Do Ukrainians Speak Russian? What Other Languages Are Spoken In Ukraine?
- Mille Larsen •10 mins read
Ukraine is a country of approximately 42 million inhabitants. Ukrainian is the national and official language of the country according to the constitution, but other languages are spoken as well.
Despite Ukrainian being the national language of Ukraine, Russian is also widely spoken. While 67.5% of the population consider Ukrainian their national language, 29% think of their mother tongue as Russian according to a poll from 2001. Almost all Ukrainians are, however bilingual and fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. Besides for these languages, upwards 40 minority languages are spoken in Ukraine including Yiddish, Rusyn, Romanian, Belarusian, Crimean Tartar and others.
Map of areas in Ukraine where people declare Russian as their native language. (Source)
The History Of Russian In Ukraine
The language of the Ukrainian state has been a subject of conflict and political tensions in the last years. The territory of modern day Ukraine has been linguistically varied for centuries, and it appears a migration of Russians into Ukrainian lands has been going on since the 16th century at least.
In the 19th century, Ukraine saw a large increase of Russian immigration, especially into big cities which meant that the majority language of these cities became Russian, meaning that any Ukrainians migrating to these areas would have to adapt to a Russian speaking environment.
During the second half of the 19th century, the Russian Empire imposed gradually stricter rules on the Ukrainian territory, suppressing the use of Ukrainian. Ukrainian song-lyrics, books, plays and other publications were made forbidden in this period in an attempt to enforce a shift in the people's Ukrainian identity.
During Soviet times, the Ukrainian language saw both periods of tolerance and oppression, but despite Russian not being made the official language of the Soviet Union until the very end, the use of other languages than Russian was frowned upon.
In the Ukrainian constitution of 1996, the Ukrainian language was made the only official language of the Ukrainian state. The Russian language and other minority languages were to be guaranteed protection, but with no doubt to the official state language.
With a new political willingness to promote the Ukrainian language, Russian has seen a decreasing importance in the Russian educational system in recent years.
Ukrainian Minority Languages
While Ukrainian and Russian are spoken either as a first language or a second language by the vast majority of the Ukrainian population, a wide range of other languages are spoken in Ukraine.
As mentioned, 29% of Ukrainians consider Russian their mother tongue. The majority of Ukrainians are, however, completely bilingual and fluent in both languages.
Yiddish, in its eastern variant, is a Germanic language closely related to German, traditionally spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. The number of Yiddish speakers in Ukraine appears to be a little uncertain. Some sources state that Ukraine has more than 600.000 people speaking Yiddish, whereas other sources cite a significantly lower number.
The Yiddish language is remarkably close to modern German. It's a language that has influenced other tongues, such as New York English to which is has given several popular loan-words, but also Modern Hebrew, an otherwise unrelated language, despite it being written with the same alphabet.
To listen to an example of Yiddish watch this short video.
Rusyn is an East Slavic language related to Ukrainian and Russian. Whereas it's considered a language in its own right by many linguists, Ukraine officially considers Rusyn a South-Western dialect the Ukrainian language.
The number of Rusyn speakers in Ukraine might be around 30.000, but it's difficult to say for sure, since the language internally in Ukraine is considered a dialect and therefore not counted as an individual language.
The Romanian language is spoken by around 150.000 people in Ukraine, or by over 300.000 if you count Moldovan speakers.
Since the Middle-Ages, there's been an ongoing relationship between Ukrainians and Romanians. In more recent years, Romania and Ukraine have signed bilateral treaties to protect each countries minorities.
Romanian is a Romance language, but due to its location, and partly because of its connection with Ukraine, the Romanian language has been strongly influenced by Slavic languages throughout history.
Belarusian is an East Slavic language, also known as "White Russian", closely related to Ukrainian and Russian. It's spoken mostly in Belarus, but close to 300.000 Belarusian speakers are reported to reside in Ukraine.
To listen to Belarusian, watch this video.
Crimean Tartar is a Turkic language spoken primarily in Crimea, by close to 260.000 people, and in the remaining Ukraine by 30-60.000 people.
While Crimean Tartar is related to the Tartar language, they aren't mutually intelligible and shouldn't be confused. Crimean Tartar is equally related to the Turkish language, the biggest language in the Turkic language family.
The Crimean Tartar language is, along with Ukrainian and Russian, an official "state language" in the Crimea region and it is protectec by law.
For an example of Crimean Tartar, (And a beautiful song) listen to the video below:
Ukraine has seen Bulgarian immigration since the early 19th century. Today, more than 200.000 Bulgarians reside in Ukraine, mostly in Southern regions. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, a rising conscience of Bulgarian identity began to see the day, and Bulgarian language and heritage education has been more and more common since then.
Despite a large part of Ukrainian Bulgarians having lived in Ukraine for a long time, it seems that most Ukrainians of Bulgarian heritage still do speak Bulgarian to this day.
To hear the Bulgarian language, listen to this video.
Ukrainian Sign Language
The Ukrainian sign language is the language of Ukraine's deaf community which consists of more than 50.000 people. The Ukrainian sign language is based off the French sign family
Approximately 150.000 Hungarians live in the South-Western regions of Ukraine. Ukraine and Hungary has a relationship going back a millennium, which is the main reason for the Hungarian minority's existence in Ukraine as well as an Ukrainian minority in Hungary.
The Hungarian language has a protected status in the Ukrainian regions where it's primarily spoken and where it is also taught in schools.
Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family, making it completely unrelated to Ukrainian as well as most European languages.
Click to listen to an example of Hungarian
There has been a Polish presence in Ukraine since the Middle Ages. Today, more than two million Ukrainians are said to have Polish ancestry, but only a little more than 20.000 speak Polish as their first language. The number might be significantly higher for second language speakers.
The small number is partly due to historical assimilation, especially in the 19th century when the Russian authorities in Ukraine opposed the Polish identity in Ukraine.
Listen to what Polish sounds like.
According to 2001 statistics, there are roughly 100.000 Armenians currently living in Ukraine, a large part of whom migrated to the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. 50% of these, or 50.000 speak the Armenian language.
It is likely, however, that the numbers might be different today. Add to that that Ukraine receives many temporary guest workers to from Armenia in these years, which might make the total number of Armenian speakers higher.
While Armenian is part of the Indo-European language family, it belongs to an isolated branch, making it only very distantly related to Ukrainian and other Slavic languages on one hand, but also all other languages in Europe.
For an example of Armenian, watch this short video.
Urum is a Turkic language spoken by the Urum people, a people who are ethnically Greek. In Ukraine, the Urum people are mostly concentrated in the South East, where it has close to 200.000 native speakers according to data from 2001.
Urum is closely related to Crimean Tartar, another Turkic language common in Ukraine, and many Urum children learn Crimean Tartar instead of the Urum language because of it being seen as more useful in the region. Because of this trend, Urum speakers in Ukraine seem to be on a decline.
For an example of the Urum language, listen to the Urum-language fairy-tale below.
Gagauz is the language of the Gagauz minority in Ukraine. It is a Turkic language, related to Turkish and it is spoken in countries such as Turkey, Russia, Moldova and Ukraine by around 140.000 people.
In Ukraine, around 30.000 people speak Gagauz.
While I haven't been able to find any short examples of the Gagauz language, here is a whole film, that you might sample.
The Carpathian Romani language is a language related to other Romani languages belonging to the Indo-Aryan family of languages.
Other than Ukraine , this language is mainly spoken in Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic and it's world wide numbers are estimated to be around 150.000, but I haven't been able to find any precise numbers for how many of these are in Ukraine.
While there are examples of various Romani languages available, I haven't been able to find any short clips for Carpathian Romani, but here's a film dubbed in the language.
Czech is a West Slavic language spoken mostly in the Czech Republic, but since the 19th century, Ukraine has has a Czech minority, mostly situated in the Ukrainian North West.
The reason for the Czech immigration into Ukraine was the economic difficulties in the Czech Republic, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the Ukrainian province of Volhynia, the Czechs were met with favorable conditions and the possibility to settle down.
Today, Ukraine counts around 20.000 people of Czech descent. It is not clear if this group still speak the Czech language as their mother tongue, but it is likely that many have assimilated into Ukrainian culture.
The Ukrainian and Greek territories has has a cultural exchange for thousands of years. Because of this, there's always been a presence of ethnic Greeks in Ukraine, and to this day, over 100.000 trace their ancestry back to a Greek origin. While some argue that this number should be much higher, most Ukrainians of Greek origin speak Ukrainian today and have mostly assimilated into Ukrainian culture.
There are, however, still a few people who speak the Greek language, or more precisely "Mariupol Greek", which is the Ukrainian dialect of Greek.
Greek is a Hellenic language, meaning that it belongs to an isolated branch on the Indo European language tree, making it mostly unrelated to most other European languages.
I haven't been able to find a good example of Mariupol Greek.
The Serbian language is spoken by the Serbian diaspora in Ukraine, a minority of only around 1000 people
Bashkort, or Bashkir is a Turkic language spoken by approximately 1,2 million people in the Russian province of Bashkortostan. A small minority of Bashkort speakers can be found in Ukraine as well, but the numbers are very small.
The Krimchaks of Ukraine is a Jewish people who speak a language closely related to Crimean Tartar, a Turkic language. Only about 400 people in Ukraine speak this language today.
The Karaim language of Ukraine is another Turkic language spoken by a Jewish minority of as few as 80 people, mostly in the Ukrainian village of Trakai in Crimea.