No, this is not a homage to the Pet Shop Boys (although I do like their song). This in fact relates to this week’s language adventures, which have taken me to Western Ukraine.
As anyone who’s been following me on Facebook will have seen, I’ve uploaded a large collection of photos showing beautiful, majestic scenery, rolling fields and castles a plenty. This is a happy side product of my travels of course, but not the goal in itself.
As I’ve written before I’ve been working hard on speaking Ukrainian now that I’ve relocated to Kiev. During this time I’ve been attending Couchsurfing events, having language exchanges and, thanks to the generosity of my employer getting free, weekly lessons – all with the aim of learning Ukrainian with native Ukrainian speakers. Armed with the language skills obtained since arriving in Kiev, I decided to head of to Western Ukraine, the linguistic and cultural heartland of the nation, and let myself loose upon the local population.
My journeys took me to three cities which I took regular trips from – Kameniets-Podolski, Chernovtsy and Uzhgorod. I Couchsurfed with people chosen precisely for the fact that they list themselves as being Ukrainian speakers, in other words I filtered them for language before I decided to stay with them, clearly stating my intentions beforehand (that I was visiting them to learn more about Ukrainian language and culture and speak to the, in Ukrainian). What’s more, in my (at least initial) interactions with everyone I met, I only used Ukrainian.
I’ve been able to speak a lot more Ukrainian than Russian, thanks to the generosity, openness and hospitality of my hosts. Lots of people I’ve met have been regular Ukrainian speakers, and casual Russian speakers. Others have been regular Russian speakers and casual, albeit competent Ukrainian speakers. Others, haven’t been able to speak either language well and communicate in Surzhyk, a hybrid mishmash of the two.
Where I’ve been able to maintain a conversation in Ukrainian, I have done, whereas in other cases when it’s clear that the people I’m speaking to aren’t Ukrainian speakers (for whatever reason) I’ve given my poor head a rest and just spoken Russian, which requires no thinking. Of course, those times when I’m in a group of people where some are speaking Russia and others Ukrainian really makes my head hurt!
There could be of course other reasons why I wasn’t successful. I am of course not Ukrainian and who speaks Ukrainian other than the Ukrainians? Russian is a language of inter-ethnic communication and I wouldn’t be surprised if people just spoke to me in Russian when they noticed me having difficulties expressing myself.
On the whole, I’ve found that my expectations about Western Ukraine being the linguistic and cultural heartland of the nation overly ambitious. While I don’t doubt that the cultural part of this claim is true, as far as the language is concerned, in the places I’ve been (both urban and rural) Russian has been dominant. Even the lovely Ukrainian people that I’ve been with have in many cases spoken to me in Ukrainian, as an exception to what they normally do, purely to help me learn!
As an interesting end to the irony of a strangely surreal situation, I’ll never forget asking a habitual Russian speaker, in Ukrainian, if he thought Russian was the language of the enemy. He replied “No James, I know it is”.
Here are clips of me summarising in English, Russian and Ukrainian.
Any comments, criticism or praise (as usual in any language)- let me know. I value your honest feedback and will use it for my next investigative trip. The 9th of May is victory day (A three day week end) and I will be going to Lvov then to see if I can get a better overview.