Saturday, August 01, 2009

Okay, so now I do have a Ukrainian playground acquaintance: a babysitter from Mykolayiv. I figured out she was from Ukraine when I caught her staring at me a bit too intensely as I was telling something about Kyiv to someone else - and then we chatted, and her intonations were more Ukrainian than Russian, and then I told her I was from Kyiv, and she said she was from Ukraine as well.

Nothing interesting about this encounter, except for an insight into how some Ukrainians feel about the Ukrainian language.

We talked about travel in Ukraine, and I mentioned that I'd like to take Marta to Western Ukraine, for the beauty - and also for the language, for the beauty of the language there.

She said she was fluent in Ukrainian, but had never in her life spoken it to anyone. Studied it at school, and that's it. Found it awkward. Not beautiful.

I told her that perhaps she hadn't heard it spoken beautifully: there's a number of ways it can happen to you in Ukraine, and growing up in Mykolayiv is just one of them.

I also gave her a little lecture on how all languages are beautiful, but it sometimes takes some effort and time to realize it.

I am, for example, still totally grateful to my university professor - Olena Bekh - for giving us creative assignments that had no politics or ideology in them, and for singing those beautiful kolyadky during classes.

And I also told the babysitter about my experience with Turkish: how at first I didn't like the sound of it - was spoiled by all the exposure to the beautiful Armenian language that I'd had in the States, perhaps. But then Misha and I fell in love with the way the Istanbul tramway female announcer was saying the word Gülhane - and now, ten years later, I'm still in love with this word, and I've also realized that I love Turkish spoken by women much better than I love it spoken by men. A few years ago, the tramway route was extended to include a station called Fındıklı, and even though this word is spoken by the same female announcer, it is sort of like a quintessential male Turkish word for me: Gülhane vs. Fındıklı.

Anyway, I could've been speaking to myself, for all I know, because the babysitter's response was something like this:

- Well, you know, my sister lives in Kyiv, and she doesn't really understand Ukrainian, and she's often annoyed by the signs in Ukrainian: like, when a store sign says "Kylymy" - what is it, she asks, why can't it be just "Kovry"?

I tried to explain to her that there was nothing wrong with it - and that the sign could say "Carpets" just as well, if her sister lived in, say, London, not Kyiv. But I decided not to go too deep into it, because all of a sudden I recalled how much I dislike math, and how dumb I am when it comes to all things mathematical, and no matter how much you try to explain to me things beyond GRE math (which I survived back in 1996, but wouldn't survive now), I'll still remain an idiot that I am. Same with this babysitter and her sister - and the languages. No politics here whatsoever, really.

But I was still curious about something else.

I asked her: "Do you know that the word kylym came to us from Turkish? That it's a Turkish word for 'carpet' - kılım?"

And she said: "Oh yeah, really? No, I had no idea."


  1. Your encounter is a field report on Ukraine's asymmetric bilingualism.

    Many people who grew up Russian or Russified find it hard to speak - or even understand - Slavic languages other than Russian.

    In the Soviet Union, they didn't have to. They grew up and/or lived with everyone speaking their language - whether native or learned.

    Other languages were folksy, retarded and unrewarding, so the prevailing attitude went, passed from generation to generation. The melting pot of Russification supported this attitude with geographic and social mobility for those who embraced the homo Sovieticus identity and moved out of the kolkhoz ghetto.

    Once they "made it," urban Russified Ukrainians would often look down on countryside non-Russified Ukrainians.

    Today, many of those urbanites haven't changed their attitude. They think they still live in the Soviet Union. Naturally, they need Russification to go on.

    As for me, I grew up urban but not entirely Russified. I speak Ukrainian and Russian. I don't speak Belarusian but I do understand 99% of it. And I like it.

  2. I like Taras's point about Russians or Russified people having their language come to them, so to speak, making them believe their language is superior. I think it's the same with native english speakers. We hear our language everywhere, it's made us too lazy to learn other languages. I feel so stupid when I see how many languages some of my non-english-native friends can speak *fluently*. But, growing up in Australia we don't feel the urgency to learn another language as we're so isolated. I can't say the same for Brits, I'm surprised they aren't more multilingual.

  3. Hi Veronica!
    Thanks for this post, and sorry for your disappointment about this "Ukrainian playground acquaintance". :)
    When people have no interest in languages, do not savour the pleasure in them, and/or show no curiosity about them, I tend to label them brainless. It would have infuriated me to hear somebody boast to be "fluent" in a language they have never used!
    But you take on a more clever attitude : you are able to shift focus and imagine everybody has their turn in being infuriated when attempting to exchange with others...
    You will become my buddhist coach.:)

    Do svidania, ciao, tchüss, bye, salut and so on

  4. I don't have anything to add, but just wanted to say that this post was really beautifully written. I'm looking forward to hearing Ukrainian spoken. Maybe I'll even purchase Professor Bekh's book.

  5. I enjoy your writing so much, especially your descriptions of conversations with strangers, interesting interactions at the playground or while traveling, your observations of city life in Moscow and Kiev. Thanks.