Background Information

Number of Speakers: ~46 million

Key Dialects: Northwest, Southwest, Eastern

Geographical Center: Ukraine


Ukrainian is the declared national and official language of the newly independent republic of Ukraine. Approximately 83 percent of the inhabitants in Ukraine are native speakers for a total of 43.5 million (Grimes 1992); another 1.5 million speakers live in Poland. (Ukrainian speakers in the north and west of Poland were transferred there after World War II to replace the Germans who had been repatriated.) Small communities (less than 500,000 each) of Ukrainians live in Canada and the northeastern United States, where there are continuing efforts to maintain the use of Ukrainian.

Linguistic Affiliation

Ukrainian belongs, with Belarusian and Russian, to the East Slavic group of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. The Slavic group has three main subdivisions: South Slavic, West Slavic, and East Slavic. The three East Slavic languages, Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian, share a common linguistic history.

Language Variation

The major dialectal divisions within Ukrainian are regionally based. The number of major dialect groups varies between two and four. Most authors recognize three dialect groups, there are, however, slight variations among the naming of these groups. Some describe the three groups as Northwest Ukrainian, Southwest Ukrainian, and Eastern Ukrainian. Other authors (see Voegelin and Voegelin 1977) recognize three major groups but refers to them as Southeastern, Northern, and Western. Still others (for example, Voegelin and Voegelin 1977) recognize just two main dialect groups: Eastern and Western Ukrainian. The dialects of Ukrainian do not differ extensively from one another and are all mutually intelligible.


Ukrainian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Linguistic Sketch

Ukrainian is a richly inflected language like other Slavic languages. Nouns which are feminine, masculine, and neuter are declined in four declensions (mainly masculine consonant-final stems; mostly feminine (y)a-stems, neuter o-stems, neuter e-stems). Adjectives are declined for gender, number, and case. The seven inflectional cases are nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, prepositional, and vocative. Case and number distinctions are combined in the form of a single affix. Ukrainian also marks animate and inanimate nouns differently in part of the case system.

Verbs have two conjugations distinguishing first, second, and third persons, singular and plural, thus independent personal pronouns are used only for emphasis. The aspectual distinction between perfective (completed action) and imperfective (durative or on-going action) is fundamental. Many perfective forms are constructed using particles prefixed to the infinitive.

In syntax, main verbs agree in person and number with their subjects. Adjectives precede the noun they modify. One of the prominent features of the system of agreement is a high degree of redundancy: the same gender and number information may be repeated several times in the sentence.

Word order is grammatically free with no particular fixed order for constituents marking subject, object, possessor, etc. However, the neutral order is Subject-Verb-Object. The inflectional system takes care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles. Pragmatic information and considerations of topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information conveyed by the sentence) as in other Slavic languages, is important in determining word order. Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry most emphasis.

Ukrainian has six vowel phonemes and a consonantal system of thirty-two phonemes. Although some consonants are phonemically palatalized, front vowels allophonically palatalize other consonants. Stress is moveable and can occur on any syllable.

Role in Society

Ongoing strong movements exist to solidify the position of Ukrainian as the national and official language of Ukraine, in particular to minimize the use and prestige of Russian. There is a strong modern literary tradition and the written language is used in all aspects of government and public life. Ukrainian has a long grammatical tradition, mostly carried on by Ukrainian linguists and literary scholars.


Ukrainian developed a rich oral literature during the struggles for national liberation against the Poles and Turkic invaders. This later helped the development of standard Ukrainian by serving as a source from which Ukrainian linguists could draw (lexical and morphological) information on the language. The first printed books in modern Ukrainian appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century. The history of Ukrainian is entangled with that of Russian, and many Ukrainians and Russians claim the early documents as part of their own history, such as the famous Slovo o polku Igoreve. The development of standard Ukrainian gathered impetus through the eighteenth century and culminated in the literary works of the nineteenth century.

The use of Ukrainian as a written language was prohibited in the Eastern (or Russian) part of Ukraine during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century ( Campbell 1991). After the reunification of Ukraine with Russia, the Tsarist government did not encourage the development of Ukrainian as a separate language. In fact, Ukraine was not recognized as a separate cultural area and the language was referred to as Little Russian and was deemed to be a dialect of Russian (Comrie 1981). In the nineteenth century, publication in Ukrainian was forbidden; as part of the reforms following the 1905 uprising, however, publication in Ukrainian was then permitted. Widespread use of Ukrainian as a written language and in education dates only from after the revolution and the establishment of the Ukrainian Republic.


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Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World’s Languages, Vol. 1-2. London and New York: Routledge.

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