Cover of the September 2011 issue of Translorial.Despite a long history of oppression, the ancient and beautiful Ukrainian language lives on. BY NINA BOGDAN

My recent travels to Ukraine and Russia gave me reason to reflect on the turbulent history of the Ukrainian language. It is a language that has survived despite years of oppression and attempts throughout history to negate and eradicate it. My father was born in a tiny village in the eastern part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920’s. By the time he arrived in the United States, he had become accustomed to speaking Russian as he lived in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany for several years, where the primary language was Russian. I had always assumed that he had grown up speaking Russian but, when I first visited the place where he was born, I realized that this was not necessarily so.

A complex history

The history of the Ukrainian language is very complex and there are currently a large number of dialects that are all classified as Ukrainian. The language spoken in the countryside in the area where my father grew up is a vernacular that is actually a precursor to modern Ukrainian and has been sub-classified as “Slobodan.”  When I heard it spoken, it sounded familiar to me and I realized that it was very similar to the language of the Cossacks depicted in such detail in Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel, Quiet Flows the Don. The area where it is spoken was historically Slobodan Ukraine, on the border with Russia.  One of the meanings of the term “sloboda” in both Russian and Ukrainian is “settlement” or even “suburb,” and, in the period prior to the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire, the term was used to describe large villages of free peasants (as opposed to those who were serfs). The area of Slobodan Ukraine was, in fact, one where nobles of Czarist Russia were granted land and where they built estates.

Slobodan is one of the Eastern Ukrainian dialects, formed from a gradual mixture of Russian and Ukrainian with progressively more Russian in the northern and eastern parts of the region. This language has been described as a transitional dialect between Ukrainian and Russian. To add to the confusion of anyone who tries to learn it, both Russian and Ukrainian grammar rules are applied.  The “Ukrainian ethnolinguistic boundary” stretched as far east as the Don River in Russia in the year 1900, meaning that the language spoken in that part of Russia more closely resembled the language of the Ukrainian heartland than of Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Kievan Rus’

Ukrainian, like Russian, is classified as an Eastern Slavic language but that is the only point of agreement among scholars when it comes to the history of the language itself. Several factors make it impossible to definitively state when or if there was a common East Slavic language which then evolved into three separate languages: Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian. One factor is that the spoken and written languages of Kievan Rus’, the empire that encompassed much of what is now Ukraine and northwestern Russia from the late ninth to the mid-thirteenth centuries, were radically different. In addition, the spoken language included several dialects while the written language included a number of different written forms. Then, in the tenth century, Old Slavonic was imported to Kievan Rus’ from Bulgarian lands and began to be used as the literary medium. This language, later referred to as Church Slavonic, was not related at all to the local languages, and continued as the literary language of the eastern Slavs into the eighteenth century. In addition, beginning in 1804, Ukrainian in general was banned from schools by authorities in what is now the eastern part of Ukraine, then referred to as Malorossiya, and a part of the Russian Empire.

Despite the attempts at suppression then and later under the Soviet regime, Ukrainian writers, historians, and artists maintained the use of their native tongue and finally, in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was made the official state language of the independent state of Ukraine. But studying old Ukrainian texts (as opposed to modern Ukrainian works) poses its own difficulties. Literary Ukrainian is commonly divided into three stages: old Ukrainian (12th to 14th centuries), middle Ukrainian (14th to 18th centuries) and modern Ukrainian (end of the 18th century to the present). Modern literary Ukrainian also has many Galician influences as, when the use of Ukrainian was banned in 1804, many writers moved to the region of Galicia (in western modern Ukraine).

Linguists recognize three major Ukrainian groups of dialects: the northern dialects, spoken in Polissia, northern Volhynia, the northern Kiev region, and the Chernihiv region, with three major sub-dialects (blue portion of map); the eastern (or south-eastern) dialects, spoken in the territory east and south of a line running from approximately Zhytomyr to Odessa, also with three major sub-dialects, one of which is Slobodan (yellow portions of map); and the western (or south-western) dialects, spoken in southern Volhynia, Podolia, northern Bukovina, Transcarpathia (red portions of map), and Galicia (pink portions of map), with eight sub-dialects. In the far west of the country, the number and degree of differences among the local dialects increase to the point where scholars and the people who live there themselves debate whether they should be considered ethnically Ukrainian at all.

The Middle Dnieprian dialect in the south-eastern group is the basis for Standard Literary Ukrainian. It is spoken in the central part of Ukraine, primarily in the southern and eastern part of the Kiev Oblast (Region).

The effort to establish Ukrainian as the official language after independence hit a number of bumps in the road as many of those who held political office in Ukraine in that time period had never bothered to learn the language and had been speaking Russian their entire lives. During my visits to the country, my relatives would sneer at these politicians as they struggled to make speeches in Ukrainian on national television. I also encountered my share of passive resistance to Russian in the nation’s capital, Kiev. I am a fluent Russian speaker but have limited knowledge of Ukrainian. I felt it would be easier to get around by using Russian instead of English but found that many people would respond in Ukrainian when I asked for directions in an apparent protest of my use of Russian. I wasn’t trying to be political, just practical, but evidently my use of Russian was taken as a political statement.


In some ways, I can well understand the frustration of the Ukrainian people. Prior to my departure from the U.S., I attempted to get some Ukrainian currency (hryvnia) from the so-called international department of the local branch of what I believe is the largest bank in the United States (think stage coaches). I had no trouble in obtaining Russian rubles or Chinese RMB but the employee who worked at this “international” department had literally never heard of Ukraine. She asked me if I were sure this was a country. Even after all of my explanations and assurances (I stopped short of whipping out a map and pointer upon my visit to the branch in order to prove to her the existence of my father’s homeland), she failed to obtain any hryvnia for me in the end.

Adding insult to injury, upon my return from my travels, the U.S. Customs agent examining my customs declaration form commented, in an aggrieved tone, to his colleague, “I’ve heard of Russia and China but not this U-kraine place” as if he suspected that I had simply made it up. I suppose this ignorance could be understandable (though not acceptable) among the population at large but coming from a bank official who works in an “international” department and a government employee who processes visitors from all over the world, it is, to put it mildly, disheartening. NB