Like many European countries, Ukraine is a linguistically diverse country with many other languages and dialects spoken. This reflects its long history and cultural heritage which stems from many migrations of different peoples over the centuries.
Of the approximately 44 million people in the country, the vast majority, just under 68%, consider their mother tongue to be Ukrainian, the official national language. About 30% of Ukrainians consider Russian as their first language, the second largest group. Russian and Ukrainian, as well as Belarusian, belong to the East Slavic language family.
The “Rus” language family
The Dnieper River, which crosses Ukraine from north to south, has been an important route for trade and migration from the Baltic to its terminus in the Black Sea throughout history. Additionally, migrant peoples settled on its fertile lands, with one group in particular giving rise to the East Slavic language group.
Centered around kyiv, Ukraine became home to the “Rus”, a group of Scandinavians who settled in the region. They then formed a loose federation called Kievan Rus which expanded to cover large swaths of territory encompassing today’s Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. From where the last two nations derive their names.
Invasions and empires shape the Ukrainian linguistic landscape
With the invasion of the Mongol Golden Horde, the Tartars settled along the northern Black Sea coast and formed a Crimean-based Khanate. Their descendants were forcibly removed after World War II by Stalin and only allowed to return after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Crimean Tartar speakers are the third largest language group in Ukraine, representing less than half a percent of the population.
Ukraine’s modern borders were established when it was part of the Soviet Union. The Crimean peninsula was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The area has seen multiple incursions by Cossacks, Ottomans, and Vikings, among others, over the centuries.
Parts of the territory within internationally recognized borders over time fell under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. All that is considered Ukrainian territory today was eventually consolidated after World War II into the Soviet Union.
About 40 languages are spoken in Ukraine
The nation’s long and rich history has left Ukraine with more than three dozen languages and dialects. Although Russian rulers tried for more than two hundred years to suppress the Ukrainian language and identity, both survived. Today, Ukrainian is enshrined in the constitution as an official language, but safeguards are in place for Russian and other minority languages.