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The Ukrainian Language

Ukrainian, a Slavic language shares many characteristics with other Slavic nations such as Poland, Croatia and Russia. It is written using a Cyrillic alphabet which looks fundamentally different to the English alphabet.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Ukrainian language is the fact that it exists at all in the modern world. It has been banned and discouraged several times by non-Ukrainian regimes, but always maintained its existence somehow, even by using informal methods of keeping the tongue alive, such as songs, folklore, and Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida, which was the first book to be published in Ukrainian and has become a classic.

The Ukrainians have seen periods of substantial unrest and the current version of the Ukrainian language reflects the periods of trouble in the country. However, tracing the language back over time has often proved problematic, as until the 18th century, the spoken and written forms of Ukrainian differed immensely from one another. Before the 18th century the contemporary form of Ukrainian was a vernacular language which existed alongside Church Slavonic. It was mostly peasants and the bourgeoisie who spoke this language, and there was also something of a linguistic hierarchy at the time, as a lot of literature, scientific text or any other sort of important writing was being produced in different languages, for example, Greek, Latin or Polish. This is not to say that Ukrainian was in danger of dying out, for it was still widely spoken in Ukraine, but in terms of written language, it was overlooked in favour of other tongues.

The lack of written Ukrainian from the early centuries has obviously proved a problem for those seeking to understand the development of the language. However, what is clear is that between the 9th and 13th centuries, many areas of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were grouped together as one country, now referred to as Kievan Rus. There were two main languages recorded in Kievan Rus, Old East Slavic and Old Church Slavonic. At this time, the spoken language was also widely similar, and people from the Ukrainian part of Kievan Rus could be understood by people from the Russian part, and vice versa.

Over time things changed again and by the 17th century translators had to be employed in order for Ukrainians and Russians to understand one another. This shift can be attributed, partly at least, to Polish influence in Ukraine. Lots of tradesmen were native Polish speakers and brought not only their language but their faith to the Ukraine. Ukraine’s gradual move towards Catholicism had an effect on many areas of the language. For example, the school system was modeled on that of Poland, meaning that the Polish language was being taught to children from a very young age. Polish influences caused early differences to be identified between the Ukrainian and Russian languages, but it is also necessary to look at another important era, the Soviet era, in order to form a more modern picture of the development of the language.

The Soviet era lasted for seven decades, and during this time the Ukrainian language held the formal position of the principal local language in the Ukrainian SSR. However, it has been suggested that this official title did not mean very much in practice, as Ukrainians always had to compete with Russians, and the attitudes of the Soviet leadership towards Ukrainian varied from encouragement and tolerance to discouragement and, at times, suppression. During times of suppression national identity was something which was considered a privilege rather than a right, and it was a privilege Ukraine was willing to fight for. The people of Ukraine fought to keep their language alive, and so even during the most difficult and violent times, the Ukrainian language was protected.

Officially, there was no state language in the Soviet Union. Still it was implicitly understood that Ukrainian would be used in the Ukrainian SSR, Uzbek would be used in the Uzbek SSR, and so on. However, Russian was used in all parts of the Soviet Union and a special term, "a language of inter-ethnic communication" was coined to denote its status. This way of describing Russian is almost humorous today, as it is obvious now as it was then that in reality, Russian was in a privileged position in the USSR and was the state official language in everything but formal name. Formally all languages were held up as equal but this did not mean a lot in real terms. Often the Ukrainian language was frowned upon or quietly discouraged, which led to the gradual decline in its usage. Although the Soviet Empire fell some years ago, it is interesting to note that due to this suppression, in many parts of Ukraine, notably most urban areas of the east and south, Russian remains more widely spoken than Ukrainian.

Today the Ukraine is an independent nation, and since 1991, Ukrainian has been the only official state language. There have been conscious efforts and initiatives taken to implement government policies to broaden the use of Ukrainian. The educational system in Ukraine has been transformed over the first decade of independence from a system that is partly Ukrainian to one that is overwhelmingly so. In areas such as the media and commerce the government has sought to promote Ukrainian as the dominant language since the fall of the Soviet Union. The tensions between Ukrainian and Russian have been by no means totally eradicated, and for the foreseeable future friction will probably remain, but what is important is the conscious effort in the Ukraine to promote the Ukrainian language. The progress thus far has been remarkable as now most residents, including ethnic Russians, people of mixed origin, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians have started to identify themselves as Ukrainian nationals, even though the problem remains of the population still being largely Russian speaking. The Russian language still dominates the print media in most of Ukraine and private radio and TV broadcasting in the eastern, southern, and to a lesser degree central regions. The state-controlled broadcast media became exclusively Ukrainian but that had little influence on the audience because of their programs' low ratings. There are few obstacles to the usage of Russian in commerce and it is still occasionally used in the government affairs. This has been a brief overview of the development of the Ukrainian language through time, and should hopefully lead you to the conclusion that it is in a stronger position now than before, but that it will take some time before it will be able to truly replace Russian as the dominant language in the Ukraine.

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