violence, continuing the policy of linguistic genocide. Active participants in the anti-Russification movement from the late 1960s to the 1970s were imprisoned or detained in concentration camps, and their supporters, including many students and postgraduates, were dismissed from educational and research institutions as early as 1972. The struggle against so-called "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" persisted in Ukraine until the second half of the 1980s.

9. With the acquisition of independence, the Ukrainian state faced the challenging task of overcoming its assimilationist and ideologically communist heritage. Ukraine shared a common linguistic and cultural space with Russia until 2014. The events of the Revolution of Dignity significantly boosted the liberation from Russian influences and, consequently, the development of the Ukrainian language in Ukrainian society.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2024, fueled the formation of a society centered on Ukraine's culture. Despite the burden of war, Ukrainians actively promote Ukrainian culture in the Ukrainian language and have largely switched to using the state language in everyday communication.

10. However, in the occupied territories of Ukraine, Russia engages in linguistic genocide against the Ukrainian language. In 2020, the official status of the Ukrainian language was revoked in the territories controlled by Russia. Teachers who used to teach Ukrainian are now teaching Russian, and all Ukrainian-language literature has been pulled from school libraries.

Larysa Masenko, Doctor of Philology and a leading researcher at the Institute of the Ukrainian Language of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
Interviewed by Anastasiia Herasymchuk, deputy editor-in-chief at UkraineWorld