Friday, April 28, 2017

Would Shift to Latin Script Liberate Ukrainian or Destroy It?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 28 – Even though Ukrainian has a stronger historical claim to the Cyrillic alphabet than does Russian and even though it captures Ukrainian sound values quite well, some Ukrainians want to make the shift away from Cyrillic to a Latin script in order to underscore the independence from Moscow and desire to integrate with the West.

            Not surprisingly, many Russians and Russian speakers are horrified, viewing this as yet another Western plot to peel off part of “the Russian world.” Some of them are predicting disasters ahead, including the demise of an independent Ukrainian language if Kyiv were to decide to shift to Latin.

            But trapped in their own historical mythology about Ukrainian being an offshoot of Russian rather than a language that developed in parallel with it, some of these opponents are advancing arguments which lead to exactly the opposite conclusion than the one they want Ukrainians to make.

            Talk about shifting Ukrainian from Cyrillic to the Latin script, of course, has long been a feature of Ukrainian life.  But this year, support for that idea appears to have grown as other post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have made the decision to make this transition.

            In January, Kyiv journalist Stanislav Rechinsky argued for the shift in order to break with Russia and bring Ukraine closer to Europe and the West.  “The further from the Russian Federation we can become, the better,” he said ( Now, Na Chasi issued a manifesto calling for that change (; for a Russian summary, see

            The manifesto publishes a proposed alphabet and calls on journalists, writers and others to join the initiative. It argues that such a shift will make it easier for Ukrainians to learn English and Western languages and redirect their attention away from Russia. 

            Reaction from ethnic Russians and Russian speakers has not been long in coming. Most repeat the arguments that others have made against Latinization projects elsewhere in the former Soviet space ( and

            But because Ukrainian has historically developed using the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian arguments against a shift to Latin script have added two points. Both are problematic, and the second is likely to lead Ukrainians to take exactly the opposite action that Moscow and these Russians would like.

            On the one hand, Russian opponents of the introduction of the Latin script for Ukrainian will separate Ukrainian away from Russian, undermine Ukrainian as an independent language, and lead to “the accelerated Russification” of Ukraine (

            That argument is based on the mistaken belief, widespread among Russians and Western specialists on the former Soviet space that Ukrainian like Belarusian is a byproduct of Russian historical development and thus severing its ties with Russian would lead it to wither and ultimately die out.

            That is nonsense: Again like Belarusian, Ukrainian developed as a separate language from Russian but was constrained in that regard because it lacked statehood to promote that language via schools and media and because most of these institutions were dominated by the Russian language just as Ukraine and Belarus were dominated by Russia.

            And on the other hand, Russian opponents are putting forward an argument which any close examination shows will blow up in his face. A half a millennium ago, this argument runs, Poles and Russians spoke much the same language and didn’t need translators to understand one another.

            But then Poland introduced the Latin script and as a result grew away from the Russian world, the opponents say, not appearing to recognize that many Ukrainians would not object to being as independent from Moscow as Poland now is. Indeed, at least some of them will see this Russian objection as the best argument for Latinization on offer.    


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