Monday, March 11, 2013

Language Profile: Ukrainian

This week's language profile is on Ukrainian, a Slavic language with 37 million native speakers. It's the official language of Ukraine, as well as an official language in Transnistria, a breakaway republic recognized by most countries as a part of Moldova. Ukrainian is also an official regional language in Moldova and Romania, as well as a recognized minority language in the Czech Republic.

Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, at night.
The Ukrainian language has had a very complex history. Around the 17th century, Ukrainian and Russian had evolved enough differences to require translators, which is a fairly obvious linguistic indication that the two were no longer the same united Slavic language they'd once been.

However, Ukrainian culture, specifically the language, was heavily persecuted by the Russian Empire, and later the USSR, over the years. There were occasional brief periods in which the language was allowed to flourish, but throughout most of the past 200 years Russian was heavily favored in the region. Even in the 1960s when Ukrainian parents were permitted to choose the language their children were instructed in at school, most chose Russian because they believed their children would not be successful in life if they didn't speak Russian. At other times, Ukrainian was outright banned, and one Russian minister even claimed in the 1800s that Ukrainian, then referred to as "Little Russian", had never and would never be a separate language.

The Bay of Laspi on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
In some parts of Ukraine, Russian is still the dominant language, though Ukrainian has had a great resurgence over the past few decades. Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine's official language has been Ukrainian. The language has also been promoted by the government, especially in schools, media, and commerce. Despite a majority of Ukrainians calling it their "native language" as of 2001, a large percentage of Ukrainians said they mostly spoke Russian at home. Perhaps in a few more decades it will be the main spoken language in the country if it continues to be supported by the government.

The language is written using the Ukrainian alphabet, which is a Cyrillic script. When Stalin was in power, the Ukrainian alphabet was reformed in order to be more similar to Russian. The letter "Ghe", written ґ, was even banned! Despite its absence since 1933, it did return to its rightful place in the alphabet in 1990.