The Ukrainian language, also sometimes referred to as Little Russian or Ruthenian, has a rich cultural and literary presence in the modern world, and has contributed a number of Nobel Prize winners in the fields of science, economy and literature.
This fact is all the more impressive given the fact that years of political domination over Ukraine territories coupled with repression of the Ukrainian language stalled the development of a Ukrainian literary language for years.
The Ukraine’s history of foreign domination has left the modern country with a rich literary language that has had a wide variety of outside influences, including Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, and Russian.
Early History and Classification of the Ukrainian Language
During the 6th century AD, the Slav people migrated from old Poland, resettling throughout the Balkans region. By the 10th century, three main groups had arisen within the Slavic language family: Eastern, Western and Southern.
Ukrainian is descended from the East Slavic, along with the Russian and Belarusian, or White Russian, languages. These three East Slavic languages initially shared essential grammatical features which allowed them to use a shared writing system known as Church Slavonic or Old Church Slavonic.
Emergence of a Distinct Ukrainian Language in Kievan Rus
The medieval state of Kievan Rus, which existed from the late 9th to mid-13th centuries, was founded by Scandinavian traders known as Rus and located in the city of Kiev, the modern-day capital of the Ukraine. It is believed that Ukrainian developed from the language of the Kievan Rus.
Until the 12th or 13th century, Ukrainian was nearly indistinguishable from the Russian and Belarusian languages, to which it is closely related. After the fall of the Kievan Rus state in the 13th century, Ukrainian began to develop distinct characteristics which set it apart from the Russian and Belarusian languages.
Debating the Development of Differences Among the East Slavic Languages
From the 13th to 17th centuries, Ukrainian continued its path of divergence from the Russian language. By the mid-17th century, Ukrainian and Russian had undergone such dramatic changes that translators were required to negotiate political treatises between Russian and Ukrainian-language leaders. The exact reason for this development has been a point of continuous debate among linguists for many years.
One theory suggests that the three East Slavic languages did not develop differences due to any massive external influences, but simply came to differentiate from one another as a course of natural development. A more radical theory denies the existence of a common Old East Slavic language altogether, claiming that Belorusian, Russian, and Ukrainian developed as distinct languages from the Proto-Slavic as early as the 6th to 9th centuries.
Lithuanian and Polish Rule over Present-Day Ukraine
In the early 14th century, the fall of the Kingdom of Galicia-Vohynia, which had asserted itself after the decline of Kievan Rus, led to a shift of power in the area of modern-day Ukraine. Primary areas of the present-day Ukraine came under Lithuanian and Polish rule.
While Lithuanian rule generally allowed for an autonomous Ukrainian culture and language to persist, Polish rule undertook a policy of assimilation, exerting a heavy Polish linguistic, cultural and political influence.
The 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav: Russian and Polish Domination of Ukrainian Society
The Treaty of Pereyaslav separated Poland and the Ukraine, which subsequently came to be dominated by neighboring Russia. Soon after, Ukrainian culture underwent a period of subordination in the face of Russian and Polish power.
The native Ukrainian upper classes tended to learn either Russian or Polish, depending on their location. The Ukrainian language continued to decline in use until the 19th century, by which time most Ukrainian schools had closed down or switched to Polish or Russian language instruction.
The Great Northern War: Division of the Ukraine
Lasting from 1700 to 1721, the Great Northern War pitted the Northern Alliance of Russian, Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania and Saxony against Sweden in a competition for control of the Baltic Sea. Sweden was eventually defeated, leaving Russia as the new major power of the North.
After the end of the war, the area of modern-day Ukraine was divided among various regional powers. By the 19th century, the majority of Ukraine’s eastern land had become a part of the Russian Empire, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled the west.
Emergence of the Ukrainian Literary Language
The first samples of written Ukrainian appear in 12th century manuscripts. However due to centuries of political subordination, Ukraine lacked any form of formal written expression for many years.
Only in the 18th century did a modern Ukrainian literary language, based on the commonly spoken Ukrainian of the time, emerge. The Ukrainian language is written using a form of the Cyrillic alphabet.
During the 19th century, a surge of Ukrainian self-identity became evident among the Ukrainian upper classes. A number of scholars and writers began to make use of Ukrainian in their works as a way of proving that the language could be more than a spoken colloquial tongue and could be utilized in scholarly and literary pursuits.
Russian Repression of the Ukrainian Language
After taking possession of eastern Ukraine after the Great Northern War, the Russian Empire took great pains to eliminate any sense of unique Ukrainian identity in order to preserve the unity of the empire. This included persecuting pro-Ukrainian individuals and banning Ukrainian books.
While the areas of the Ukraine belonging to the Russian Empire suffered severe cultural and linguistic repression, the areas belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire were permitted to continue using the Ukrainian language, resulting in a flourishing Ukrainian literary culture. As a result, Ukrainian language books were often smuggled into Russian-controlled areas of the Ukraine.
The Modern Ukrainian Language
After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the collapse of Austro-Hungary in 1918, the Ukraine enjoyed a brief period of independence. By 1922, however, eastern Ukraine had been taken by Red Army troops and declared the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Meanwhile, the western Ukraine’s losses to Poland resulted in its incorporation into Poland. Finally, Czechoslovakia and Romania absorbed the leftover areas.
In 1991, Ukraine gained independence from the USSR and declared Ukrainian to be the official language of the newly-independent country. Government efforts were made to broaden the use of the Ukrainian language, which was reinstituted into the educational system and increasingly used in government, media and business. Today the Ukrainian language is spoken by an estimated 40 million people, primarily in the Ukraine and in Ukrainian immigrant communities scattered throughout neighboring Belarus.
Ukrainian Quick Facts
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, East
Official Language of: Ukraine
Spoken by Approximately 39,442,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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