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Margarita Khazanova
Choosing the standard Ukrainian language: speakers at the geographical crossway
UDK 811.161.2
Professional article
Margarita Khazanova (Russia)
Russian State University for the Humanities
Moscow, Russia
The process of reforming Ukrainian standard language is related to the coexistence of
two historically developed variants of the Ukrainian standard - Eastern and Western. Before
Ukraine became an independent state, Ukrainian language policy encouraged the use of the
Eastern standard, which is closer to Russian. This Eastern variant was reflected in standard
vocabulary and grammar. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western variant of the
language, which had evolved by the first half of the 20 century on the territory, which was a part
of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is now considered the more prestigious one. Not only
researchers and editors of dictionaries and grammars are elaborating of a new Ukrainian
standard, but also common speakers are discussing language elements in line with 'folk purism'
(by analogy with 'folk etymology').
Keywords: standard Ukrainian language, folk purism, language policy
1. Introduction
This article focuses on some problems of contemporary Ukrainian standard language,
Ukrainian language policy and the way in which common speakers perceive and influence the
process of standard language reformation.
2. Methods
The analysis of the language material was done using the method of continuous sampling
in the Ukrainian Internet forums. The first step was to choose the most active forums that touch
the question of the language norm, language purity and standard reformation. The second step
was to analyze the dynamics of the discussion and speakers’ ideological viewpoint: West
Ukrainian variant oriented or East Ukrainian variant oriented.
Margarita Khazanova
Choosing the standard Ukrainian language: speakers at the geographical crossway
3. Discussion
Since 1991, after becoming an independent state, Ukraine has changed its language policy.
Now Ukrainian language has become the only official (state) language; the other minority
languages sometimes do and sometimes do not have a special regional status, and that is a
prominent change compared to the situation in the Ukrainian SSR where two languages –
Russian and Ukrainian – had the official status1.
The two former official languages reflected the real language usage, as Ukrainian people
are usually bilingual with one preferred language – mostly Ukrainian or Russian – for everyday
According to the survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in
2003, current situation in language usage is following:
Figure 1. Preferable language of day-to-day communication in Ukraine
Figure 1. shows parts where:
- yellow – Ukrainian is the preferable language of day-to-day communication
- light green – Russian is used a bit more often than Ukrainian (46% to 32%)
- dark green – Russian is the preferable language of day-to-day communication.
It has been some time since the survey was conducted but the language situation has not
undergone serious changes. However we must admit that – although very slowly - the number of
Ukrainian speakers is growing each decade.
In 1994 the Ukrainian standard language was declared strongly russified and in need of
urgent reformation. That was the moment when the Orthography Reformation Committee began
its work that was paused in 2003.
The language situation in Ukraine is aggravated by the fact that there are two regional
variants of the Ukrainian language – Eastern and Western – that have a number of differences,
According to the 2012 act "On the principles of the state language policy", the State guarantees constitutional
protection to any language spoken in Ukraine and any language in areas of Ukraine where the percentage of
representatives of national minorities exceeds 10% of the total population of a defined administrative district and the
status of a “regional language” so that it can be used officially in courts, schools and other government institutions.
However in February 2014 there was an attempt to repeal the law but the repeal bill is still not signed although not
vetoed, its current status is “ready for signature” (by the President).
Margarita Khazanova
Choosing the standard Ukrainian language: speakers at the geographical crossway
primarily in lexis. Also there are several strong Ukrainian diasporas, first of all in the USA and
Canada (but also in Brazil), originating mostly from Western Ukraine. Therefore, for many
people now, the Western variant is the more ‘native’ one due to the fact that it is ‘further’ from
Russian and has preserved some of its older characteristics, while the Eastern variant is
perceived as strongly russified. However during the Soviet period the Eastern variant was the
more prestigious one and it became the basis for the construction of the literary language in the
So the newly formed Orthography Reformation Committee in 1994 faced several big and
serious problems:
- firstly, they needed to reform the standard language so that it would become more
‘contemporary’, i.e. it would meet the needs of day-to-day communication better
- secondly, they needed to create a literary form that could reflect both the Eastern and the
Western variants of the language
- thirdly, the standard had to reflect not only the Ukrainian language in Ukraine but also
that of the diasporas in Americas.
After several years of work the Committee worked out a new orthography project that tried
to achieve all of the aforementioned aims. The process of reformatting the literary language
caused the so-called language discussion in the society on every level. The new variant of 1999
appeared to be very controversial. It was too innovative for Ukrainian speakers from the East
although acceptable (and even advisable) for the Western and diaspora speakers. Still, some
publishing houses and common speakers use it for their needs. The others use the official
orthography of 2012 that is very similar to the Soviet variant.
However, the orthography reformation was only the first step in the process. The second
step was the reformation of vocabulary. Before, many words and idioms were deemed unliterary
(dialectal, archaic, colloquial etc.) but now their status has changed. Especially that is important
for Western Ukrainian vocabulary, which is rather close to the West Slavic languages (especially
Polish), e.g. пательня – patelnia, шпальта – szpalta, шкіц – szkic, кнайпа – knajpa etc. This
tendency was parallel to diverging as far away as possible from Russian even despite the close
relation of both languages.
Thus in today's Ukrainian language not only language variants have different levels of
prestige but also words, grammatical forms and even spelling variants, e.g.
сковорода – пательня
фотографія – світлина
машина – авто
річ у тому – річ у тім
буду писати – писатиму
Вашингтон – Вашинґтон
Хемінгуей – Гемінґвей
Many of preferred forms originate from Western regions and sometimes are the effect of
Ukrainian and Polish language contacts. From common speakers these forms go into mass
media, literature and school books, and thus they are incorporated into education and become
more familiar for children and teens. Thus a new generation of speakers is emerging.
All of this concerns not only literary language in its usual sphere – mass communication.
Another aspect of Western orientation (as speakers understand it, of course) is its influence on
the colloquial language. In Ukraine there are a lot of dialectal and regional language groups that
Margarita Khazanova
Choosing the standard Ukrainian language: speakers at the geographical crossway
sometimes are very different from each other. In that continuum of language characteristics, the
further to the west the better, is what people believe. Since Eastern dialects are perceived as
surzhyk (a colloquial mix of Russian and Ukrainian) and as such have low level of prestige,
Western dialects are becoming a source of ‘native’ language elements, not only for more or less
official communication but also for everyday communication e.g. on the Internet people are less
likely to criticize colloquialisms originating from Western dialects than those originating from
the East.
Surfing on the Net one can come across many examples of discussions such as the
following (this one was found in a forum thread dedicated to correct spelling and word usage). In
the previous posts speakers criticized word usage on street signs, menus, advertisements etc. – in
different public spheres. Most of the criticized words were called Russian or surzhyk and thus
Later the discussion turns to the word пательня (‘frying pan’) in the restaurant menu.
1: Тобто до слова «пательня» питань нема?
So, you don’t see any problem with this ‘patelnja’ word?
Then the second speaker gives a link to the article on пательня in Wikipedia, which
proves that this word really exists in Ukrainian.
3: У деяких регіонах використовується діалектний варіант ‘пательня’,
літературною формою є слово сковорода та похідні від нього. (вікі)
In some regions they use a dialectal word ‘patelnja’, the literary form is the word
‘skovoroda’ and its derivatives. (wiki)
So here the third speaker says that there are two words with similar meaning. But the
literary word ‘skovoroda’ sounds the same as in Russian and thus causes a critical attitude:
4: Не знаю ніяких ‘сковородів’. Пательня і всьо.
I don't know any ‘skovorodas’. It's patelnia, and that's that.
So here the fourth speaker does not want to hear anything about the word ‘skovoroda’.
5: Або рондель.
Or ‘rondel’.
The fifth speaker finds another word with the same meaning, a dialectal one too.
6: В тернопільському ресторані не приймаються претензії до слова «пательня».
Мають право на місцеві діалектизми. Не порівняти із дійсно неграмотним …
At a Ternopil restaurant they don't listen to complaints about the word ‘patelnja’. They
have a right to use local dialects. It can’t be compared to the illiterate…
and they go on discussing other words.
As one can see, in this example speakers allow others to use non-standard words but only if
those words originate from Western Ukrainian dialects. Elements of colloquial speech
originating from other regions are deemed Russian or surzhyk even if they are not, and even if
dictionaries and grammar books state them as actually Ukrainian, because speakers believe their
own language sense more than other (even the most reliable) sources.
4. Conclusion
The tendency of consciously changing the Ukrainian language standard towards more
Western language elements is not the only one observed in contemporary Ukrainian but one of
the most prominent ones that involves not only linguists, politicians and authorities but also
Margarita Khazanova
Choosing the standard Ukrainian language: speakers at the geographical crossway
common speakers and gives them a lot of room for creativity. The idea of Western orientation in
norm reformation makes Ukrainian speakers very aware of any potential changes in the language
structure. In opinion of some of them the idea ‘the further to the West the better’ is the true
nature of the standard language reformation, while Eastern language elements are sometimes
perceived as surzhyk, or a colloquial mix of Russian and Ukrainian.
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