The Language of War: What sociolinguistic tension tells us about the war in Ukraine

In an address to the Russian populace on Feb. 21, Russian president Vladimir Putin made several claims about the Ukrainian government’s attempts to suppress ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian Parliament is continuing to discriminate against Russians,” he said, accusing Ukraine and Eastern European NATO members, of anti-Russian sentiment. “The politics of de-Russification continue. The Russian language is being persecuted.”

On the eve of Russia’s invasion, Volodymyr Dibrova was glued to his television screen, watching news coverage of the action. Dibrova, an author and professor of Ukrainian at Harvard University, said much of what Putin says comes from an overly paranoid point of view – to say he’s skeptical of Putin’s claims would be an understatement.

“He lives in a bunker. He has no connection with reality at all,” the Donetsk native said over a Zoom call on Feb. 25. “When you hear what he has to say, it’s total rubbish.”

Dibrova’s hometown, Donetsk, has been a focal point of the current situation – fighting there began in 2014, several years before Russia’s recent invasion of the country. Located in the eastern region of Ukraine known as Donbas, the city, along with other districts throughout Donbas, has close cultural ties with Russia.

Donbas is a bit of an anomaly in Ukraine, language-wise. You’re likely to come across Russian speakers all over Ukraine, though the language becomes less prevalent the further west one ventures within its borders. While there are urban areas like Kharkiv and Odesa with a majority of Russian speakers, the language is especially highly concentrated in Donbas, where its speakers make up a majority of the population across a particularly large stretch of land. Still, a little less than 60% of the region’s residents identify as ethnically Ukrainian – not Russian. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists gained traction there, and fighting between them and the Ukrainian government ensued.

Separatists in two regions of Donbas – Donetsk and Luhansk – declared independence from Ukraine, forming the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic shortly after Euromaidan in 2014. While parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions remain under Ukrainian control, most of the highly populated urban areas are subject to the rebel leadership. Linguistic differences have certainly played a role in this conflict – when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Putin justified the action by noting that the vast majority of its residents spoke Russian, rather than Ukrainian. Also that year, demonstrators in Donetsk reportedly burned several Ukrainian-language books in a display of anti-Ukrainian sentiment.

The Ukrainian government views the breakaway states and their governing bodies as terrorist fringe movements. On the other hand, the Russian government officially recognised them as nations independent of Ukraine on Feb. 21 of this year.

Just a few days later, Russia announced a “special military operation” – a euphemistic term which, in this case, essentially means “invasion” – in Ukraine. Now, the fighting is no longer limited to Donbas – bombings have occurred throughout Ukraine, in many of the biggest cities in the country. Since Feb. 24, the countries have been engaged in a full-fledged war on Ukrainian territory, the likes of which the European continent has not seen for several decades.

When Russia first began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a huge group of people – who hadn’t paid much mind to this relatively small corner of the planet before this year – suddenly had all eyes on Ukraine. People’s curiosities about the country surged. According to Google Trends, which allows people to identify popular search terms among Google’s users, interest in the country skyrocketed to heights it never had before.

Before the week of the invasion, searches for “Ukraine” reached their peak in March 2014, in the aftermath of the Euromaidan demonstrations. This past February, Google Trends estimated that interest in the country rose to more than six times what it was in March 2014.

As interest in Ukraine spiked, so too did interest in the country’s official language, Ukrainian. Though Google doesn’t report quite as large of a rise in interest for the Ukrainian language as it does for the country, the newfound fascination with the nation and its official language is evident in media coverage of the war in Ukraine. On the language learning app Duolingo, the number of users learning Ukrainian increased by nearly 500% following the invasion. Interestingly, one question about the language seems to be on many people’s minds:

What is the difference between Ukrainian and Russian?

Curious Googlers searched “difference Ukrainian Russian” in droves over the course of the week following the invasion. In an attempt to answer this question, language learning companies Duolingo and Babbel both published their own blog posts explaining the differences between the two languages.

“The languages are pretty close, but they are totally different,” Dibrova said.

There’s good reason for that. Ukrainian and Russian share about 62% of their lexicon, meaning that in a 10-word sentence in Ukrainian, Russian speakers are likely to understand six words, and vice versa. And four misunderstood words can make a big difference.

To many Ukrainian speakers, of course, this comes across as quite a naïve enquiry. Since she moved to the United States from central Ukraine in 1995, researcher and educator Ruslana Westerlund told MultiLingual that she’s heard and answered several variations of this question. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Westerlund published a piece in Language Magazine, preemptively addressing the question she’d been anticipating as tensions between Russia and Ukraine were growing increasingly more intense.

“To ask, ‘How does Ukrainian compare to Russian?’ seems so innocent and so curious, and yet it is so tiring for Ukrainians to keep repeating the same thing over and over again,” Westerlund wrote. “If you ask ‘How does Ukrainian compare to Russian?’ be ready and willing to learn new words like linguicide, language suppression, banned language, linguicism, language status, [and] linguistic inferiority.”

Considering the languages’ intertwined histories, however, it’s also a fair question to ask – especially when the question comes from people who likely didn’t know much about either language before February. Along with Belarusian and Rusyn, the two languages make up the East Slavic language family. Members of this language family split up from each other relatively recently, and as such, they have a high degree of lexical and grammatical similarity.

These similarities – along with the Russian Empire and Soviet Union’s respective efforts to “Russify” Ukraine and other territories – have often led to the misperception that Ukrainian is simply a dialect of Russian. They view it no differently from, say, the relationship between the varieties of English spoken in the United Kingdom and those spoken in North America. To some extent, this Russification of Ukraine (and therefore, its language as well) has played a role in Russian propaganda promoting the so-called “special military operation” that’s currently raging in the country. In his Feb. 21 address to his nation, Putin claimed that “modern Ukraine was completely and utterly created by the Bolsheviks,” who he said haphasardly demarcated the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the socialist revolution of 1917.

Ukrainians often claim that Russia repressed the Ukrainian language throughout its history, some going as far as to claim that there was an all-out “linguicide” of it. On the other hand, Putin and others in Russia have claimed that the modern Ukrainian government has persecuted speakers of the Russian language. While the events currently taking place no doubt go beyond mere sociolinguistics, tension like this can be an underlying factor in geopolitical conflicts like this one, often predating outright military conflict.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that seems particularly relevant at a time like this: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If a country’s military capacity is any indicator of the status of its native language, then it ought to be clear by this point in time that Ukrainian is indeed a separate language in its own right. Still, looking at the current war through the lens of socio- and historical linguistics can shed further light on the ways in which issues regarding language have contributed to the conflict at hand.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Dibrova said that he frequently switched between Russian and Ukrainian. To him, it never felt like there was a “clear-cut demarcation” between the two languages, yet he ultimately preferred to use Ukrainian.

“At home, we used to speak Russian. Ukrainian was always welcome,” he said. “But when the time came for me to choose, I opted for Ukrainian.”

While Dibrova said he never felt persecuted for using Ukrainian, he also admitted that the Soviet policy toward the language attempted to subjugate Ukrainian, deeming it a language of low prestige. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union implemented policies of Russification, forcing non-Russian people to assimilate into Russian culture – naturally, Russification also impacted the languages spoken throughout Russia and its former territories.

Even outside of Ukraine, it’s not hard to see the long-lasting effects of this undertaking – take Kazakhstan as an example. There, the local Kazakh language is currently written using the Cyrillic alphabet, much like Russian. (It should be noted, however, that a recently adopted policy in the country promises a complete shift to the Latin alphabet by 2025.)

The fact that a Turkic language like Kazakh – which is completely unrelated to any of the Slavic languages for which the Cyrillic alphabet was initially developed – uses this script is far from a coincidence. Kazakh speakers used a slightly modified Arabic-based script for centuries, until Soviet policy forced them to use a Latin-based script in the late 1920s. Little more than a decade later, the Soviet government implemented another policy, changing the language’s primary writing system to Cyrillic. Outside of the modern territory of Kazakhstan, however, many Kazakh speakers in China and Afghanistan continue to write using an Arabic-based script.

The story is similar for several other non-Russian languages spoken throughout former (and current) Russian territories. In the case of the Ukrainian language, this Russification dates back even further than the existence of the Soviet Union.

“The Soviet policy vis-a-vis the Ukrainian language was a kind of continuation of the Russian Imperial policy,” Dibrova said. “It was okay, it was tolerated, … but it was effectively pushed into a sort of cultural ghetto.”

The Russian Empire essentially viewed Ukrainian as a lesser dialect of Russian – census data from the late 19th Century officially referred to the language as “Little Russian,” while the language we now refer to as Russian was called “Great Russian.” Throughout the Russian Empire’s existence, there are several instances of policies that attempt to relegate the Ukrainian language to the fringes of society. Researchers at Euromaidan Press, a Ukrainian NGO that publishes information about history and current events in Ukraine, have identified at least 60 instances of foreign powers prohibiting the Ukrainian language over the course of three decades.

While imperial powers like the United Kingdom or the United States enacted linguistic assimilation through compulsory English education for their indigenous people, historians note that the Russian Empire did not have the proper educational infrastructure to mimic this approach. Instead, the empire limited or even banned the publication of works in certain minority languages. For example, the Valuev Circular of 1863 was a decree that limited the number of Ukrainian-language publications that could be printed and distributed within the empire. The man behind the policy, Petr Aleksandrovich Valuev, was especially concerned that Ukrainian and Polish nationalist movements threatened the empire – by his logic, censoring the publication of Ukrainian texts could limit the spread of Ukrainian nationalism.

In her piece for Language Magazine, Westerlund points to a similar policy adopted in the late 18th century, in which the Synod of the Russian Patriarchate banned the printing of a Ukrainian alphabet book and prohibited the translation of literature into Ukrainian. While these instances often play a role in the argument that the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union waged an all-out linguicide against the Ukrainian language, it’s important to note that their success was rather limited.

While the intentions may have been similar – that is, to subjugate foreign peoples and erase their respective cultural and linguistic identities – the effects of Russian censorship of Ukrainian texts pale in comparison to those of compulsory English education in North America. In the United States, the vast majority of Native American people speak English as their primary language – very few languages indigenous to the country have more than 10,000 speakers, and many of these languages are no longer spoken at all. Ukrainian, on the other hand, boasts a population of nearly 50 million speakers – many of whom do not even identify as Ukrainians.

Still, the censorship undeniably contributed to placement of the Ukrainian language in what Dibrova calls a “cultural ghetto.” The language never had any sort of official status within Ukrainian territory until 1990, just before Ukraine gained independence. During her early life in the Soviet Union, Westerlund told MultiLingual that, although Ukrainian was never banned during her lifetime, there was a clear difference in prestige between Russian and Ukrainian.

“Ukrainian was always perceived as the language of the peasants,” she said. “It was a second class language, not the prestigious one.” She added that Russian always seemed like a more chic language – in her childhood, for example, she and her friends would play with dolls, speaking Russian with the cooler, more stylish-looking dolls and Ukrainian with the ones that looked like peasants.

While Dibrova is hesitant to claim that Soviet language policy had a tangible negative impact on his identity as a Ukrainian speaker, he also notes that political elites in Russia and Ukraine have both attempted to capitalise on linguistic tension nonetheless.

“Ukraine is, de facto, a bilingual country. This linguistic issue is kind of a political choice,” he said, also noting that the Ukrainian language has been a significant factor in consolidating the national identity of Ukraine following its independence in the 1990s. “People switch to Ukrainian just to show which side they are on.

Young and/or newly independent nations tend to latch onto particular identifying factors that differentiate them from neighboring areas, effectively unifying their populace under one umbrella. For Ukraine, Dibrova and Westerlund both agree that this unifying agent is the Ukrainian language.

Since gaining its status as an independent nation in 1991, Ukraine gave official status to just one language: Ukrainian. Unlike neighboring Belarus, Ukraine opted not to give official status to Russian – interestingly, Belarusian has become a minority language in its own homeland, while Ukrainian is prevalent within all aspects of Ukrainian society, even in areas where the Russian language maintains a large base of speakers.

There are several reasons for this, but adopting Russian as an official language post-independence likely has something to do with the Belarusian language’s decline. Dibrova argued that Belarus – and therefore the Belarusian language – was particularly hard-hit during the second World War. Historians have also noted, however, that once Belarus gave Russian official status in 1995, Belarusian was virtually erased from “all domains of public life.”

Ukrainian has continued to prevail in a way that its sister language simply has not been able to. Once the country gained independence from foreign powers, the country’s populace placed a strong emphasis on the importance of the Ukrainian language – Dibrova said many parents and grandparents in Ukraine who grew up speaking Russian and Ukrainian will choose to speak Ukrainian with their children, rather than teaching them both languages.

“Elderly people or middle-aged people are saying, ‘Oh, we normally speak Russian, but we want our children or grandchildren to speak Ukrainian,’” he said.

In the early days of Ukraine’s independence, Russian still maintained a high level of prestige over Ukrainian. During his college days in the late 1990s, Igor Marach said his fellow students mainly spoke with each other in Russian. Marach, now the CEO of the Ukrainian language service provider Technoplex, said that the Russian language felt fairly dominant in many domains within the country until the Orange Revolution, a series of protests against corruption following the country’s 2004 presidential election.

“The influence of the Russian culture was too strong everywhere: from entertainment to science,” he said. “However, in 2004 after the Orange Revolution, many of us started to understand the value of our own language.”

Conversations about language policy, at least in North America, often revolve around language access services – that is, attempting to provide native speakers of minority languages with access to information in their native or primary language. This hasn’t quite been the case in Ukraine, however.

In the three decades since the country split off from the Soviet Union, politicians in the country have played a sort of linguistic tug-of-war. Early on in the modern state’s history, many pro-Russian politicians wanted the country to adopt Russian as a co-official language, similar to what Belarus did in 1995.

Pro-Ukrainian politicians succeeded in blocking such legislation from coming into place under President Viktor Yushchenko, who reigned as president from 2005 to 2010. Shortly afterward, Viktor Yanukovych took his place. Having long proclaimed his support for giving Russian recognition as a minority language, Yanukovych’s pro-Russian administration would eventually pass legislation that gave Russian regional status in half of the country’s territory, throughout its eastern and southern regions, where Russian remains a fairly prevalent language.

After Yanukovych was ousted in the midst of the Euromaidan demonstrations, the country further attempted to distance itself from Russian powers, a move that is evident in its most recent language policies.

“After (Euromaidan) and the first Russian invasion of Donbass and Crimea, many Ukrainians stopped visiting Russia, stopped watching Russian movies, et cetera,” Marach said. “In our business, which is focused on delivering Ukrainian and Russian language services, we saw that Ukrainian translation demand was growing – before that, EN-RU combination was around 75% of our volumes.”

A law passed in 2019 requires Ukrainian to serve as the primary language of the public domain – the bill received significant criticism not only from the Russian government, but also speakers of other minority languages like Hungarian and Romanian. The law has several core tenets, but of particular interest is its requirement that businesses use Ukrainian as their default language – this means signage, menus, and other communications, must be produced in Ukrainian, even in areas where Russian or other minority languages prevail.

“That (law) made a big impact on the Ukrainian language industry,” Marach said. “The share of Ukrainian translations in our company became bigger than the Russian one. We even started to experience a sort of lack of Ukrainian resources on the market.”

Marach said he believes the legislation was important to distinguish Ukraine and its culture from its intrusive neighbor. While the Kremlin has heavily criticised the policy, using it as logistical ammunition against Ukraine, Marach and Dibrova both argued that people can use the Russian language freely within society. “I must assure you that in our daily life we could use any language we wanted, including Russian,” Marach said.

While the war at hand is clearly much bigger and more severe than mere linguistic tension at this point, political elites continue to use such pressure as a tool to invoke resentment against their opposition. Ukraine is by no means the only country to push against the Russian language’s hegemony since the fall of the Soviet Union. Other former Soviet states such as Moldova and Uzbekistan have pushed for legislation similar to Ukraine’s 2019 language law, of which the Russian government has been similarly critical.

Dibrova dismissed this criticism as “Russian paranoia,” maintaining that much of the linguistic tension is more an issue for political elites than it is for the average Ukrainian – whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian as their primary language (or languages, in many cases). He also stressed the notion that most Ukrainians – regardless of their native language – identify, not as Russians, but as Ukrainians.

“Although Russian was spoken in my household, I never felt Russian at all,” he said. “Nowadays, more and more people are switching to Ukrainian. Why? Well, because it’s a political issue; because they don’t feel like Russians.”


Author of this article is Andrew Warner,
journalist and staff writer for MultiLingual,
published on www.multilingual.com in April 2022