The language situation in Ukraine


Anatolij Dorodnych (PAP, Słupsk and UAM, Poznań)



The language situation in Ukraine has its roots in the imperial policy of tsarist Russia continued by the Soviet government. That policy was to displace Ukrainian with Russian. So, gradually it became fashionable and prestigious to speak Russian while the Ukrainian language came to be looked upon as the language of peasants, and if Ukrainian intellectuals insisted on using Ukrainian, they were called ‘nationalists’. The situation with the Ukrainian language was not helped by the fact that the majority of the population in eastern Ukraine were (and still are) ethnic Russians.


The political and economic dependence of Ukraine, the persecution and extermination of the Ukrainian elite, and forcible russification have resulted in a situation where several generations of ethnic Ukrainians have spoken Russian as their first or, sometimes, their only language.


The literary Ukrainian language now exists as the surviving Soviet-induced standard, and the emerging new standard informed by the national literature and West-Ukrainian speech. The latter is gaining in prestige due to the pressure from the Ukrainian national elite.


Beside the standard(s) there are two regional vernaculars – eastern and western. While the western variety has many features common with Polish, the eastern variety uses more lexical roots common with Russian. There are, of course, some differences both in morphology and syntax as well as prosody. On the fringe of the eastern variety of Ukrainian is the so-called ‘surzhyk’, a creole-like language spoken in the provinces bordering on Russia.


The change of political scene, i.e. the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was the main cause of westernization in Ukraine, the main vehicles being economy, culture and the mass media.


Many Soviet citizens have always craved for items of Western material culture – probably due to the well-known ‘forbidden fruit’ effect. This craving plus the fall of the communist idols and the devaluation of the communist-nurtured morality have facilitated the invasion of Western (mainly American) mass culture supported by the technological and financial superiority of the transnational corporations.


The drive for learning English is great, but this is not where English words mainly come from. The greatest number of English borrowings is in the spheres of business and finance, and computer technology. The media also play an important role. The westernization of the Ukrainian society is effected directly by contacts with predominantly American culture Mass culture drains talent from high culture, and this is where danger lies for Ukraine and other post-communist nations. As a result, a flood of borrowings from English is inundating the speech of users of Russian as well as Ukrainian.

Evidence from lexicographic sources suggests that since the beginning of ‘perestroika’,


the number of the most recently borrowed  words is 764, and 321 (42%) of them are borrowings from English.

These numbers produce a really awesome impression. No wonder it alarmed the Russian parliamentarians to such a degree that protective legislation was introduced.


Cultural contacts are contributing significantly to changes in discursive practices. Imported words undergo the process of adaptation and many of them have served as the basis for new jargon. There are noticeable changes in the language of the press. Both ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ newspapers display a wider stylistic range of borrowings from English along with free use of formerly taboo and slang words and expressions.


The data obtained in this research allow us to claim that although ‘economic determinism’ has been scoffed at, it was the economic, political and cultural changes that caused the words relating to old concepts and events to drop out of active use and new words, among them borrowed ones,  to appear.