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Definition: Ukrainian from Philip's Encyclopedia

Language spoken by c.40-45 million people in Ukraine. Significant Ukrainian-speaking communities are to be found in Kazakstan, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, and Siberian Russia. Like Russian and Belorussian, Ukrainian belongs to the E branch of the Slavic family of Indo-European languages.

Summary Article: UKRAINIAN
from Dictionary of Languages
45,000,000 SPEAKERS


One of the Eastern slavonic languages, Ukrainian has a longer history than Russian. Formerly the second largest language of the Soviet Union, it is now the national language of a major independent state in eastern Europe, with its capital at Kiev (for map see RUSSIAN).

In Russian Ukraina means ‘borderland’ and referred to the eastern Ukraine, settled by the Cossack borderers. Until the 20th century Ukrainian speakers generally called themselves Rusyny, meaning ‘Russians’ (the translation often used abroad was ‘Ruthenians’). Historically Kiev was indeed the centre of the land of Rus'.

Ukrainian is probably spoken on the territory where, in prehistoric times, the proto-Slavonic dialects first developed and began to spread. Its recorded history begins in the century after the official conversion of the principality of Kiev to Christianity in 988.

The Bible translations and religious texts that Byzantine missionaries brought to Kiev were in old slavonic, the written language that had already been used to take the Christian religion to other Slavonic-speaking peoples. Old Slavonic continued to be the single significant written language of Ukraine for several centuries: it is the language of the Russian Primary Chronicle and other major early texts. However, Ukrainian is to be seen in many of these texts. It is there both in the ‘mistakes’ made by religious writers while writing or copying Old Slavonic, and in the vernacular words that were necessarily introduced into chronicles and other documents when discussing local matters for which no Biblical word could be found. At this stage ‘Old Ukrainian’ is not to be distinguished from Old Russian, which is the name often given to the vernacular element in these manuscripts.

Mongolian and Tatar warriors of the Golden Horde destroyed Kiev in 1240. Moscow, too, was to be subject to the Horde, while most of Ukraine passed to the Lithuanians (whose written language at this time was an early form of belo-russian). From this point onwards the histories of Ukrainian and Russian diverge.

Poland, already ruler of Galicia, annexed the remainder of Ukraine in the 16th century. Latin (the old official language of Poland) and Polish itself now had an official role in Ukraine. The deciding factor in the country's subsequent history was the arrival of the Cossacks, armed adventurers and vagabonds of miscellaneous origins who settled the empty lands of eastern Ukraine. Their 18th-century leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, invited Russian help against Polish domination. Under Catherine the Great the Cossacks eventually moved on, to settle the Russian frontiers further east, but Ukraine remained in Russian hands (except for its westernmost region, eastern Galicia, which belonged to Austria-Hungary).

In the 17th century the Belorussian language of former Lithuanian rule had continued to be used, even by the Cossacks, and had gradually adopted Ukrainian features: it was called prostaya mova, ‘common tongue’. Under Russian rule, however, Ukrainian came to be considered no more than a local dialect of Russian (often called Little Russian). While authors such as Tarash Shevchenko and Pan'ko Kulish, inspired by European Romanticism, were developing a language and a literature based on popular speech and folklore, the cultivation of Ukrainian was officially frowned on. An 1876 decree forbade the printing or importing of Ukrainian books. The 19th-century revival of Ukrainian poetry and historiography was thus conducted partly underground, or from neighbouring Galicia where Ukrainian nationalism was able to flourish. The Galician dialect thus became a major influence on standard Ukrainian.

Briefly independent in 1918–19, Ukraine was reconquered and declared a Soviet Republic. Its western and southern provinces were divided among Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania – Galicia, formerly Austrian, going to Poland – but were repossessed in 1944. The old linguistic attitudes were not wholly abandoned under Soviet rule. Russian had priority in education and employment. Ukrainian began to lose its status as the official language of Soviet Ukraine. Many Ukrainians speak Russian fluently: there is also a very large Russian minority in eastern Ukraine and in the major cities.

To the surprise of many Russians, Ukraine asserted its independence in 1991. Its traditional links with central Europe, broken under Soviet rule, are now being cultivated once more. Priority is given to relations with the United States and Canada, where there are strong Ukrainian minorities. Canada numbers 600,000 of a total of four million Ukrainian émigrés worldwide. The descendants of the million Ukrainians who migrated to central Asia and Siberia under Soviet rule are, in many cases, now returning.

In many ways still close to Russian, Ukrainian is a language with its own character – a language in which one can speak of CokИpa τaR١ τyⅡa Ⅲo ЯR 3a MaMOЮ KИHyTИ бИ He бyB rpix ‘an axe so dull that it would not be a sin to throw it at your mother’.

In Britain there are about 20,000 Ukrainians. Most of them, young men arriving at the end of the Second World War, married women of other immigrant communities with strong religious beliefs (especially Italian, Austrian and Irish). The Ukrainian community clusters in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands. While modern Ukrainian of the Ukraine has been increasingly influenced by Russian, the Ukrainian of the emigrants and their children incorporates more and more English words and English turns of phrase.

Ukrainian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It can be distinguished at a glance from Russian (see table there) by its use of three additional vowel symbols, Є Є for ye, I i for i, and Ï ï for yi. An additional consonant, Γ r for g, also occurs. For a table of Ukrainian numerals see BELORUSSIAN.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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