I must have already been a teenager when I learnt that my great-grandmother used to switch to German whenever she wanted some privacy from her children or grandchildren. Older women used to do their gossiping in German in the Swabian village where my mother lived as a young child.
The village itself was founded by German settlers in the 18th century, when the Habsburg leadership sought to re-populate the country where centuries of Ottoman rule had wiped out a good third of the settlements. It was German from the start. Mining and glass production led to fast industrialisation, and that, in turn, to labour migration: workers’ housing was built as the mine grew, and ethnic Hungarians came in large numbers. The village became bilingual, to some extent. Then, after WW2, under the pretext of collective responsibility, Hungary deported approximately 185 thousand Germans, revoking their citizenship, seizing their property. Deportation offered a convenient, clean ‘solution’ for the new regime to distance itself from Nazi collaborationism, and to fill state coffers. Deportation, however, was not complete, and the village, miraculously, survived intact. People watched in horror as neighbouring settlements emptied out.
Growing up twenty-odd years later, coming from a Hungarian migrant worker family, I don’t think my mother knew much about this history. For her, German was an oddity, familiar yet incomprehensible, a nuisance even. It mostly came with ethnicity – and I am not sure she ever wondered why those old ladies rarely passed it on to the younger generation, why most pretended not to speak it in any official context. By the time I came about, Swabian was a quirk in your family tree that meant very little, and it hardly ever translated into German language skills.
Similarly, among my friends, Jewish, Serbian, Slovak ancestors rarely meant multilingual households. Yiddish, German, Slovak and so many other languages were but a trace in the Hungarian we grew into in Budapest, fading bits of a long-gone patois. State-led assimilatory politics were so successful that other languages vanished from public life. The country became monolingual to such an extent that I felt even the affinity of living with more than one language was compromised.
In a desperate effort to transcend the level of ill-pronounced textbook phrases, our parents ran Intermediate English cassettes on endless loop while driving, cleaning, raising us. Mirror translated, lopsided sentences filled the offices of newly opened, international firms. Even for most of those who did read the news in English or ventured into reading books, it never became second nature to switch. Foreign language comprehension was like a barely used muscle, always at risk of being atrophied.
Apart from minority Hungarians who moved here from Transylvania, Zakarpattya or Vojvodina, international marriages, and the odd immigrant family, I was surrounded by a monolingual world where knowing another language well was a privilege of the highly educated. For many, language was a crude instrument used at work. For others who spoke more arcane languages, it might be an eccentric hobby. Even amongst the literati, people mostly read in foreign languages, their speech was often bookish, ever so slightly artificial. Fitting for a country where kids are made to sing “In the great world beyond, / There is no place for you / May fortune’s hand bless or beat you / Here you must live and die!” at every school celebration.
For me this world did not quite end when I moved to England for my postgraduate studies: that just forced me to switch to another, largely monolingual environment. Switching language is not quite the same as switching language-use, arriving to a place where moving between several languages is the norm. I first experienced the latter in Ukraine, and being there radically changed how I thought about language and mother tongues.
When people quote statistics about the number of Russian and Ukrainian native speakers in Ukraine, attempting to map this onto ethnicity or political orientation, I always feel uneasy. Something is not quite right with that explanatory toolkit. From monolingual Budapest, where I grew up, and from presumably similar other places across the world, the notion of mother tongue feels deceptively simple and straightforward. But it is only so if the language environment where children are taught their first words is similarly straightforward and monolithic.
A few months after I moved to Ukraine in 2015, I went on a winter hike with a small group. Among them, a woman from Berdyansk and her partner from Ivano-Frankivsk. Contrary to my expectations, she exclusively spoke Ukrainian, and he only spoke Russian. By then, I started to get the hang of the etiquette of translingual conversations: depending on how comfortable one was speaking the other’s language, one of them could switch, or both could continue speaking their preferred language, but peppering their sentences with a few words from the other language to show courtesy. Switching for ‘thank you’ or greetings, adding a half-sentence using the other language were customary, especially among strangers who might not be sure about the other person’s attitude, preference or politics. I lived in Lviv at the time, where this dance was rare, as Russian speakers were a barely visible minority, but already in places like Ivano-Frankivsk or Chernivtsi I observed this quite often, and it was certainly the norm in Kyiv and other cities where both Russian and Ukrainian were widespread in the public sphere. Those who would never switch, even for the odd word of courtesy, were a minority.
This hike was one of the first times when I encountered two people who did not switch at all: she spoke Ukrainian, he spoke Russian. They were married, they simply did not need gestures of courtesy. For me, this was a new experience; I would instinctively try to adapt to the person I addressed, and this resulted in much laughter. In Lviv, I hardly used my shaky Russian and was busy learning Ukrainian. The relatively similar grammar but mostly different vocabulary strained my brain: when I heard both languages, I would struggle with demarcating them, producing odd centaur-sentences that were neither. I insisted that this was just my own version of surzhyk, the manifold range of in-between dialects that make travel through Ukraine such a linguistic adventure. But I was told my surzhyk did not sound like any legitimate version, I was just a foreigner with a monolingual brain, mixing up everything. I was like an old train that takes ages to switch tracks, heavy and immobile.
It took me a month to realise that the etiquette of this dance between Russian and Ukrainian is not centred on adapting to the other. You should speak what you are comfortable, you will be understood anyway. Linguists call this non-accommodating bilingual conversation. I think the ‘non-accommodating’ bit is quite telling, indicative of a worldview that privileges, even normalises monolinguals; changing yourself would be the norm, while keeping to your own preferences is selfish. But it isn’t, not in a place like Ukraine where even if you factor in regional differences, everyone understands both. Allowing everyone to use what they feel more fluent in could well be framed as accommodating. I still struggle not to adapt: my Ukrainian is much stronger, and I always decide to stick to it, yet I slide into whatever is spoken to me. It seems as though my monolingual childhood cast a shadow on my adult life. I always envied my Ukrainian colleagues who happily maintain their non-accommodating bilingual cool across English or German just as well as across Russian and Ukrainian.
The Language Question
I wish the language question in Ukraine was as rosy and cheerful as it seems from these stories, I wish multilingualism was only about flexibility and tolerance. I wish it was not my own acute awareness of the isolation, smallness and sense of loss in my own Hungarian upbringing that highlighted the beautiful aspects of multilingual Ukraine. Unfortunately it is anything but simple and cheerful.
The poet Iryna Shuvalova wrote an essay for the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence called The Mova I Live in. She describes growing up in a Kyiv apartment with a Ukrainian-speaking grandfather, a surzhyk-speaking grandmother and a Russian-speaking mother. The former was a question of rural family history, the middle reflected a life lived in a whirlwind of languages, the latter indicated Soviet-era social mobility. Shuvalova herself opted for Ukrainian, becoming a leading voice in her generation. “In a country where language was and remains an intensely political matter, my family, like many others, sleepwalked through the minefield. We navigated languages like a city dweller navigates a complex subway system – without thinking. While plenty of people fought and died in defense of Ukraine’s cultural, historical, and linguistic identity, people like us were the passengers of language, just like we were the passengers of history, carried by its massive chuffing and clanking vehicles in an unknown direction. We were too preoccupied with the sheer daily business of survival.” – she writes.
As Ukrainian poet, Shuvalova is deeply entangled in a complicated, contested history where Ukrainian was dismissed as a dialect, marginalised and oppressed, ridiculed, forbidden. Using it, preserving it, cultivating it had to be an act of resistance, defiance, spite in much of the past three centuries. In an imperial context, where social mobility and metropolitan inclusion would be tied to the Russian language (an old trick of positing something particular as universal, faking a non-political shared ground), choosing Ukrainian required commitment, verve and a counter-hegemonic agenda. It was an uphill battle most times.
As a poet, what Shuvalova describes as sleepwalking would never be an option. Neither did she find the patriotic history of the centuries-old resistance appealing: “As we got older, we were made to understand that ours was not the language one simply used. Ukrainian was the language one loved – preferably, to the point of being ready to die for it. Or at least some poets said so. At 16, I too was a fledgling poet, but unlike my illustrious peers, I was disturbed by the idea of dying for anything, even for the beautiful, powerful, irresistible thing that was my language. While I was aware of the bitter history that led people to put it on a pedestal and guard it so very vigilantly, I could not deny that at certain points the whole thing began to look excessive.”
But there was no way out of this legacy, no clear escape route. The essay was published in 2021. Russian propaganda already started beating the drum about the alleged plight of Russian-speakers in the Donbas, but the full-scale invasion that used this argument had not yet happened. Many of those authors who had been displaced by the war in the Donbas after 2014, switched languages in the years prior to the invasion.
Iya Kiva, a poet and essayist from Donetsk who switched to writing in Ukrainian describes how in 2014, she felt it was too easy to hide behind the Ukrainian language and patriotic attire, and that there was value in insisting on a pro-Ukrainian, Russian-language identity. In an essay written in spring 2022, she says: “I perceived words as home, because language is the only thing that cannot be taken from a person by force, except together with life. As strange as it sounds, I took my Ukrainian-Russian language with me from my Donetsk home, saving it and myself from the Russian world.” She started to switch to Ukrainian in Kyiv, where she moved: Ukrainian became a language of choice. Russian remained her mother tongue, a relic from her pre-war life. “But after February 24, the Russian troops took away even my mother’s language from me” – she writes – “In the place where Russian used to exist inside me, today I only feel a decaying, stinking dead beast. I don’t like pathetic statements, especially around language, but now I feel that this will remain so.”
The flexibility, the dance, the spaciousness given by the fact that you can insert jokes, quotes by another language, the many shades of dialects and accents that allow you to trace regional shifts as you make your way from Rava Ruska or Chop on the west to Novoazovsk or Sorokyne on the east, from the mountain dialects around Yaremche to the archaisms in the villages of the Danube delta, these offer a panorama not only onto linguistic and cultural diversity, but also to a violent, repressive history. For me, coming from the sterilising, successful assimilatory politics on Hungary, from a place where even dialects are largely gone and language often feels like a cage that shuts you into something claustrophobic and small, Ukraine’s sheer breadth of linguistic diversity, the game of deciphering social and cultural clues from language-use felt revelatory at first. It took time to see the darker tones, the underbelly of violence and repression, reasons behind languages gained and lost amidst the everyday flow of this flexibility.
The incursion into the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea changed the stakes of language use yet again, accelerating the process of Ukrainisation that already started already in 1991. The legacy of the Maidan was twofold: on the one hand, the existence of a civic Ukrainian identity that was Russian-speaking and that might incorporate some of Ukraine’s Russophile legacy was undeniable; on the other hand, Ukrainian gained momentum as a language of the public sphere, and an indicator of the growing distance many sought from Russia and the legacy that the language represented. As in Georgia or Kyrgyzstan, Russian connections held less appeal, and the former USSR ceased to be the primary geography of orientation for many: Russian was losing its appeal as a regional language, a lingua franca. At the same time, pursuing cultural policy that sought to prioritise Ukrainian was not easy without actively pushing back against the prominence of Russian in the public sphere. Translating world literature into Ukrainian, for instance, remained an uphill battle until the gradual pushback against importing Russian-language books. It was simply not viable for publishers to even try.
Having lived in the UK for much of my adult life, I thought a lot about the plight of Welsh and the brutal linguistic history of Ireland. In the latter, Gaelic was predominant before the English-language educational infrastructure became a powerful tool of cultural marginalisation, all in the name of enlightenment and cosmopolitanism. In a story that has eerie resonances with Ukraine, the predominantly Gaelic-speaking countryside became English in less than a century, Gaelic was described as provincial, inferior, an inadequate vehicle of modernisation. The process went so far that by now, even with the return of Gaelic in the public sphere and to educational institutions, English-language Irish literature is an undeniable and inseparable element of Irish culture. Irishness can and does exist in English, although the dynamics have not changed in the sense that Ireland is losing many people in each generation; it is rather difficult to push back against the draw of global hubs like London. Welsh nearly died out as a result of a similar campaign to what took place in Ireland.
It took decades of activism and policy change to revive it, and it is possibly one of the very few success stories of reversing language erasure and imperialism. The British Empire, of course, left similar legacies and struggles elsewhere, having disenfranchised and impoverished local languages by tying education and social mobility to the English language. There is much to learn from the ongoing debates in Nigeria or Kenya in this regard.
The Minefield of Language
Yet, one could make a case for Shuvalova’s sleepwalkers, those who blindly navigate the minefield of language in Ukraine and elsewhere. Although their grandparents had to switch due to labour migration, due to the desire for social mobility, in a context where bullying and mocking someone for their native tongue might have been widespread, and although the structural dynamics remain the same: Ukrainian exists today against all odds. For many people, Russian remains a mother tongue and just that. It is incidental, a fact of life, a fact of history that has faded away by now. It is possible that not everyone will be ready to abandon it; even in the context of a war that is waged in the name of that language and hurting precisely those who speak it. It is difficult to know what the linguistic map of Ukraine will look like once this war is over. The Ukrainian public sphere switched so fast and to such an extent that very little room is left for Russian. Many, quite possibly, share Kiva’s feeling: that of a decisive shift where what has been done in the name of the Russian language and what it represents is too much. That this change is an irreversible change, that your mother tongue itself is torn out. If that is true, then Shuvalova’s sleepwalkers would be forced to wake up and think of language as a matter of survival right alongside food and fuel.
I doubt that this is the case for most, though. Since 24 February, volunteering at train stations and at the border in Hungary, conducting interviews in several countries with those who fled, it seems that many still use language as an instrument and take it as a given, rather than as something that demands reflection, that should be a domain of struggle over identity or autonomy. Some people told me they switched, that they cannot bear hearing Russian, that the very sound of it makes them nauseous and fearful. Others say they want to switch, but they don’t have the resources, they are tired, they need to prioritise survival for now. Maybe their kids will switch for good, they say. Others insist that this language is theirs and the Russian regime has no right to monopolise it; that their speaking Russian is proof that the regime is wrong about Ukraine. They say that giving it up would be playing according to the rules of the aggressor.
I remember a radio anchor, a friend of mine who grew up bilingual in Lviv. In 2015, a year after Crimea’s annexation, he told me his mother tongue used to be Russian, but they all switched. It sounded odd at the time, but again, it was only odd for me. In that bilingual household, the present choice of Ukrainian had a power to retroactively influence how he thought of his relationship to both languages. When it comes to literary authors, journalists, people who work with words and who therefore have to articulate their position and the reasoning behind their choices, I see a tectonic shift. Those displaced the second time, like Iya Kiva, had gone through a process of violent loss that others just started to come to terms with. From Stanislav Aseyev and Boris Khersonskyi to Anastasia Afanasyeva, authors struggle with the bonds with which language ties you to others, the violence of speaking a language in the name of which others set your home on fire. That language is the ultimate commons, shared by so many, is powerful in contradictory ways.
My first encounter with people whose experience forced them to renounce a mother tongue was as a teenager in Hungary, and the context, there too, was Russian. I met someone whose grandparents were exiled to Siberia – on both sides they were exiled Hungarians who were too scared to speak Hungarian to their children; they, Russified but still aware of this history, moved to Hungary when the USSR collapsed and refused to speak Russian to their child. It was a language that carried a history too violent, a violence too intimate. Like many German Jews after the Holocaust, they refrained from using their mother tongue, preferring to be confined by their limited comprehension, to stutter in Hungarian. They chose to cut out a history and a commonality that linked them to Russia as violently as their grandparents were thrown into it. I remember the shock I felt, because until that point, I believed that mother tongues were something organic and inalienable. Denouncing it was an act so desperate that I thought it required more force than what anyone might have. Examples like the Jewish poet Paul Celan, who chose to write through the wasteland that his German became in the face of the Holocaust, working his way through of the collision of death with intimacy, pointed towards something similar. Yet, for some, like the Chinese-American contemporary author Yiyun Li, this radical rupture seems to offer a long-sought resolution, an opening of sorts, the affirmation of choice. This resonates with what Kiva says.
It is hard to foresee what kinds of responses will prevail in Ukraine. For a while, reading my way through its contemporary voices, the prospect of a monolingual Ukraine worried me. A place where the freedom and playfulness I found in all the switching and flexibility would be gone. Then, learning to read this present alongside its violent history, I stopped being so sure. I know all too well the loss and isolation, the smallness of a place bleached of diversity; so for me it was always easier to point to the violence inherent in assimilatory policies, in nationalist protectionism, than to the violence one might find among the ruins of an empire, in places where protectionism exists in the context of long-term marginalisation and the continued questioning of the mere existence of the language in question.
Most people will probably carry on, passengers of language and history, less concerned with this weight than poets, authors are, less concerned than I am. Whatever will happen, whether there will be a defiant, Russian-language culture that could claim space alongside Ukrainian, or a largely monolingual, Ukrainian future, it will take generations. It is hardly the most pressing concern anyway. I remember an essay by the writer Oksana Zabuzhko from the early 1990s, where she expresses some hope that new generations of Ukrainian writers might finally be free from the weight of nationhood, that language might finally, as Shuvalova hoped too, would be just that. What has happened since then feels like a boomerang that flew in the face of this generation. Language will undoubtedly remain one of the frontlines, and I can only hope that one day the weight of this history will be less burdensome for school kids in Ukraine.