Ukraine and the languages of Europe
Ukraine is a multilingual country and Ukrainian is very close to the languages of neighbouring countries. Is this an exceptional situation?
1. Languages beyond maps
As we all know by now, Ukraine is a multilingual country. It is home to Ukrainian speakers, Russian speakers, but also speakers of other tongues — and many Ukrainians use more than one language.
Is this an unusual situation? Not really: Europe is full of comparable cases.
Many European territories have belonged to several states over the last three centuries (to go back no further), with frequent population movements and complex linguistic policies. Thus, many political borders do not correspond to hard linguistic borders. Neighbours share languages quite frequently.
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2. Neighbours sharing languages
In Italy, there are regions where German and French are considered co-official (Valle d'Aosta / Vallée d'Aoste and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol). Romania has areas where a large part of the population speaks Hungarian. Finland includes Swedish-speaking regions, including Åland Islands, where Finnish is not even official.
If we look at minority languages, we find an even more complex map: in Italy, in Spain, in France, but also in Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia... In all these countries, the language we associate with the country is far from being the only one spoken by people. In fact, in some places, national standards were a minority language till quite recently…
There are countries that have not chosen a main language, such as Switzerland. Some of those who did tried to actively forbid other languages, with some unfortunate degree of success (and that’s one of the reasons many European have a simplistic view of linguistic borders in the continent).
3. Tangled tongues
The intricate history of Europe has left these linguistic complications in its wake. In many places, we find populations speaking different languages, far beyond the neat arrangement of any map: there are trilingual countries, like Luxembourg, and territories where we find two official languages — several regions of Spain and Brussels, just to mention two famous examples. Languages have always lived together, in the same country, in the same city, in the same brain.
Ukraine — the second largest country in Europe in terms of territory — is not exceptional in not being monolingual. The only monolingual country in Europe is probably Iceland...
In short, linguistic complications exist in almost every country in Europe. The each-country-has-its-own-language model is not even a simplification. It’s plainly wrong.
4. All in the family
Some people look at the Ukrainian situation and find another apparent rarity: in a Europe of clearly distinct languages, Ukrainian and Russian seem particularly close. Some even hint that Ukrainian may be just a variety of Russian.
It is true that these two languages are very close — both sprang from the dialectal continuum of East Slavic, which gave rise to Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian. Further west, we have West Slavic, with languages such as Polish and Czech, while to the south we find South Slavic, with languages such as Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian. All these are related languages, but they have different linguistic and literary traditions.
Ukrainian and Russian (relative) similarity is typical of our continent. Scandinavian languages are so close that in some situations speakers of different languages can talk to each other without changing languages. Croatian and Serbian (as well as Bosnian and Montenegrin) have far from clear boundaries. There are Bulgarians who consider Macedonian a dialect of their language... All these languages have standards created from a continuum of spoken varieties.
Latin standard languages also sprang from a dialectal continuum without clear borders. Galician and Portuguese are separated by one of the oldest political borders in Europe, but share the same origin and are so similar that some Galicians (and one or two Portuguese) maintain that they are still the same language. There are many other such cases in other countries.
Linguistic continuity makes it very difficult to classify and divide languages. In this context, the fact that Ukrainian and Russian are two separate languages (even if they get mixed in everyday use by Ukrainians) is, in fact, quite consensual, at least outside Russia: they are two distinct languages that belong to the same family. They both have quite well-defined written standards and separate literary traditions. Moreover, a Russian will hardly understand a Ukrainian speaking Ukrainian; the opposite will be much more likely, as many Ukrainians learn Russian.
5. A misleading idea
Linguistically, Ukraine is not exceptional. It is just another European country, with a complex history still noticeable in the languages you hear on the streets.
All throughout Europe, languages mix and overlap free from the boundaries we imagine by looking at neat political maps. The idea that each country should have just one language, clearly demarcated and distinct from the languages of neighbours, although very powerful, is deeply misleading.
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