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Surzhyk (Cyrillic: су́ржик) refers to a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for "norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages".[1]


The Ukrainian word "surzhyk" originally meant flour or bread made from mixed grains, e.g., wheat with rye.


The vocabulary mix of each of the languages (Ukrainian and Russian) varies greatly with location, or sometimes even from person to person, depending on the level of education, personal experience, rural or urban residence, origin of interlocutors, etc. The percentage of Russian words and phonetic influences tends to gradually increase in the east and south and around big Russian-speaking cities. It is commonly spoken in most of eastern Ukraine's rural areas, with the exception of the large metropolitan areas of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and especially Crimea, where the majority of the population uses standard Russian. In rural areas of western Ukraine, the language spoken contains fewer Russian elements than in central and eastern Ukraine but has nonetheless been influenced by Russian.

The ancient common origin and more recent divergence of Russian and Ukrainian make it difficult to establish the degree of mixing in a vernacular of this sort.

Prevalence of Surzhyk[edit]

Prevalence of Surzhyk in the regions of Ukraine. Data by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2003.[2]

According to data presented by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2003, 11 to 18% of the people of Ukraine were found to communicate in Surzhyk. More specifically, In Western Ukraine, Surzhyk is spoken by 2.5% of the population, while in the South, Surzhyk is spoken by upwards of 12.4% of the population. Meanwhile in the East, 9.6% of the population speaks in Surzhyk. As Western Ukraine has a higher percentage of Ukrainian speakers to Russian speakers than the rest of Ukraine, it is understandable why the number of Surzhyk speakers tends to be lower than in the East and South.[2]

One problem in analyzing the linguistic situation of Ukraine is that there tends to be errors in code-mixing in all accounts. That is to say, those who identify themselves as Russian speaking or Ukrainian speaking can often be found to be mixing the two languages to a degree. Only few of these individuals were found to acknowledge incorrect use of either or both languages and that they mix Russian and Ukrainian in their speech.[3]


Pre-Soviet era[edit]

Surzhyk originated at the end of the 18th century when Ukrainian peasants started to become more in contact with the Russian language during modernization of Ukrainian Society. Industrialization resulted in migration of workers from Central Russia to Ukrainian cities which resulted in urbanization of Ukrainian peasantry. Russian civil and military administration along with cultural, business, religious and educational facilities soon became forces of linguistic Russification.[1] Russian was viewed by the Ukrainian peasants moving into the cities as the more urban and prestigious language. However due to inadequate schooling in the Russian language, most Ukrainian peasants who strived to speak in Russian ended up mixing it with their native Ukrainian and thus Surzhyk began to develop.[4]

Speaking Ukrainian purely, that is to say without Russian elements, for the most part was limited to the urban intelligentsia as the Ukrainian language was associated with provincialism and nationalism.[4] For the majority of Ukrainians, at this point, it was easy to acquire competence in the Russian language. The association of the Ukrainian language to rural lifestyle or narrow-minded nationalism pushed more Ukrainians to take on Russian as their language of choice.[3] Such decisions led to increased prevalence of Surzhyk in everyday speech and further dilution of the Ukrainian language.

In 1721, Tsar Peter I decreed that the publication of books in Ukraine, aside from Russian-language religious books, was to be prohibited and Ukrainian books and records were burned. Later, in 1786, it was decreed that religious services in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were to be conducted using only the Russian pronunciation of Old Church Slavonic, and not the Ukrainian pronunciation. Decrees in 1863, 1876, and 1881 prohibited the publication and import of Ukrainian books as well as the public use of the Ukrainian language as a whole. The regime at the time viewed Ukrainian as opposition to the government and therefore was harshly oppressed.[4]

Ukrainian language in theatre and music was also banned and therefore had to be translated into other languages. Education in the Ukrainian language at this point also suffered the same fate with the ethnic Ukrainian teachers being replaced with ethnic Russians. In fact, in the early 1900s, children were punished for speaking Ukrainian in school with one another and even peoples’ jobs were lost for so little as speaking in the Ukrainian language.[4]

Such oppression also took place in Western Ukraine by Austrian and Hungarian rule in the late 1700s and 1800s. However, these language policies were not as restrictive as in Eastern Ukraine under the Tsarist regime. For example, In Zakarpattia, Hungarian was the only legitimate language allowed by the regime, so Ukrainian was excluded from institutions such as schools.[4]

Soviet era[edit]

In the 1920s after Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language began to be revived under the Soviet policy of Korenizatsiya (nativisation), which supported the development of non-Russian languages in order to gain support of the ethnic groups that were formally oppressed by the Tsarist regime. The Soviet government would conduct itself in the Ukrainian language in Ukraine in hopes to integrate the Ukrainian people into the new Soviet system.[5] This Ukrainianisation brought forth many advances in the development, standardisation, and codification of the Ukrainian language. Along with this was the development of more publications as well as theatre productions and schools in Ukrainian.[4]

In the 1930s and onward, there was significant influence of the Russian language on Ukrainian, and the regime of Joseph Stalin began to actively suppress the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian, as well as other languages in the Soviet Union, were viewed as a threat to centralised power and that they disrupted linguistic unification of the Soviet people. Terminology and wording that was similar or identical to Russian was emphasized in dictionaries, grammar books, and advisories to editors and publishers. This resulted in generally more Russianised Ukrainian than that which was present prior to the Soviet Union. This change in codification became a subject of dispute on what pure Ukrainian actually is after Ukraine became independent.[4]

Words and other forms of speech in Ukrainian that are similar to Russian were emphasised. As well, many Russian words or terms replaced their Ukrainian equivalents and then were manipulated with Ukrainian grammar and phonetics. The following chart contains examples of how the Ukrainian language was changed during the Soviet Era.

Pre-Soviet Forms Late Soviet Forms Standard Russian English Translation












Відтак, відтоді

(Vidtak, Vidtodi)

З тих пір

(Z tykh pir)

С тех пор

(S tyekh por)

Since then


Those in the cultural elite who promoted local languages were later purged from positions of authority under the reign of Stalin in efforts to strengthen cohesion of the Soviet Empire and promote Russian as the official language of the Soviet Union.[4]

Independence in the modern era[edit]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Ukraine as a sovereign state, the Ukrainian language became a key issue in the nation's politics. Ukrainian became the single official language in Ukraine and therefore speaking this language became an important skill for politicians and other important figures. Many of these people were Russian-speakers that began to use Ukrainian, but having not mastered the language there arose another form of Surzhyk which showed clearly the effects Russification has had on Ukrainian. Linguists began to be locked in debates over the correct way to speak Ukrainian, as the Soviet language policies had a profound effect on the Ukrainian language. On one hand, there are linguists who argue that Ukrainian should solely use the forms that existed prior to the Soviet Union, while other linguists argue that the current forms, which came from the Soviet policies, are more contemporary and well-known and therefore would be more suitable for modern usage.[1][4]

Surzhyk as an ethnopolitical issue[edit]

In Soviet times the usage of Ukrainian was gradually decreasing, particularly at times when the policies of Russification intensified (1930s and late 1970s to early 1980s) and thus a sizable portion of ethnic Ukrainians have a better knowledge of formal Russian than of formal Ukrainian. Since 1991, however, Ukrainian has become the official language of Ukraine. Upon becoming the official language, a realisation came to be that much of the population of Ukraine did not know how to speak Ukrainian. This was highly apparent in many Ukrainian officials, including the President of Ukraine, as they were known to make code-mixing mistakes in their speech.[3]

The prevalence of Surzhyk is most notably found in the countryside. In the cities, people tend to speak Ukrainian or Russian more purely in contrast to the more rural inhabitants as there is a prestige that is maintained by the educational and technological advantages the urban-dwellers enjoy. However, in spite of the differences between rural and urban spoken language, many visitors find that they have trouble communicating with the local population of Ukraine when they follow guidebooks published abroad, which tend to specialise in either pure Russian or pure Ukrainian, and not a mixture of the two.[3]

Speaking Surzhyk instead of Russian or Ukrainian is viewed negatively by nationalist language activists. By being neither of the two languages, Surzhyk is viewed as a threat to the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture. This use of the language hybrid has been perceived as a language shift towards Russian, which puts the speaker at risk of being condemned by Ukrainian nationalists. Surzhyk is seen not only as dissolving the Ukrainian-Russian language border on a structure level, but also a psychological level, whereas it distorts the bonds between ethnic Ukrainian and the Ukrainian language that is to serve him with the world-view and moral values of the nation.[1]


Nikolai Gogol used the language extensively in his short story collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Surzhyk has been known to be used as an object of parody in Ukrainian literature since the emergence of the Ukrainian language itself. For example, in the poem Eneyida, written by Ivan Kotlyarevsky and based on the Roman poem Aeneid, the character "Filozop", while standing over the dead Pallas, speaks using Surzhyk for satirical purposes.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

Surzhyk is often also used for comical effect in arts. See, for example, the short plays by Les Poderviansky [1] and the repertoire of the pop-star Verka Serdyuchka. The punk-rock group Braty Hadyukiny (literally "Brothers Viperids") sings many of its songs in Surzhyk, often to underscore the rural simplicity of their characters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Surzhyk and national identity in Ukrainian nationalist language ideology (Niklas Bernsand in Berliner Osteuropa-Info, Vol. 17 page 41, Freie Universität, Berlin)
  2. ^ a b Київський міжнародний інститут соціології
  3. ^ a b c d Podolyan Ilona E. “How Do Ukrainians Communicate? Observations Based upon Youth Population of Kyiv”. Kyiv National Linguistic University, Ukraine. p. 2-4
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Bilaniuk Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.
  5. ^ Pauly, Matthew D. Teaching place, assembling the nation: local studies in Soviet Ukrainian schools during the 1920s. History of Education Vol. 39 No. 1. (2010) 75-93
  6. ^ Karavans'kyi, Sviatoslav. Sektrey Ukrayins'koyi Movy. Kyiv: Kobza, 1994.
  7. ^ Масенко, Лариса. Суржик: між Мовою і Язиком. Києво-Могилянська Академія, 2011.

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