The View From Here: Casting an Official Spell


Volodymyr Kish.

If you are Ukrainian, you will no doubt have had a great deal of trouble most of your life in transliterating Ukrainian words and names into the English (Latin) alphabet. This comes about mostly from the fact that the Ukrainian (Cyrillic) alphabet has 33 letters, while the English one only has 26. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Ukrainian language has sounds, or phonemes as the linguists would put it, that are simply not used in spoken English. Adding yet another layer of difficulty is the fact that during Soviet times, the Russophile Communist authorities tried to suppress certain aspects of the Ukrainian language to try and expedite the process of forcibly assimilating Ukrainians into the Russian fold.

The issue of proper Ukrainian spelling, usage and orthography has been around for a long time. Trying to pin down what is proper Ukrainian has been a struggle ever since the time of Shevchenko, when Ukrainian finally gained status as a proper literary language.

Ukrainian in its currently recognizable oral form actually dates back to the seventeenth century during the time of the Kozak Hetman state. It had evolved from the earlier Ruthenian Slavic tongue which originated in the Kyiv Rus state of a thousand years ago. During Kozak times, however, there were few literate Ukrainians and little in terms of what we call “literature”, so our knowledge of the language of this time is rather sketchy and incomplete.

It was only in the 19th century that we see a literary renaissance in Ukraine spurred by an intellectual group of writers and thinkers in Kyiv known as the St. Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, Taras Shevchenko being one of its most prominent members. It was at this time that the language and its grammar were standardized. Despite popular use, the language continued to come under severe attack by the Russians who controlled Eastern Ukraine, and to a lesser extent by the Poles who controlled Western Ukraine, or Halychyna as it was commonly known.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukainians enjoyed a brief period of time when “Ukrainianization” was tolerated and linguistic freedom returned. In 1927, a special Orthographic conference was convened which came up with a comprehensive set of rules that officially defined proper Ukrainian usage, which was accepted throughout Ukraine as well as the diaspora. In 1929 Ukrainian linguist Hryhoriy Holoskevich published a definitive dictionary which incorporated this newly accepted orthography. Unfortunately, this achievement was short-lived as the Stalinist regime reversed course in 1932 and from that point on, the practice of Ukrainian culture or language was severely repressed and the Ukrainian intelligentsia was brutally liquidated. It was not until Ukraine finally gained its independence that the Ukrainian language was finally able to come out from under the shadows and establish itself again as the official language of the Ukrainian state.

The question of what was proper Ukrainian, however, was not that easily resolved. For more than two decades after independence the Ukrainian authorities in the form of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, struggled to compile a definitive set of standards, an effort that was not completed until 2012. Even so, work continues as there is no shortage of differences of opinion on what constitutes proper Ukrainian, particularly between the eastern and western halves of Ukraine.

Some aspects however, have been settled and accepted, particularly the rules for transliteration of Ukrainian into the English alphabet, the subject with which we began this treatise. So, for the record, “г“ is transliterated as h; “ґ“ becomes g; “є” becomes ye at the beginning of a word but ie inside a word; “ж” becomes zh; “и” becomes y in English; “i” remains і; “ї” becomes yi at the beginning of a word, but i when it’s inside the word; “й“ becomes y ат the beginning of the word, but i inside a word; “у” becomes u; “х” becomes kh; “ц” become ts; “ч” becomes ch, “ш” becomes sh; “щ” becomes shch; “ю” becomes yu at the beginning of a word, but iu inside a word; “я” becomes ya at the beginning of a word but ia inside a word.

This is why the capital of Ukraine (“Київ”) is properly spelled Kyiv in English. As another example, if you want to transliterate the name of this newspaper “Новий Шлях” into English, it will be Novyi Shliakh. Prior to researching this article, I have been erroneously writing it as Noviy Shliakh all this time. I now stand corrected.