Norman Davies

A short history of language in Ukraine

After six months of war in Ukraine, most observers agree that the roots of Russian aggression lie in the country’s deep-rooted attitudes to culture and history. In line with Russia’s nationalist traditions, Putin denies any place for a separate Ukrainian identity.

The Ukrainians, in contrast, see themselves as a proud nation with their own history, culture, centuries long struggle for independence, and, of course, language. And while Ukrainian has been dismissed as a dialect of Russian in Moscow, it in fact has a long history – and is very much a language in its own right.

That independence can be seen in the genesis of the word ‘Ukraine’ itself. In most Slavonic languages, the letter ‘U’ – and written in Cyrillic as У – is a preposition of location; according to context it can be translated as ‘in’, ’on’ ‘at’ or ‘near’, and it is followed by nouns in the genitive case. In Ukrainian, the word Kray means ‘edge’ (although in Russian it means ‘land’ or ‘country’). So ‘U Krayu’ stands for ‘At the Edge’, and Ukraina for ‘the Land on the Edge’ or ‘Borderland’. It is very similar to the American idea of the ‘Frontier’.

The question ‘on the edge of what?’, however, sparks controversy. One answer, since the term first appears in mediaeval times when Ukraine lay within the Jagiellonian realms of Poland-Lithuania, would be: ‘the borderland of Poland-Lithuania’. Others might say that Ukraine was ‘the Edge of Christendom’ or possibly of civilised settlement before the endless steppe. Russians think that Ukraine is the borderland of Russia.

The tenth century state of Kyivan Rus was created by a Viking dynasty ruling over a collection of East Slavic tribes. Those Eastern Slavs were the last in a prehistoric procession of Slavic peoples, who had drifted out of Eurasia in the rear of Latins, Celts, and Germanics.

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