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Ukraine’s Bilingual Nation


A pro-Russian rebel guards a convoy of white trucks with humanitarian aid from Russia in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (Íomhá: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The European version of Politico, the American news and current affairs website, has a short article by Timothy Snyder on the information-conflict Ukraine, including this interesting account of the nation’s bilingual nature in action:

“The other day I took part in a Ukrainian talk show called “Freedom of Speech.” The format is an unusual one: Six local experts with credentials in the social sciences or in journalism sit three to a table, four special guests sit two to a table, two more surprise special guests arrive during the show and stand and perorate, and then of course there’s the host, a serious journalist called Andrei Kulikov…

Among other things it posts the main question to be discussed; this time, “Can Russia’s information war become a Third World War?” Guests sometimes talk about the main question, and sometimes about other things entirely. The program lasts anywhere between two and four hours, and runs late at night. Ukrainians love political talk shows, and millions watch this one on week nights.

Sitting and listening to my 12 fellow participants, I was struck by the diversity and linguistic practices of the political class. The first surprise guest was Volodymyr Hroisman, the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, who is Jewish. He spoke Ukrainian. The second surprise guest was Mikheil Saakashvili, the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, who is Georgian. He spoke Russian, entertainingly. Two of the four special guests were Americans; one of them spoke Russian and the other Ukrainian. The Ukrainian guests spoke Russian to the Russian-speaking participants, reflecting the etiquette in the larger society. When speaking to one another, Ukrainians chose various combinations. Usually Ukrainians spoke Ukrainian to one another, but a couple of the local experts posed questions in Russian. One of the special guests, a Ukrainian who used to head the secret services, answered some questions in Russian and some in Ukrainian, and kept citing Polish public figures, including, intriguingly, the film director Krzysztof Zanussi. The host switched back and forth fluidly, preserving the exact same poised persona in each language. The studio audience, Ukrainians from Kyiv, enjoyed the program, and paid no attention to its bilingualism. Theirs is a bilingual city and this is their daily life.

Early last year, Russia invaded Ukraine’s south and southeast on the pretext of protecting the right of Ukrainian citizens to express themselves in the Russian language…

For Russia to invade Ukraine to protect the right of Ukrainian citizens to express themselves in the Russian language makes no more sense that Germany invading Switzerland to protect the rights of its German speakers, or France invading Belgium to protect the rights of its French speakers.”

Read the whole piece here, including some heated comments.

6 comments on “Ukraine’s Bilingual Nation

  1. Just to point out that Russian and Ukrainian are not very different from one another, both being East Slavonic. So expecting a Ukrainian to understand Russian or vice versa is not like asking an English speaker to understand Irish. The difference is probably less even than that between Catalan and Castilian Spanish, or between Irish and Scots Gaelic, and more political than linguistic in a communicative sense.

    Russian speakers would no doubt be annoyed if expected to use Ukrainian, in the same way that Brits would be annoyed if required to adopt American spelling and usages, or the way Scots have to write and speak in Standard English, but the problem is one of identity rather than actual linguistic barriers.

    With Irish vs English, Welsh vs English, Basque vs Spanish etc. both factors are involved.


    • Indeed, Marconatrix, the linguistic situation is much closer to the Scandinavian one in the Ukraine than what we have – or could have – in the Celtic nations. I just thought it an interesting report.


      • Indeed. The point being that even the smallest differences can be exaggerated to emphasise identity. Sometimes this can be fairly good-natured and positive, boosting community self-confidence etc., unfortunately once politicians get involved …


  2. Russian and Ukrainian are very similar languages. They’re almost like dialects of one language. It’s easy for a Ukrainian speaker to learn Russian and vice versa.
    As a Russian speaker I can understand written Ukrainian to some extent. (Spoken Ukrainian is more difficult because of the accent).

    Anyone who has lived his whole life in Ukraine and can’t understand both must not be very bright (or he’s a Russian chauvinist).

    It’s not like Irish and English at all, because Irish is very different from English and a random English speaker can’t understand it at all.


  3. For an interested ignoramous/outsider like me,Timothy Snyder’s various Youtube lectures on Ukrainian history, the present Ukrainian conflict and current russian geopolitical strategy have been very illuminating and pretty scary, too. Definitely worth a look.


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