Ukraine's 'Surzhyk' hybrid language came from 'flour mix'
Once shunned by both the Ukrainian and Russian elite, Surzhyk has been adopted by Ukraine’s counterculture.
According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian is not a “real” language, but rather a regional dialect of Russian. According to most linguists, it is a separate language, about as different from Russian as Spanish is from Portuguese, or English from Dutch.
Research suggests that around 70% of Ukraine’s citizens speak Ukrainian as their native language, while 30% to 36% speak Russian at home. According to surveys that ask the question a little differently, over 80% speak neither Russian nor Ukrainian but Surzhyk, a combination of the two that has undergone substantial changes since Ukraine became an independent nation in 1991.
Surzhyk is Ukrainian for a mix of wheat and rye flour, which was cheaper and considered less desirable than pure wheat flour. By analogy the word came to refer to a mixture of the region’s languages, in which Russian was the wheat and Ukrainian the rye. Russian was the “prestige” language – the language of the ruling classes (Ukraine had become part of the Russian Empire in 1793); using it was a mark of education and sophistication. Ukrainian villagers saw that Russian had become a ticket to advancement but had little opportunity to learn the language. Instead, they mixed as many “elite” Russian words and pronunciations as they could into Ukrainian, and the first Surzhyk was born.
According to anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk, Surzhyk was scorned by pretty much everyone who didn’t speak it. The Ukrainian urban intelligentsia, who were secure enough in their status to resist the influence of Russian, looked down on it because it was a hybrid, “impure” language, and was spoken by rural people and peasants who migrated to the cities to find work. Ruling Russian speakers disdained both Ukrainian – “Little Russian,” as Czar Nicholas II called it – and the messy mishmash of Surzhyk.
When Ukraine became independent, Ukrainian became its new prestige language. Suddenly, university professors who had lectured in Russian were holding forth in Ukrainian; politicians who had campaigned in Russian were caught short when they had to address parliament in Ukrainian. Even Ukrainians who were not Russophone could have trouble with the new demand for Ukrainian. Many of those who had spoken Ukrainian at home were comfortable talking in social situations but had never learned the words to participate in political and philosophical discussion.
Today, Surzhyk has been adopted by Ukraine’s counterculture precisely because of its mongrel status. Rappers, for example, often rhyme in Surzhyk. They celebrate rather than hide its supposed grittiness and lack of pretension.