Ukrainian. From the tongue of peasants to the official language

UkraineAlthough it takes 16 hours to drive from Prague to Kiev, Czechs and Ukrainians are closer than ever before with the current political climate. We hear Ukrainian all around us. In the streets, in shops, in parks.

Very few people know how hard it was for the Ukrainians to make their mother tongue into a language that could stand on its own. Doing so on their home turf was never easy. Read on to find out why.

Ukrainian is the only official language in Ukraine and the language of Ukrainian minorities in many countries, making it one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. If we were to count all of the native speakers, the number would be between 40 and 45 million people. From this perspective, it is the second largest Slavic language, just behind Russian.

It is part of the Indo-European language family, with its features placing it among the East Slavic languages, together with Russian and Belarusian. All of these languages use different versions of the Cyrillic script in their writing.


A Slavic language with many dialects

There are many theories about its origin. According to A. Shakhmatov, a Russian philologist, Ukrainian evolved from the so-called common East Slavic language spoken in the area of Kievan Rus in the Middle Ages. His Ukrainian colleague J. V. Sheveljov, on the other hand, believes that Ukrainian evolved directly from Proto-Slavic.

Today’s Ukrainian is a separate Slavic language with its own specificities and originality, but there was a time when it was called Rusyn, Little Russian or even simply Russian. Together with its many speakers, it also boasts multiple dialectal and social derivations. The most prominent is the so-called Surzhyk dialect, based on Ukrainian and Russian.

Ukrainian is linguistically close to Belarusian, Polish and Slovak. A common misconception is that our older population finds it easier to talk to Ukrainians thanks to their basic knowledge of Russian, but the fact of the matter is that the two languages have less in common than one might think.


A daily struggle for prestige

Ukraine, the second largest European state, has not been an independent country for most of its existence, which has had an impact on the formation of its language. The language only came into the limelight after having been labeled a “lowly peasant language” for several centuries. The fact that it is now the only official language of Ukraine is not as obvious as it might seem to Central Europeans. It is the result of many years of hard work, political compromises, pre-election promises…

Despite the fact that two-thirds of Ukrainians consider it their mother tongue, the remaining third, mainly people from the Donbas, Crimea and Luhansk regions, prefers using Russian. That being said, in central and western parts of Ukraine, Ukrainian is the number one language. It is also the official language in Transnistria and in some municipalities of Serbian Vojvodina. Naturally, it is also the language of Ukrainian minorities in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic.


Under the protection of the law

            The current status of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine is the result of a long-lasting struggle for prestige. In the past, its lack of relevance was often the result of so-called code-switching. What is code-switching? It is when a Ukrainian automatically switches to Russian when talking to a Russian. This behavior is common with up to 90% of Ukrainians, according to surveys. It is important to mention that “Russian vs. Ukrainian” has been a hot topic in Ukraine for a long time.

The situation was finally resolved by the parliament. The Supreme Council of Ukraine passed a law significantly restricting the use of Russian on television in favor of Ukrainian in 2017. Then in April of 2019, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a lawOn ensuring the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language”. Based on this law, Ukrainian must be spoken not only by officials such as MPs, diplomats, judges and teachers, but also by doctors in state hospitals. The army, the police and the judicial system also have to obey this law. Ukrainian is also compulsory at all levels of education. 


Ukrainian vs. Czech

            Although both Czech and Ukrainian are Slavic languages – the former West Slavic, the latter East Slavic – overcoming the language barrier is not exactly easy, since they use different alphabets.

The two languages have developed side by side throughout history. Both languages have gone through many pivotal and seemingly unimportant moments in the past. Chronicles tell us that Czechs and Ukrainians made contact as early as the during the eras of the Great Moravian Empire and the Kievan Rus. The Tale of Bygone Years, the oldest of the Old East Slavic chronicles, records the “life of Vladimir of Kiev full of peace and friendship with Duke Oldřich of Bohemia.” Who would have thought?

Then there is Charles University in Prague. Its founding in 1348 was a gateway to education for Ukrainian students. Hussite literature and the “cult” of Jan Hus itself found its way to Ukraine, importantly appearing in a poem by Taras Shevchenko, who is considered the creator of standard contemporary Ukrainian, in 1845.


The two-way effects of literature and politics

The teachings of humanists Jan Blahoslav and J. A. Comenius also had a positive effects on the relations of the two countries. Later, it was Dobrovsky’s linguistic work that lead to the creation of Ukrainian grammars. F. L. Chelakovsky, a poet of the Czech National Revival, was one of the first people to adopt the Ukrainian language, with a part of his work being translated. In the opposite direction, the works of Borovykovsky, Kostomarov and Metlinsky made their way into the Czech lands from Ukraine.

It is quite obvious that the emigration of Czechs to Ukraine in the mid-19th century and/or the annexation of Subcarpathian Rus to the then Czechoslovakia in the 1920s influenced the Ukrainian language. We should also mention president T. G. Masaryk, who spent more time in Kiev than any of his successors, including those from the Czech Republic.


The path to a common ground

No matter how interesting linguistic theory is, it doesn’t help you much when you need to communicate with Ukrainians quickly and sufficiently. How do you effectively improve the communication with your new neighbors, colleagues and/or roommates? We have 3 tips for you.

  1. The easiest solution by far is Google Translate, which has voice recognition in both its desktop and mobile versions. For basic communication, this is much easier than typing text on your screen and showing the translation to the other person. In addition, you don’t have to keep switching your keyboard to Cyrillic for them to reply.
  2. The second option is CUBBITT, a translation software in the development of which České překlady played a small role. What is CUBBITT? In record time, Prague linguists have developed an automatic translator between Ukrainian and Czech, which is said to be better than Google Translate and is free to use. It is excellent for translating e-mails, messages and various documents. The translations are of a high quality; if you don’t have access to an in-person translator, this software will certainly help. If you’re interested in learning more about Cubbitt, you will find it covered in great detail in our previous articles.
  3. And finally, České překlady is always here to help. Last year, we translated over 26 million words and interpreted over 600 hours for our clients. We are here to help, so feel free to contact us.

I want to know
the price of the translation now.


Comment this post