With the war in Ukraine constantly in the news now I’ve been pondering the historic custom of referring to that country as THE Ukraine. I have a smattering of Russian, thanks to some study and travel leading to social and family connections with people from both countries, and I know that ‘ukraina’ means ‘borderland’, so historically it was the place traditionally referred to by the expanding Russian empire over the past several hundred years as ‘the borderlands’.
It is the same word in both Russian and Ukrainian, which are closely related. In fact it would be correct to say that Ukrainian is a dialect of Russian. There are differences in pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary which become more pronounced the further west you go towards the Polish border, where the people have tended to lean more towards the West, culturally and politically. In the east of the country, and in the second biggest city Kharkiv, the people overwhelmingly consider themselves culturally Russian and have historically been more sympathetic to Moscow.
Putin says he is only reclaiming these borderlands of Mother Russia, but the big puzzle is: why is he bombing the borderlands people who were sympathetic to Russia – the people of Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine? He is making enemies of people who were once friends.
Even if he’s technically right that Ukraine was once part of a greater Russia, under both the Tsars and the Soviets, the fact is that Ukraine declared its independence in August 1991. Before then, the country was commonly referred to as THE Ukraine, but after independence that usage diminished in response to criticism that it suggested a non-sovereign territory. The Associated Press, for example, officially dropped the “the” on 3 December 1991.
As mentioned, Russian and Ukrainian are closely related and mutually intelligible. Remember George Bernard Shaw’s witticism that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language? The same could readily be said of Russian and Ukrainian, which began to differentiate centuries ago, around about the same time the English of northern America began to deviate from the mother tongue in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation.
Speakers of both varieties of English can readily tell one another apart because of these differences. It’s usually pronunciation – the accent – that gives the game away. Likewise with Aussies and Kiwis. (For the purposes of the comparison I’m not including Irish, Scottish, Indian or other varieties of English accent because these were influenced by different parent languages such as Gaelic and Hindi.)
So it is with Russians and Ukrainians, who can readily tell each other apart by their accents. For one thing, the hard ‘g’ in Russian words has come to be replaced by an ‘h’ sound in Ukrainian. And the ‘o’ sound in Russian becomes ‘i’ in Ukrainian, hence Kharkiv/Kharkov and Lviv/Lvov.
A recent news story tells how Ukrainian soldiers patrolling the northwestern flank of Kyiv in failing light are calling out to distant human figures, asking them to say the word ‘palyanitsa’, meaning dough, or the word for strawberry, which my Russian dictionary tells me is ‘zemlyanika’. I don’t know whether it’s the words themselves or the pronunciation that gives the game away, but you get the idea.
It’d be like if we went to war with New Zealand. We could check for enemy combatants or spies by asking them to say ‘fish and chips’.
Incidentally, you will have noticed that most media outlets have taken to referring to the Ukrainian capital as ‘Keev’, with just one syllable, supposedly in sympathy with the Ukrainian pronunciation. It all started because until recently most Anglo speakers only knew the name Kiev in connection with the chicken dish named after it, which they have tended to call chicken kee-YEV.
They have assumed this is how Russians say it and are going with ‘Keev’ in the mistaken belief that this is the Ukrainian way. It isn’t. The word has two syllables in both languages. It’s KEE-ev, emphasis on the first syllable. There might be slight differences in the vowel sounds but the only real difference is in the spelling. Kyiv in the Ukrainian variant, Kiev in the Russian.
It’s a bit like Vladimir/Volodymyr. Putin is ‘Vladimir’ and Zelensky is ‘Volodymyr’. It’s obviously the same name, with variations in the spelling and pronunciation. Fun fact and creepy thought re Putin: ‘Vladimir’ means ‘rule the world’.
But then, so does ‘Volodymyr’! What do we make of that?