It’s Red-Letter Day for Ukraine as ‘G’ Makes Comeback : Linguistics: Banned by Stalin, the letter has become a symbol of the struggle for restoration of the republic’s language.


Along with the other millions of victims claimed by Soviet rule in the Ukraine was one liquidated in the 1930s but now restored to its rightful place. It is the letter g , written in Ukrainian like a Greek gamma , with an upswinging hook on the right side of the horizontal stroke.

In an act of totalitarian absurdity committed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the letter, a bona fide component of Ukrainian since at least the 17th Century, was denounced as “nationalistic” and, overnight, banned from the language.

The problem, in Moscow’s view, was that the Ukrainian g has no Russian counterpart. The letter that Russians call g carries the h sound in Ukrainian. By order of the people’s commissars in charge of spelling in 1933, that letter became both g and h for Ukrainians.

“An enormous attack was being unleashed at the time upon supposed Ukrainian ‘nationalism,’ and that included the linguistic sphere, even spelling,” explained Olexander Rybalko, a Kiev philosopher and philologist.

This was a serious, potentially deadly business. Under Stalin, Ukrainians nostalgic for the letter g and opponents of the entry of “Russianisms” into their language began risking denouncement as agents of the worldwide bourgeoisie or being accused of “linguistic sabotage.”


The g was revived last year as part of the renaissance of Ukrainian culture although it still does not appear in most textbooks or on typewriters. Its bizarre fate is a reminder of how politicized and crucial the language issue has been here and remains to this day. Indeed, language is a key issue in Sunday’s Ukrainian independence referendum. As much as the economy, the future of their native tongue worries some voters in the Ukraine.

For once, however, it is the Russians who feel threatened.

After residing here for two centuries and more as members of the dominant ethnic group, many of the 11 million ethnic Russians who now live in the republic are upset that they might be forced to learn Ukrainian, a similar Slavic language that is the mother tongue of about 44 million people in the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, influential Ukrainians assert that only statehood will end the linguistic convulsions so pronounced that they have left Ukrainian, according to Rybalko, without universally agreed-upon rules of spelling.

“It is very important that people feel the prestige of their language,” said Rybalko, 40, a quiet academic from the Kiev region. “And they must also feel there is a necessity to learn it.” That, he claims, can only come from the creation of “an authentic Ukrainian state.”

In the Crimea--a hotbed of support for maintaining ties with Moscow and a region where Russians make up two-thirds of the population--a poll this month showed that among the 38% of those who had not yet decided how to vote Sunday, three of the greatest reservations about independence have to do with language. Crimeans worry about Ukrainian becoming the sole, legal language of the republic; being forced to send their children to Ukrainian-language schools, and having only Ukrainian-language radio and TV broadcasts and newspapers to choose from.

Candidates for the Ukrainian presidency have tried to reassure the republic’s many ethnic minorities that there will be no such campaign of forced “Ukrainianization.” But the Crimean poll shows that such efforts have been ineffectual.


It is an irony of history that Russian speakers now feel threatened because, since the time of Peter the Great, who ordered the Russification of ecclesiastical printing throughout the empire, the target has been Ukrainian, a language that czarist officialdom in the 19th Century simply decreed should not exist.

Its status has been so diminished that on the eve of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985, one expert on Soviet dissent and minority affairs could write: “The Russian language has replaced Ukrainian in all spheres of life. Although Ukrainian is considered the official language of the Ukrainian republic, in fact it is only used in the villages and by a small portion of the intelligentsia in the cities.”

In recent times, there were incidents of linguistic repression. A translator was arrested in 1965 for sending letters to authorities about the Russification of the Ukraine. Four years later, another man tried to set himself on fire in Kiev to protest the many encroachments made by Russians.

Under Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev, who preached the need for a single, unified (and Russian-speaking) Soviet people, writer Oles Honchar said it was often easier to learn a foreign language in Ukrainian schools than to learn Ukrainian itself. By and large, universities taught only in Russian.

Petr Shelest, the Ukrainian Communist party leader for much of the period, seems to have tried to foster a cult of Soviet Ukrainian patriotism, lauding the beauty of the Ukrainian language. But he was removed in a widespread political and cultural purge of the Ukraine in 1972-73 and replaced by Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky, a man so attuned to Moscow’s desires that he chaired meetings of the Ukrainian party leadership in Russian.

Although there was a period in the 1920s when the Bolsheviks, for political motives, promoted Ukrainian, the language came to bear the stigma of being linked to anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalism or was dismissed out of hand as peasant speech.


“My grandmother is a native Odessan and has lived in Odessa her whole life--and has never spoken Ukrainian. It is not a language that you hear in the cities,” a woman in her 40s commented. “Did you ever hear Ukrainian in Kiev, in Kharkov? Never.”

Instead, millions of city dwellers use a mishmash of Ukrainian and Russian known as surzhyk .

The drama of Ukrainian is underscored by the historic division of those who speak it. Linguists note how rapidly the German spoken in East and West Germany began to diverge after that country was split after World War II. But the Ukraine had been separated since at least the 15th Century, with segments governed by Russia, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia and Romania.

The language especially suffered at the hands of the Russians, who banned Ukrainian printing and forbade even postcards carrying messages in Ukrainian in the imperial post.

Ukrainian, a softer, less nasal language than Russian, was scorned by most Russians as a mere village dialect or a version of Russian polluted by Polish. Nikolai Gogol, probably the most famous writer born in the Ukraine in the last century, wrote only one epigram and one letter in Ukrainian.

The modern Ukrainian national movement can be said to have started in the 1960s with annual pilgrimages on May 22 to monuments of the celebrated Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. That day marked the anniversary of the 1861 date when Shevchenko’s ashes were brought back from Russia to his village on the Dnieper River.

Under Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, the language issue served as a rallying point for demands that would later swell to include independence and an end to Communist rule and the destruction of the environment. Within weeks of the April, 1986, accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kiev, author Honchar opened the ninth congress of the Ukrainian Writers’ Union with an impatient plea to his colleagues to protect their homeland’s “linguistic environment.”


Shocked by the legacy of Russification, writers and poets such as Ivan Drach played active roles in creating the grass-roots movement for independence, Rukh.

A law making Ukrainian the “state language” was adopted in February, 1989, but Rybalko said that whatever the result of Sunday’s independence referendum, it will take a massive effort to rescue the language and the pariah status it has been accorded.

As a small step toward repairing the damage done during the Soviet period, the magazine “Monuments of the Ukraine” is now publishing lists of words containing the letter g (such as gnit , or wick) to refamiliarize people with them.

Unquestionably, Ukrainian is acquiring a much more respected status. At the beginning of this year, an observer of the Ukrainian Parliament estimated that only half of the deputies were speaking Ukrainian. He now says that figure has risen to 90%. There is a far livelier Ukrainian language press, including publications such as “Green World,” an ecology magazine, and “Ukrainian Hit Parade,” which specializes in sex, rock ‘n’ roll and the drug culture.

Rybalko sees many difficulties ahead, not the least of which is the proximity of Russian and Ukrainian. Since speakers of either language understand the other with little or no effort, there may be no compelling reason for those who know Russian to learn Ukrainian. And the linguistic hybridization that has led to surzhyk will continue, regardless of the Ukraine’s political status.