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The politics of the Ukrainian Alphabet


Frederick Lauritzen

7th September 2022


One may distinguish Ukrainian and Russian by how they look. Each language has letters which do not occur in the other. Such a phenomenon is due to politics. All Slavic languages which today employ their own version of the Cyrillic alphabet, at one point in the past, used a common alphabet which probably originated in the area of modern day Bulgaria. The different letters developed to mark different sounds or traditions within each language. Naturally, the history of Ukraine is reflected in its alphabet.
Catholic Austria in 1859 imposed a Latin-based alphabet for western Ukraine to distance it culturally from the Cyrillic Orthodox world. The Soviet Union spent much time wondering what to do with the Ukrainian language. Since 1928, there have been several reforms until the most recent in 2019.

The unified spelling for Ukrainian was first established in 1928. When Putin says that Ukraine was Lenin’s invention, he is also referring to such an episode. With the 1928 reform, a letter unique to Ukrainian ‘ґ’ (‘g’) was standardized. It somehow epitomizes the problem of Ukraine today. The letter was introduced since г is always pronounced as an ‘h’. Therefore, Ukrainian has no manner of rendering the sound ‘g’. The fluctuation between these two sounds is apparent in the name of Prague, capital of the Czech  Republic (In Czech it is pronounced Praha). Indeed, the pronunciation of ‘g’ as ‘h’ is typical of Ukrainian, Slovak, Czech but not Russian, that is, apparently: anyone who has visited St. Petersburg may remember the quarter established by Peter the Great: Nova Gollandia, New Holland. Peter the Great employed ‘g’ to render the sound ‘h’. This fluctuation of ‘g’ and ‘h’ was typical in Russian as well, especially before the nineteenth century, and has remained ambiguous today. The German philosopher Hegel is spelled ‘Gegel’ in Russian today.

The linguistics behind the phenomenon should stay in footnotes. In 1933 however the letter ґ was abolished in another spelling reform which tried to eliminate unique elements of the Ukrainian alphabet.

Stalin therefore abandoned his earlier interest in promoting local nationalities and attempted to russify the Ukrainian language. The fact that the same person could hold opposite views within ten years shows how complex the issue is, and how mired in politics it is.

The letter ґ was reintroduced into Ukrainian during yet another spelling reform undertaken during Perestroika years in 1990. Clearly an appeasement for local dynamics which were out of control all over the Soviet Union and lead to its breakup.

The Ukrainian alphabet was not the cause of these problems but is an accurate indicator of changed political circumstances. The Ukrainian diaspora in exile  outside the Soviet Union used the soviet spelling of 1928 but none of the subsequent ones. The situation was resolved in 2019 when yet another reform was introduced which returned some elements of the 1928 reform, but also accepted subsequent developments.
An extraordinary twist of fate is that many words affected by the reform derive from Greek. In Ukrainian there is an ambiguous rendition of Greek terms according to the Latin tradition or the Byzantine one (favoured by countries with an Orthodox heritage). One may now say anafema or anatema in Ukrainian. The latter option being a new western and not Russian usage. This is not just a Ukrainian problem. It even touches on the word ‘European’ (ultimately derived from Greek). When one pronounces it as Evropa one uses the old Orthodox form usual in Eastern Europe (Turkish also has Avrupa), while Europa is used in the West. The same division is found between Croatian and Serbian: Europa in Croatian and Evropa in Serbian. This is not pointlessly insignificant. The Bulgarian government blocked an agreement between the EU and Montenegro in 2007 because it insisted that the Euro be referred to as Evro. The entire European Union was held at ransom over this spelling issue by Bulgaria. It is a question of identity.


Stalin understood that the presence or absence of certain letters in the Ukrainian alphabet is a matter of national identity. If you eliminate the letter ґ you are eliminating a Ukrainian specificity. The use of the letter was forbidden from 1933 to 1990 in the Soviet Union.
Both Russian and Ukrainian are Eastern Slavic languages. Russian imported many south Slavic words into its vocabulary. This veneer of antiquity did not affect Ukrainian in the same way. The word ‘grad’ (typical of south Slavic languages)  ‘city’ in many city names should be ‘gorod’. One may think of Novgorod (‘the new city’), as opposed to Stalingrad (‘the city of Stalin’). The presidents of Russia and Ukraine share the same first name, but spelled differently:  Vladimir (South Slavic form used in Russian) and Volodymyr (Ukrainian usage reflecting Eastern Slavic linguistics).


The Ukrainian language allows one to reflect on a problem which western Europe has forgotten: languages have meaning. In Eastern Europe, language has become a symbol of nationality. This has generated the most bizarre phenomenon visible on Bosnian cigarette packages. The phrase ‘smoking kills’ is repeated three times on each packet: twice in the Latin alphabet and once in Cyrillic (pušenje ubija, pušenje ubija, пушење убија). Though the spelling and the phrases are identical, they reflect three different constituent nations of Bosnia: Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian and their respective languages.

Overlooking languages and their meaning will condemn us to missing political issues as they emerge and to discover them when it is too late.

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