The Ukrainian Language

I took Ukrainian lessons while in Kyiv. I’m still on the fence as to whether or not to resume them here in L’viv. I need to manage my time better.

In one sense (and only one sense) Ukrainian is easier than English. Unlike letters in English words, letters in Ukrainian always make the same sounds, regardless of how they’re arranged. On the other hand, word endings are a nightmare.

Ukrainian nouns have cases. They change depending on how they are referenced — subject, direct object, possessor. Latin has six cases; German has four; Finnish apparently has sixteen; Russian also has six cases. Ukrainian has the six cases of Russian plus an additional vocative case for when you’re calling someone or something, for example, “Ukraine, my darling” would begin “oo-kra-ee-nu . . .”

I’m completely charmed by seemingly endless gradient of diminutives in Ukrainian. For English speakers, think of how the name Michael can be reduced to Mikey. This is a diminutive. Ukrainian has one or more for every noun. I recently learned there is also the opposite of a diminutive. A noun can be a bigger, scarier version of itself by changing the ending.

Changing a word from noun to verb to adjective is also a simple matter of various twists and turns on the word’s endings.

The more I study, the more fascinated I become. Take the language’s tortured history.

According to one journalist friend of mine, there have been over 100 separate laws outlawing the Ukrainian in whole or in part. Stalin banished the letter ‘ґ’ — pronounced like the ‘g’ in gulag. The letter has returned from the archipelago, but you won’t see it very often. It doesn’t appear on my keyboard simulator. We can only guess what depravities it endured. The letter may never be the same again. Several phonetic combination were also banished.

Ukrainian has been Polinized in the West, Russified in much of the rest of the country — both coercive and voluntary forces have been at work.

There’s an emerging slang which mixes Ukrainian and Russian called суржик or “surzhyk.” The word surzhyk itself means a mixture of wheat and rye. Surzhyk varies greatly from town to town and even person to person.

In the diaspora, entirely new words emerged. I think my parents’ immigrant generation were so accustomed to protecting and preserving Ukrainian at all costs, they continued shielding the language after arriving in the US. We were scolded for transliterating “basketball” and instead were taught to say “koshekivka” — кошиківка — from the word кошик, or basket. In Ukraine, everybody says “basketball.”

Our word for exercise was руханка or “rukhanka” which means, simply, movement. I thought this was also a peculiarity of the diaspora, but I’ve since heard of it being used in parts of Western Ukraine, which makes sense. All WWII era refugees are from Western Ukraine — what had been Poland at the start of the war. (See Operation Keelhaul to learn how Allied forces forcibly returning millions of Soviet refugees to the loving embrace of Joseph Stalin.)

The Ukrainian term for exercise, meaning physical exercise, is фізичні вправи or “fizichni vpravy,” i.e. physical exercises.

Potato = картопля “kartoplia”, бараболя “barabolia” (which I grew up saying), or бульба “bul’ba”. Each betrays a regional identity.

My Ukrainian teacher laughed out loud when I said “zupa” for soup. In central Ukraine, they say it exactly as English speakers do — soup. Here in the west, “zupa” and soup seem equally common. I only knew “zupa” growing up, and suspect the more ardent preservers of the Ukrainian language would have seen “soup” as a betrayal of everything they stood for.

There is a very literary future tense by which you can bypass verbs like “going to” or “will.”

“Ia budu chytate” = I will read.

“Ia chytatemu” = I [will] read. (in the literary future tense)

The word for man is чоловік or “cholovik.” чоло means forehead. вік means age, mostly, but also wisdom. One lady, a very proud Ukrainian, used this example to tell me that Ukrainian teaches love and respect, even to those who don’t realize the roots of words.

Language is a hot issue here. Political careers live an die on emotions, not ideas. Hence, all over the world, politics is mostly identity politics. Here in Ukraine, this puts language issues center stage.

I wouldn’t tell anyone what language to learn, and I wouldn’t want anyone telling me. No doubt some ardent defenders of Ukrainian identity would feel threatened by this libertarian philosophy, but if you want to protect a language (or anything else) government should have as little to do with it as possible.

Much of the Ukrainian ethos swirls around the rather humiliating task of proving that we exist. In one of his poems, national figure Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) repeatedly asks, what are the Muskovites looking for in our torn-open graves? Former Russian president Putin has said on more than one occasion “Ukraine is not even a nation.” It is usually followed by a deafening silence from Ukraine’s government.

When I was a grade school student in New York City, I remember my teacher telling me on heritage day that I wasn’t Ukrainian because there is no such country. At the time, my priority was getting along and I was happy to bow to her authority as ultimate arbiter of truth — relieved even. After all, what descendant of a former Soviet state doesn’t seek the approval of appointed authorities? I mean, there would be *anarchy* if we didn’t revere our leaders, genuflect before them, gloriously sacrifice ourselves for the privilege of inclusion in their genius visions for society’s future.

I’ve since felt the pressure of my inherited three-hundred year old longing. So I offer these bits of history as evidence that I am not a Russian with an identity crisis:

Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s epic poem Eneyida, 1798, is considered the first literary work in modern Ukrainian (

Prior to him was the author Hryhorii Skovoroda whose language is apparently the subject of much debate. From wikipedia: “After an in depth study of Skovoroda’s written works the Slavic linguist George Shevelov was able to deduce that apart from Ukrainian it contained 7.8% Russian, 7.7% non-slavic, and 27.6% Church Slavonic vocabulary.” (

Looking back even earlier, we have hints about the language of the Zaporozhian Host and their divergence from Russian: “This linguistic divergence is confirmed by the need for translators during the mid 17th century negotiations for the Treaty of Pereyaslav, between Bohdan Khmelnytsky, ruler of the Zaporozhian Host, and the Russian state.” (

From the same article: “Ruthenian can be seen as a predecessor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn and Ukrainian. Indeed all these languages, from Old East Slavic to Rusyn, have been labeled as Ruthenian.”


As the Austrian School economists repeatedly point out, commerce makes people peaceful. If we trade with one another, meaning, if we are allowed to trade with one another, we will be peaceful regardless of conflicting interpretations of history. Once we grow up and renounce the idea of an ultimate arbiter of truth, who uses force (taxes, public education, truancy laws, government museums, government historians) conflicting perspectives can co-exist. In a non coercive society, we would no longer need to obliterate rival perspectives for our own to survive. Such society is richer not only in material wealth, but in cultural diversity, intellectual rigor, and scope of possibility for every human being.


EDIT: Some transliterated diminutives, and giant-inutive.

Roman -> Romko, Romchik (what my aunt still calls me), Romanchik, Romeniatko, Romanochko.

Dog = “pes” -> pesyk, peseniatko, pesyshche (giant-inutive)

Granny = “baba” -> babucia, babtsia, babul’ku, babyshche (giant-intuive)

Girl = ‘divchena’ -> divchenka, divchenochka, divka (rude), divul’ia (sarcastic, scary)

The Ukrainian word for diminutive is пестливі (“pestlyvi”), which means endearment.

See also:
(follow up post about language among diaspora Ukrainians)
(Ukrainian words from my diaspora childhood which haven’t quite worked in Ukraine)