More on Ukraine and Ukrainian
In yesterday’s posting I touched on the issue of language being part of the political tension between Russia and Ukraine: the use of the preposition na ‘on’ with the toponym Ukraine is seen by Ukrainian nationalists not as the Russian language norm but as an attempt to further marginalize Ukraine. Interestingly, even the most hardcore Ukrainian nationalists do not propose a different toponym for the country itself. I guess, Ukraina is better than Malorossia (literally, ‘Small Russia’), the earlier toponym for a large portion of today’s Ukraine.
The history of the term Malorossia ‘Little Russia’ and how it is perceived is interesting in itself. Originally, this term was meant to refer to the core of the East Slavic nation, centered around Kiev (today, the capital of Ukraine). Until the end of the 16th century Ukrainians and Russians (together with Belorussians) were the same people, speaking (distinct dialects of) the same language. In contrast to Malorossia, the outlying Russian lands were referred to as Velikaja Rus’ or ‘Greater Russia’. This was in accordance with the Byzantine tradition of referring to Greece proper as ‘Small Greece’ and the outlying Greek-controlled lands as ‘Greater Greece’ (think also of such English usage as ‘Greater Boston’ or ‘Greater Chicago’). However, with time, the terms Malorossia and Velikaja Rus’ became reinterpreted as implying an evaluative judgment: ‘small’ = insignificant, unimportant, vs. ‘great’ = important, central.
Another aspect of this Russian-Ukrainian tension that needs to be stressed is that not everybody in Ukraine speaks the Ukrainian language. Thus, Ukrainian predominates in the northern and especially western parts of Ukraine, while Russian predominates in the southern and eastern parts of the country (see the maps above: yellow map for Ukrainian, gray map for Russian). Another language commonly spoken in Ukraine is Surzhik, a mixed language combining elements of both Russian and Ukrainian.
Furthermore, the southern dialects of Russian – spoken in the areas bordering north-eastern Ukraine and in adjoining areas of Ukraine itself – share some similarities with the Ukrainian language. For example, the phoneme /g/ is pronounced in these dialects as a soft [h]-like sound, not as a hard [g] (as in the central and northern dialects of Russian). In contrast, northern Russian dialects are quite distinct and feature the so-called okanje (that is, distinct pronunciation of unstressed /a/ and /o/), in contrast to akanje (that is, pronouncing unstressed /a/ and /o/ the same, as in southern dialects of Russian). Between the northern and southern dialects of Russian lies a belt of the so-called central dialects, which combine some features of the northern dialects (such as the hard pronunciation of /g/) with features found in the southern dialects (such as akanje).
This illustrates the East Slavic dialectal continuum: going from north-east to south-west, dialectal differences accumulate as we move through areas of northern Russian dialects, central Russian dialects, southern Russian dialects, Surzhik and Ukrainian. Distinguishing separate languages and drawing boundaries between them is as much a matter of politics and ethnic self-identification as a purely linguistic issue. The same thing is true in many other parts of the world, but we will discuss this matter in future postings.