Diasporic Postcards: LANGUAGE
Ukrainian was my first language, and my brothers and I were forbidden to speak English at home. To my parents, it was considered a sign of disrespect. My facility with the language was never up to my elder brother’s flawless Ukrainian, even though I went to Ukrainian school for twelve years where I learned Ukrainian grammar, literature, history, geography, religion, and to write in Ukrainian. My Ukrainian studies also included learning Ukrainian botany, singing Ukrainian folk songs, and doing Ukrainian crafts, such as cross-stitch embroidery and painting pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs).
Many people might be surprised that I can understand Slavic languages such as Polish, Serbian, and Czech more easily than Russian – if lucky, I might get a very, very basic understanding of a conversation in Russian. The two languages are far more different than people might expect. And both my parents were from Western Ukraine, near the Polish border, so their Ukrainian was not Russified as it was in the eastern part of the country.
After leaving home around the age of 20, my Ukrainian noticeably deteriorated. But after my father passed, I spoke with my mother daily, sometimes more, so my Ukrainian was more proficient than it had been in decades. Then she passed and I have barely spoken the language in two years, and my fluency has again suffered.
A relative in Ukraine recently shared that many refugees fleeing from the east, although ethnically Ukrainian, speak only Russian and are finding themselves, not only traumatized by the war, but are embarrassed that they can’t speak Ukrainian. Western Ukrainians are responding by conducting special Ukrainian language lessons for the refugees, but it’s another level of displacement about which most Westerners are unaware. Russification has been in place for centuries in order to politically and economically dominate Ukraine. But what’s happening now is not about assimilating the language and culture. In any language, what we are witnessing is a genocide in real time and full force.