If you have ever visited Kyiv, you may have noticed that the dominant language there is not Ukrainian. I was always frustrated whenever I visited, because as a Ukrainian speaker I had little to no chance of understanding the majority of the people in the capital city. Out of all of my experiences in Kyiv, the only person I heard speak Ukrainian consistently was my friend Olya, who is incredibly patriotic and in my eyes spoke Ukrainian as a sort of political and moral statement. Other than government employees and the staff at restaurants, both of whom are required by law to speak Ukrainian, the only time I could understand one of the locals in a language other than English was when I was talking to Olya.
In Kyiv, like in many other parts of Ukraine, the dominant language is Russian. This is due to Russian colonization: In the 19th century, the Russian Empire passed various decrees banning the Ukrainian language from being used, and in the 20th century the Soviet Union made strong efforts to enforce Russian as the primary and only language in Ukraine. After hundreds of years of propping up Russian and trying to systematically destroy Ukrainian, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many Ukrainians not only know Russian, but prefer using it as their main language. Look no further than the president, because even Volodymir Zelensky is a Russian-Native Speaker. Imagine that – your president’s first language is the native language of your greatest historical and contemporary enemy and the country you are currently at war with.
Only a handful of regions in the west primarily speak Ukrainian, and in most other cases Russian is either the main language or is part of a Russian-Ukrainian mix, “Surzhyk,” that is used in thousands of small towns and villages scattered throughout Ukraine. (Surzhyk is fascinating in its own right, because it varies from region to region, and sometimes even from village to village. As you might be able to tell we are only at the tip of the iceberg of language issues in Ukraine, but that’s for another blog post.)
My language frustrations started when I lived in a village in the Zhytomyr region for three months. Zhytomyr is on the western border of Kyiv, and is in the western-central part of Ukraine. With that said, I could only understand my host-mother when she talked to me one on one. When we were chatting, she made the conscious effort to only speak Ukrainian because, well, that was the only language I knew. However, whenever her friends or neighbors came over, I couldn’t make out a single sentence of their conversation because they were speaking their own version of Surzhyk.
This was not an isolated incident. For most of my time in Ukraine I lived in the far west and only ever used Ukrainian. After going through three months of hardcore Ukrainian language training, I was extremely thankful to actually use the language that I had studied four hours a day for. Some of my colleagues, who were placed in the east, found their Ukrainian skills mostly useless and had to begin learning Russian. Personally, I barely studied any Russian throughout my three and a half years in Ukraine, and as a result, whenever I ventured over to the central and eastern parts of the country I could barely understand anyone. I would go from freely and confidently speaking Ukrainian in the west in to traveling to central Ukraine and feeling like an idiot for not being able to ask for directions.
This is all to say that a TON of Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language, and before the war many people probably didn’t think too much about it. But now, after Russia’s brutal assault, a major effect on language in Ukraine is already taking shape. All I have to go on are anecdotal experiences from my friends and colleagues, but here are some examples of how language use is changing right before our eyes:
- My friend told me that her fiancee, who is from Kharkiv, physically cringes whenever he hears Russian on the street. Being from one of the most eastern parts of Ukraine, hearing Russian was as common for him as it is for an American to hear English. He only speaks Ukrainian now.
- I’m in a group chat with teachers from Kharkiv, and before the war they only wrote in Russian. I’d frequently have to copy and paste messages and plug them into Google Translate. Now all of the teachers are only writing in Ukrainian and I don’t need Google Translate anymore.
- One of my students runs a very popular Youtube channel. It has millions of subscribers, but he’s made the decision to make a duplicate channel and only create videos in Ukrainian and English. He very well may be giving up millions of subscribers, but that isn’t as important to him as ditching Russian is.
- My wife works with people in Kyiv, and the only time I ever heard her speak Russian before the war was when she was on Zoom talking to her colleagues. It annoyed her a bit, but she didn’t mind too much. Now, she is only speaking Ukrainian with those same colleagues and is refusing to use Russian under any circumstances. She, like my friend’s fiancee, cringes whenever she hears Russian.
It’s only a few examples from my personal life, but if I’m seeing noticeable changes on such a small scale, we can only wonder how many millions of Ukrainians both young and old are making the switch. One of my students, who lives in eastern Ukraine, put it simply: “Changing to Ukrainian is just another way to say f*** you to Russia.”
As of now, it’s difficult to truly understand the full impact that this war has and will have on the use of language in Ukraine. Perhaps the majority of the country will drop Russian completely like my friends and colleagues, or perhaps in the years after the war people will begin to return to Russian through Russian music, movies, Youtube channels, and other forms of entertainment.
I firmly believe, however, that there will be long-lasting change, and the only question is how drastic. After everything I’ve seen and heard so far, I’d bet that the next time I’m in Kyiv I won’t need to worry about any issues with the language barrier.
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