Ukraine's language

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JEB SHARP: In one of Russia's neighbors, Ukraine, a presidential election campaign is in full swing, and one of the main issues Ukrainians are expected to vote on in January is their relations with Russia and the Russian language. Ukrainian is Ukraine's official state language, but about half of all Ukrainians still prefer to speak Russian. In fact, Russian remains the country's de facto common language. But Brigid McCarthy reports that Ukraine is in the midst of a peaceful linguistic revolution.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: Language is one of the most vexing aspects of life in Ukraine. At least, for foreigners. Before moving here last August, I didn't know which language to study. I'm still not sure. Here in Kiev, you see Ukrainian on street signs and on packages of food in grocery stores, as required by law, but on the street, you hear more Russian.

[People speaking Russian]

MCCARTHY: Here, a little boy and his mother are talking to a man selling miniature cactus plants in Kiev's botanical garden.

LAADA BILANIUK: They are speaking Russian, both the seller and the mother and the child.

MCCARTHY: That's Laada Bilaniuk. She's an anthropologist from the University of Washington and author of the book "Contested Tongues" about the politics of language in Ukraine. A few steps away, two women are standing behind buckets of brightly colored roses.

BILANIUK: So those two ladies, that lady is speaking Ukrainian.

MCCARTHY: Laada Bilaniuk uses that language to buy a bouquet of flowers.

[Women speaking Ukrainian]

MCCARTHY: Bilaniuk says most Ukrainians are bilingual. They have to be.

BILANIUK: Right now, you can't watch television without knowing both languages, because one person may be speaking Ukrainian, the other person will be answering in Russian, or they'll switch half way through

MCCARTHY: The country's bilingualism is made easier by the fact that the two languages are closely related. Both use the Cyrillic alphabet and about a third of the words are similar. And while this linguistic co-existence may seem peaceful, for many Ukrainians, it's also a political flashpoint. Some, including President Viktor Yushchenko want to reverse the effects of two centuries of Russian cultural dominance and outright suppression of the Ukrainian language. Yushchenko is a native Ukrainian speaker. He argues that his country's survival is at stake. He told a German magazine recently, "If a nation loses its language, it loses its memory, it's history and its identity." Volodymyr Kulyk agrees with President Yushchenko on the language issue. He's a researcher on ethnic studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and like Yushchenko, is a native Ukrainian speaker.

VOLODMYR KULYK: Ukraine separated from the Soviet Union but Ukrainians are still not separated completely from Russians mentally, culturally and for some, politically. And besides, if we have all Russian in common, how different we are from Russians?

MCCARTHY: Kulyk says growing up in the Soviet Union, he didn't question the dominance of Russian.

KULYK: For some time, I was polite in a way most Soviet Ukrainian people were, so when spoken to in Russian, I switched to. Then I decided, "No way."

MCCARTHY: He remembers the exact moment. It was in 1987, four years before Ukraine won its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. Kulyk was at a play with some Russian speaking friends. It was intermission.

KULYK: I just remember at one point, I said, "Sorry, guys, but that's enough. I have to reclaim my language."

MCCARTHY: Reclamation of its native language was a cornerstone of Ukraine's drive for statehood. One of the very first things that Ukrainian nationalists did was declare Ukrainian the sole official state language. That declaration was partly symbolic. Russian speakers kept speaking Russian and it's still widely considered the more prestigious language. Many Russians look down on Ukrainian as a peasant language. But that's changing, because Ukrainian is now the language of education. Eighty percent of the nation's schools, including universities, now use Ukrainian as the primary language of instruction. And anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk says Ukrainian is starting to shed its humble country cousin image. In fact, it's becoming fashionable.

BILANIUK: A lot of the musicians that I talk to, from eastern and western Ukraine, might have grown up speaking Russian, or even still speak Russian with their friends, but feel driven to make their music in Ukrainian.

[Band performing song in Ukrainian]

MCCARTHY: This is Papa Karlo, a popular rock group for mostly Russian speaking eastern Ukraine. Their songs are in Ukrainian. Bilaniuk says this is part of the Ukrainian cultural resurgence, led by young musicians and writers.

BILANIUK: They are building something new, and this is a once in a lifetime chance to create this country with this complicated history.

MCCARTHY: At the same time, Russian isn't going away. Even Ukrainian language champions like Volodymyr Kulyk don't expect it to, or even want it to. The fact is, Russian is useful. In this part of the world, it's the language of business and science and cursing. Some native Russian speakers think their mother tongue deserves recognition as the country's second official language. Others, like Marina Yakobovskaya think Ukrainians should continue to learn and embrace both languages. She teaches Russian at a university in Kiev.

MARINA YAKOBOVSKAYA: Our president was right saying that language, it's a heart of the nation, but our nation two-hearted, Russian and Ukrainian.

MCCARTHY: As for me, I tried to learn Ukrainian before I got here, but it didn't get me very far, because even if I could make myself understood, people in Kiev answered back in Russian. So now I'm studying Russian. One of these days, I might even understand some of those curses. For The World in Kiev, I'm Brigid McCarthy.

SHARP: Sorry, we can't repeat those Russian swear words. For all kinds of words in many languages, check out our weekly podcast, The World in Words. You can find that at The World dot org slash language.