«We’re losing our territory in language,» – translator and linguist Andrii Sodomora

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Why is language unimportant to Ukrainians, even though it is the basis of the nation, what should be done first to save it from even greater assimilation with Russian, and why are rules not the key? We discussed these questions in the special project «Accents of Your City» with a translator, writer and linguistics scientist Andrii Sodomora. In this text, we explain the Ukrainian linguistic specificities in a way, adapted to our English-speaking audience.
Collage by Tvoe Misto

Collage by Tvoe Misto

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German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said: «Language is the home of being, and man lives in this home.» Sociological polls at the time of independence show that language is apparently unimportant for Ukrainians. But when answering the question of what’s necessary to change the defense capability of Ukraine, most respondents talk about language. Thus, we have a paradox: Ukrainians do not care about their own language, but they feel that it’s the basis.

That’s because the war is going on, and it always brings to the surface what we don’t talk about in everyday life. Now, these are concepts we need to review. What is patriotism, love for the Motherland, language, courage, and how the latter differs from boldness? Poet Volodymyr Sosyura wrote «Liubit’ Ukrainu» (Love Ukraine) during the years of the World War II, and now, when we talk about language, we should read it in a new, deeper way, because it has everything we need.

I really like the word «accents». Accent from Latin means chorus, and in this language, in addition to emphasis, it’s also necessary to raise the tone of the voice. Everything depends on accents, what we emphasize and pay attention to. In the front, not all positions are equal, including in the language issue: we have to understand what is primary and what is secondary. Because when we discuss everything in language, we end up talking about nothing.

Now we are defending every inch of Ukrainian land and we must do so with the «language territory» too, because what are we fighting for otherwise? Let me remind you of the phrase «Language is the soul of the people», which, I’m scared to say, has become banal. But we do not think that it speaks about the balance of the territories of our land, spirituality, our existence as people endowed with soul and spirit.

Lithuanians in the late 1980s and early 1990s said: «You are the same as us. You will see that we’ll leave the Soviet Union.» But at that time, ten percent of them were Russian-speaking, now it’s even less. Before the war, half of our population was actually Russian-speaking. Now, many people are switching to Ukrainian, but is it that easy?

It is wonderful that the number of people who speak Ukrainian is increasing. But with the transition to it, they still use Russian-language constructions. Instead of resisting this, saying that we have a different mentality and language, we, on the contrary, assimilate them, and this is the greatest danger. First of all, we need to talk about eliminating the foreign from the language, what does not belong to us. I highlighted its most painful points, what we must immediately save, and what we must not allow, because if it enters the usage, then no force will remove it from our language.

Do you include, in particular, the vocative case as something that needs to be saved?

Figuratively speaking, the vocative case is the soul of our language, without exaggeration [vocative is the grammatic case used to address a person]. It comes from ancient times, testifies to our mentality and amazing unity with nature. Open the Ukrainian songbooks and you will see what the vocative case is: «Blow, wind, to Ukraine», «Oi, verbychenko» («Oh, willow»). This is a soul-to-soul conversation between man and nature. 

I distinguish the «correct» language, that is, adjusted to the rules (some of them would better not exist), and a live, juicy Ukrainian. I purposely brought Homer’s «Odyssey» translated by Petro Nishchynskyi, a great patriot and musician. He felt the spirit of the Ukrainian language, which was truly the soul of the people. Franko writes in one of his letters that he spent hours reading this translation to several dozen peasants, and they listened attentively.

Can you imagine if now the peasants, who are used to television, quick pleasure and mass culture, would listen like that? Experience these colossal changes. Open this book and you will see what a living language is, and what today’s «correct» language is, without phraseology, rhythm and melody. Breath from the times when people created proverbs, children sang lullabies, and they grew up in the rhythms of language. Therefore, I quite responsibly say: we must save the thing without which the Ukrainian language will become Ukrainian only formally. Fight intensively and intelligently after the victory for the preservation of this Ukrainianness. First of all, I am talking about the verbal appeal [a form of the verb expressing encouragement to action, now frequently replaced with the Russian construction «davaite + verb» (let’s + verb)], which is our history and which we have lost. Why? Because we were never an empire, we never ordered anyone. It was the voice of the community: let’s work, rejoice, strengthen ourselves, «Brothers, fan the fire of zeal!» [a line from a rebel song]. This is not just a grammatical form, but our spirit, our history. Read Franko’s «Zakhar Berkut», and not only: the community speaks there, not someone from outside. It’s not an order, but a call.

Is this what connects our language with Latin?

In particular, with Latin. «Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus!» in the Ukrainian translation it sounds: Tozh radiymo, veselimsya, poky my molodi (So rejoice, have fun while we are young). And now, we will translate it into Russian. You’ll not translate, because it will be like: Davaite radovatsia, veselitsa (Let’s rejoice, have fun). Now, even in very good Ukrainian translations, there is no our verbal appeal, only «davaite», which is met at every step. And this is a foreign construction to us. «Tovaryshi deputy, davaite zrobymo tse nastupnym chynom» (Comrade deputies, let’s do it as follows) – is it Ukrainian or not? Yes, there are Ukrainian words here, but they have almost nothing in common with our language. In Ukrainian, it will sound like «Tovaryshi deputy, zrobimo tse nastupnym chynom».

Every day on the radio commercials I hear, «Mama, mama!» There must be some kind of leverage to say that in Ukrainian, vocative case will not be «mama» but «mamo». I saw an advertisement written in huge letters «Lviv! Tilky dlia tebe» (Lviv! Only for you), but in Ukrainian, it should be «Tilky dlia tebe, Lvove!». And this is our language, which even in such advertising hits the soul. In order not to be verbose, I will quote a law that is valid for all times and which Horace voiced more than two thousand years ago: «Practice is the norm of speech.» The norm of speech is not the way we write, but the way the public speaks, the mass media, what is in advertising, what we hear.

I lived in Kyiv for over 20 years working in mass media. From the very first day, I, a Ukrainian speaker, was taught by Russian-speaking editors: «This isn’t the accent, this is not the way to pronounce sibilants.» To which I replied: «You don’t speak Ukrainian, why are you telling me how to say it?» 

When we talk about individual words, this is the least trouble. We are fighting with surzhyk (mix of Ukrainian and Russian) at the level of vocabulary, but the biggest threat is in grammatical constructions, which are the nerve and the pulse of language. For example, noun endings: «dva soldata» (two soldiers) – the word is Ukrainian, but the ending is Russian [in Ukrainian, it would sound like «dva soldaty»]. The ending of a noun is an element of our language. Morphology, syntax, ver appeal, degree of adjectives, alternation of vowels, which we are also losing. It should be «zakhid – zakhodu» (conjugation of the word «West»), but now they say «zakhidu». There are many such examples. We are entering the Russian-speaking space, where there is no such conjugation. The current language is oversaturated with passive constructions that are foreign to Ukrainian, but natural to Russian. We have to understand what language is for a person. Because it’s not a word with a person to be a word, but a person with a word to be a person. With the word, a person grows, is enriched, multiplies the strings of her soul. Now in our language, and in others as well, the number of synonyms is reduced greatly.

I remembered a terrible phrase from Soviet times: «You’re full, what else do you need?» Now this phrase is repeated on another level: «Have you understood what else you need?» And this is also a problem, because, in addition to understanding, a person should enrich himself with language. Franko has a phrase: «I am the son of a nation that’s going up the road.» A nation is a nation when it feels the need to grow, and is not satisfied with the «here and now», some jokes, or literature for entertainment. Growing in a language is an extremely difficult and long process that requires great delicacy. You can’t do anything here by force, no one has ever taught the love of language by the rules.

We say – education. This is not just knowledge. A person can have great knowledge that will work for evil, with a minus. And education is knowledge plus light, a humanitarian canvas in which various knowledge should be presented, and technical as well. Then, they will not work against a person, but for him.

In the early 1960s, I taught Latin at a medical institute. The first arrival of African students – and everyone was silent. I explain the conjugation, and one boy, quick-witted and philosophically minded, suddenly asks: «Teacher, why does a person live?» I don’t remember what I answered him then, but the answer is extremely simple and the only correct one: a person lives in order to become a human. Having been born, she steps on the path of humanity, which leads to a person in the full sense of the word, as it was understood in antiquity. And how to become a human? Nurture in yourself what makes you a human. That is, not muscles, but what makes us different from animals: mind, heart, soul, and spirit. In the poems of Franko, who is not a lyricist, the word «heart» appears more than 1 400 times, as often as «soul». Where have you seen this now? And this is not because we know everything about the heart and soul, but because the word «civilization» now means technical possessions and comfort. And there is no person there, though it comes from the Latin civis – citizens. Talk to one, tenth, and hundredth, and you will know what our level of civilization, our mentality is, what and how we live, how we understand our lives and the role of language in it.

The process of rapprochement between the Ukrainian and Russian languages ​​has different aspects. I was born in Siberia, and Russian is my first language. In Lviv, I studied Ukrainian for myself in order not just to speak, but to become Ukrainian – language was the key to this. Learning each new word gave me joy. And now, I see that people who study Ukrainian have a certain resistance to new words, because, they say, no one understands them. How to instil respect for the language and the understanding of what it is for?

I’ve heard a lot about courses for those trying to get into the atmosphere of the Ukrainian language. I would interest people in the uniqueness of Ukrainian, I would start with that, and not with the rules. For example, we zdobuvayemo osvitu (get an education), while the Russians poluchayut obrazovanie (receive an education). Now we use a lot of tracing paper from Russian, we actually speak Russian without realizing it. It’s necessary to get rid of them and return to the sources, to a living rich language.

Sometime in November, I took a bus in Lviv, and it was getting pretty cold. A peasant was sitting next to me. I myself was born and brought up in a village, and I thank God for this because it enabled me to understand what language is and to write about it. 

This man was my age, and our generation still has a habit of talking. He said: zymnom pakhne [dialectically pronounced phrase «It smells of winter»). It was a breath of fresh air for me, which immediately warmed my soul. This is poetics, it’s from the language of our village that all our literary blossoms grew – Franko, Shevchenko, Stefanyk. We should return to it, because such a language has a smell and a taste, it makes you want to talk, converse and live.

This requires the influence of the mass media and the elite. By chance, I once came across the TV series «Ostanniy moskal» («The Last Muscovite»), where the Hutsuls are depicted in a very caricature way. Why is there no such thing about Odessans or residents of Kryvyi Rih, who would speak terrible Russian? Because even in those regions, there is something to laugh about. Why laugh at Ukrainian? Maybe, because it sounds different from Russian.

This is an endless topic for conversation. I have great respect for dialects, they nourish the language. But the storm washes them away. Go down a little to the land of Lviv. I often visit playgrounds with my granddaughter.

To great pain and bitterness, from people who have secondary and higher education, I constantly hear the Russian words ploshchadka (playground), kacheli (swing), kaliaska (stroller), sadik (kindergarten), katok (ice rink). The thing here is not a joke, but the fact that these people do not realize that the language is the soul of the people. That the word has not only a grammatical but also a real root that goes into the national soil. We must distinguish nation-building words, archetypes, which at all costs must be preserved and guarded like the apple of an eye.

Everyone in Ukraine is well aware of Sydor Vorobkevych’s poem «Movo ridna, ridne slovo» (Native language, native word!). Today, I inquired in which grades at school this poem is studied, and found out that it’s in the third to fifth grades. This is good, but this poetry is for higher education institutions, for adults. We must read it and decipher why exactly «he who forgets you does not have a heart in his chest, but a stone.» There are wonderful teachers, but the children learn this poem by heart, as well as Shevchenko’s «The cherry orchard around the house», and then nothing. We must go deeper, understanding why exactly we should return to Ukrainianness, what it is, and what it’s about. Why «the heart beats – and comes alive, when it hears them [the words of Ukrainian language]!»? These words convey the energy of generations.

I don’t think it will beat and come alive when hearing: Tovaryshi, davaite pryvitayemo kohos (Comrades, let’s congratulate someone there). I have a 1987 edition of selected works by Vorobkevych from the «Dnipro» publishing house. I don’t know if the compiler specifically placed the poems this way, but opposite the poem «Native language» there is a poem in which the author immediately answers – «De sertse moye» (Where my heart is). «Where the winds blow,/ the grass turns green,/ where the mountains are high/ and the forests wide, -/ there is my heart! Where agreeable people/ huddle to the chests,/ magnify their own/ and step forward, –/ there is my heart!/ Where mountains are high/ and swift streams,/ where you can hear trembling/ sweet greetings, –/ there is my heart!/ Where horses roam the steppes/ they clatter their hooves,/ they frolic freely,/ they don’t hear the saddle yet, –/ there is my heart!/ Where the eddies fly,/ they talk to the sun,/ where the Dnieper waters/ just ask for freedom, –/ there is my heart!/ Where in the Cossacks’ land / people don’t cry anymore,/ because fate has arrived/ and calamity has passed, –/ there is my heart!/ Where people have lived,/ resurrected from the grave,/ and songs are sung/ and merchants hold, –/ there is my heart!». It contains everything we have to talk about day and night today. Because if in an urbanized world made of cement and plastic, we do not turn our souls to our archetypes, then what are all these rules worth?

Furthermore. The process of de-Russification continues. First of all, it should move deep in the language, not superficially – it’s even embarrassing to say so. I saw in our film how a heroine of a different nationality asks a guy in Russian: kak «liubov’» budet po ukrainski? (How will ‘love’ be in Ukrainian?). And the man answers her: «Kokhannia». It’s funny, because Ukrainian words liubov and kokhannia are different things. It’s a superficial running away from someone, but we must not run away from anyone, because a runaway was never respected, that is a bad word. Moving forward, to Europe and to the world, we must return to ourselves. Otherwise, no one will accept us!

They will say: «Who are they? Impersonalities!»

We would be secondary in such a case. semi-Russians, semi-Poles... Now we use the third spelling, approved in 1989. In the preamble, it is proudly written that it continues the traditions established by the first spelling of 1946 [the so-called first Soviet one, approved by the People’s Commissar of Education of the Ukrainian SSR, Pavlo Tychyna]. I was amazed when learning that it was written by Ukrainian philologists... in the Urals, figuratively speaking, under the muzzles of riffles [the project was prepared by a group of scientific employees of the Institute of Language and Literature, created in Ufa on the basis of the Institute of Linguistics, the Institute of Ukrainian Literature named after Taras Shevchenko and other Ukrainian institutions exported to Bashkiria]. That is, we have a spelling especially close to the Russian language, but are also proud of it?

I’m not quite competent at spelling, so it’s hard for me to say anything. But I want to emphasize the most important thing: why was Sosyura persecuted and, roughly speaking, beaten? For the fact that he brought us back to the heart: «Love your Ukraine with all your heart.» It’s necessary to love one’s language with the heart, not just with the intellect, not at the level of consumer, business, or science. To win back the percentage that is native to us, which falls on the soul. When we lose our Ukrainianness, enter the Russian-speaking space, we must emphasize the most crucial, and not puzzle over how to say – istoryk or istorykynia (male and female forms of the word «historian»). And after that, to deal with feminitives, which I have nothing against. Because everything has its turn. Although there are no trifles in the language, now for some reason, we bring to the fore what is incidental. And, unfortunately, it seems that it’s already too late to «reclaim» the same verbal appeals, because you will not wean anyone from davaite (let’s).

De Valera, the first president of Ireland, said: «Ireland is better not to be free than not to be Irish-speaking.» Now Irish is a dead language, because although it’s taught in schools, people there communicate in English. And now, many people can say in our country: «What is the problem, let Ukrainian be even closer to Russian, maybe this is the vitality of the language that sprouts through surzhyk?»

You speak well. It’s dangerous to confuse language development with assimilation. It has its own code and must develop in it, in the truth embedded in it. Language is like a flower: it develops as it’s programmed, according to its internal laws, which express the mentality of the people and what makes it different from others. When I hear that the Ukrainian language was, is and will exist, I’m not very happy. Because, first of all, I am interested in what it will be like. Not only philologists should work on the language, but each of us. No one will do it instead. A philologist is someone who loves words, and here, it is more about the heart of the language than about the rules, although they are very necessary. And its heart is the atmosphere in which those rules are presented so that the child understands why it’s important to say one way and not another. These are things that require the mastery of the teacher, and no methods or programs will provide this. I see the following way out here: what can still be saved should be emphasized in schools and universities, and included in the graduation exams.

Here we finally came up with some practical advice: we need an institution that would do to language what the Institute of National Remembrance did to de-communization.

Everything is possible, but it depends on the desire. When I talk about real language problems without exaggerating, I am accused of pessimism. But we are losing a lot and moving there – toward Russian.

Yes, when we lose territories under the attack of Russian troops, we want to win them back. But we are also losing our territory in language. Thanks for this important and actually literal metaphor!

Andrii Saichuk spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo: Tvoe Misto/ Ivan Stanislavskyi

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