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.  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Ukraine's 'Surzhyk' hybrid language came from 'flour mix'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today