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Ukrainian Language

Ukrainian is the official state language of Ukraine, while in fact, people in the country use both Russian and Ukrainian as their principal language, often even mixing them in conversation. It is one of 12 Slavic languages in the Indo-European language family and is the second-most spoken among these. In total, 57 million people list Ukrainian as their native language. In writing, the language uses the Cyrillic alphabet.


The official regulating body of the Ukrainian language is the National Academy of Sciences which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers. Ukrainian is most closely related to Belarusian and Polish, but also has similarities with Russian and Serbo-Croatian. Within Ukraine, three main dialects are usually distinguished, although these are generally more difficult to discern for non-native speakers.

Along with Russian and Belarusian, Ukrainian developed out of the Old East Slavic language, merging several local dialects, but scientists disagree on the time when these languages developed as independent ones. In the Middle Ages, two separate branches developed, when the southwestern part of Ukraine came under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while more eastern sections were under Tatar rule. During that time, lasting until the 16th century, the western half of Ukrainian was influenced mostly by Polish and, to a lesser degree, by the Latin language, while in the east, Turkic words were included. In subsequent years, Polish became more and more prominent and continued to impact the development of the Ukrainian language. The foreign impacts became even stronger after the Treaty of Pereyaslav of 1654, when Ukraine was basically split between Russian and Polish areas of influence, leading to a decline of Ukrainian heritage and culture. This was followed by a period in which the Russian rulers feared that a strong Ukrainian identification with the nation’s own culture would strain the Empire’s unity. They responded to that fear in their sphere of influence in the country’s east with a suppression of Ukrainian heritage, banning the Ukrainian language from schools in 1804 and closing down the traditional Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, then the oldest university in Eastern Europe. In 1847, the leading Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko was arrested and banned from writing. Later, even books in the Ukrainian language were prohibited. Statistics from that time show that the Russian suppression was successful to a degree - the percentage of Ukrainian speakers declined considerably - yet, there were still sizable portions of the population in the East that spoke primarily Ukrainian, particularly in rural areas. In the western regions, while Polish was the preferred language, the use of Ukrainian was still widespread.  languagemap  

In Soviet times, after a few years in the 1920s when the nations under the union’s roof had regained a certain degree of their national identities, brought even more repressions. Stalin enforced a strict Russification of the entire Soviet Union and ordered all publications and schools to immediately switch from Ukrainian to Russian in 1933 and again, these actions were largely driven by a fear of uprising and dissent. They were accompanied by the execution of intellectuals under the pretext of Ukrainian nationalism that Stalin wanted to see crushed, culminating in the Holodomor and long-lasting, devastating efforts to undermine and extinguish a sense of Ukrainian national identity. Khrushchev’s reign after Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a relaxation of the language issue and a revival of Ukrainian culture as a whole, but the times of suppression had left its toll on the development of the Ukrainian language. In the areas where Moscow’s influence had been strongest over the decades, in eastern Ukraine, Russian remains the most widely used language to this day, although after Ukrainian independence, there have been a number of initiatives to expand the use of Ukrainian throughout the country, for example by reintroducing Ukrainian as the primary language used in schools. However, residents never had any problems communicating in Russian or in both languages and many Russian-speaking residents refer to themselves as Ukraine nationals. The Russian claim after the 2014 revolution that the Russian language and its speakers in the country were suppressed by the central government can easily be debunked. The graphic shows the distribution of native languages across Ukraine in 2001 (data compiled by the Ukraine Census, map by cnn.com).

In the country today, between 50% and 65% of residents state that Ukrainian is their native language, with that number varying from poll to poll. In some cities, for example in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa or Donezk, Russian is the more commonly used language. A number of additional languages such as Romanian, Hungarian, Crimean Tatar or Belarusian are important in some regions. In literature, music, performing arts and movies, a shift towards a more widespread use of Ukrainian is notable. Ukrainian is also recognized in as a minority language in the neighboring countries of Poland, Moldova and Romania as well as in the European Union. Additionally, there are sizable Ukrainian expat communities using their native tongue to communicate with each other in countries such as Canada, Brazil, Russia or Germany.

Ukrainian uses its own alphabet, a national variety of Cyrillic, consisting of 33 letters, of which 20 are consonants, ten are vowels and two are semivowels. The language also uses the apostrophe as a soft sign. As there has never been a universally applicable Latin alphabet for the Ukrainian language, the various versions of transcriptions can sometimes cause confusion, in particular so for Ukrainian place names which have until 1991 primarily been transcribed from Russian instead of from Ukrainian.