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Ukrainian Language

It has often been said that, just a few years ago, only peasants and intellectuals spoke Ukrainian. This is clearly changing, and Ukrainian is now the official language of Ukraine. However, before indepedence Russian was the language of government, industry, science, and education, and the business language of Ukraine remains Russian. In Ukraine's eastern and more populous half, Russian is more commonly spoken in homes. This is true even in the capital, although the city's preferred Western spelling has been changed to Kyiv (rather than the more familiar Russian "Kiev") to reflect its proper transliteration from Ukrainian.

The number of people who speak Ukrainian fluently outnumber those who consider it to be their native language (58% and 52%). Considering those, who said that they have fair knowledge of Ukrainian, it turns out that 92% of the citizens of Ukraine either speak the state language fluently or have enough knowledge for communication. Only seven out of one hundred have problems with Ukrainian and only one out of one hundred said that he/she does not understand Ukrainian.

Kharkiv OblastAccording to 2001 census data, 54 percent of Kharkiv Oblast's nearly 3 million residents identified their native language as Ukrainian, compared to 44 percent -- mostly concentrated in the city -- who said Russian. Outside the city center, which is one of only two Kharkiv regions that identifies itself as Russophone, the contrast is even starker. In Donetsk Oblast, further to the east, almost three-quarters of the population identified itself as Russian-speaking, but again, in a majority of regions outside the main city, people were more likely to identify themselves as Ukrainian-speakers.

The Ukrainian language is not a dialect of the Russian language as Soviets wanted the outside world to believe. Rather, each language penetrated and interacted with the other's syntax and vocabulary. Moreover, a mixed idiom is not uncommon.

Their similarities have been compared to those between German and Dutch, although there are considerably different dialects within the Ukrainian language, especially around Galicia (the capital of which is Lviv) and Volhyn. These are almost incomprehensible to heartland Russians. In the Western oblasts ethnic Russians are truly a minority: in Galicia, Volhyn, Rivne, and Transcarpathia, there are fewer than 350,000 ethnic Russians.

Compare this with Left-Bank Ukraine, where the majority of Crimea's population is Russian, as are one million of Kharkiv's 1.6 million residents. Another 4.5 million in Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Luhansk are Russian, with an additional million Russians in Odesa and Mykolayiv. Consequently, you will find that Left-Bank Ukrainian and Russian speakers understand each other. A mixed idiom is quite common today in many parts.

Ukrainian is the more lyrical language; it is softer and less guttural than Russian. You'll notice that tak means "yes" in Ukrainian, while da is Russian; "no" is pronounced nee in Ukrainian in contrast to the world-familiar, and often emphatic, nyet. Even the untrained ear can reasonably distinguish Ukrainian and Russian, on television for example. Ukrainian also shares more similarities with Polish, a West Slavic language. The months are especially poetic; my favorite example is lystopad ("leaves are falling"), for November, although it would be more appropriate for October. Regardless, Ukrainian months are named for flowers, grasses, ice, and other seasonal features. Russian names for months are much closer to our Latin equivalents, for example Yanvar, Fevral, Mart, and easier to memorize.

The Eastern Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian) are written in Cyrillic script in contrast to the Western Slavic tongues (Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Sorbian), which are written in Latin script. The Southern Slavic languages are split, reflecting the historic differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Thus, Croatian and Slovenian are in Latin, whereas Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian are in Cyrillic, as is Old Church Slavonic.

English speakers notice that several Russian or Ukrainian block letters resemble English ones, while some in script form resemble others; for example, d and t in script resemble Latin g and m (generally drawn with a line over it). The River Prut is one such example. While students are expected to exhibit good penmanship, there is little appreciation or tolerance for adding unconventional flourishes. Ukrainians also don't tend to use block letters much; cursive script is the norm.

In both languages, one can see influences from French, which was at one point the preference of the Imperial family and other nobles. Here's a sampling of these influences: bagazh (luggage or baggage); bilet (ticket); buro (bureau or office); dush (shower); passazh (passageway); magazin (store); pliazh (beach); etazh (floor, level, or story). In biznes (say BEEZnes), you will recognize a lot of terms derived from their English equivalents. From German, there are fewer words. Buterbrod, meaning sandwich (or simply sandvich), is one of the more common ones.

Ukrainian and Russian are two distinct languages. Surjek is the mixing of Russian and Ukrainian. Ukraine is a bi-lingual country, although there are some pockets of Ukraine where one language is exclusively spoken over the other.

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Page last modified: 10-03-2014 20:58:09 ZULU