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Not So Free at Last’

In response to:

Not So Free At Last from the October 22, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Abraham Brumberg’s account of Ukraine and the Ukrainian national myth [“Not So Free At Last,” NYR, October 22, 1992] perpetuates some unfortunate misconceptions about the Ukrainian language that should be corrected. I should add that I have personally verified that these particular views are not due to Edward Stankiewicz of Yale University, whose authority is invoked by Brumberg in section 2 of his essay.

A statement about the origin of the Ukrainian language is complicated by the fact that the terms Ukraine and Ukrainian evolved in meaning over the long stretch of recorded East Slavic history. The earliest attestations of the word ukraina are glossed “borderland.” By the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries the word took on the additional meaning “Cossack land,” a point emphasized more than four decades ago by George Shevelov of Columbia University. It was only in the 1870s that the word began to be used as a name for national territory populated by the Ukrainian people. Initially referring to eastern Ukraine alone, the term was adopted only gradually by western Ukrainians. (Incidentally, Brumberg’s derivation of Ukraine from okraina instead of ukraina reflects a long discredited etymology, the former word being of strictly Russian origin and first attested in the Russian Academy dictionary of 1847.)

The ostensibly modern political and social connotations of the words Ukraine and Ukrainian must not obscure the chronology of the origins of what eventually came to be called the Ukrainian language. Brumberg’s claim that “the various distinctive dialects that were the sources of modern Ukrainian emerged by the sixteenth century [and were] derived from Russian, with many borrowed words from Polish and (via Polish) German” is patently false. Modern Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian all derive from a common East Slavic source, which may be given the neutral specification Early Rusian, the language of medieval Rus’. A number of distinctive isoglosses already differentiated East Slavic linguistic territory before the appearance of the oldest written texts in the mid-eleventh century. By the twelfth century at the latest there is incontrovertible written evidence of early Ukrainian dialectical features in the southern part of East Slavic territory.

To speak of distinct languages and not dialects during this early period is premature, however. It is the incorporation of the southern and western territories into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and into Poland in the mid-fourteenth that physically separated the ancestors of the Ukrainians and Belorussians from those of the Russians and permitted their distinct cultural and linguistic development. From this perspective Brumberg’s dating of the emergence of a distinct Ukrainian language to the sixteenth century seems much too late. To be sure, it is impossible to determine the chronological point at which a dialect becomes a distinct language, in part because dialectical divergence is gradual and because the deciding factors may be as much sociopolitical as they are linguistic. (The quip about a language being defined as a dialect with an army and navy immediately comes to mind.) I will not pursue this difficult issue here, but wish to emphasize that in writing revisionist history and historiography an author must insure that the primary data are not revised in the process. Despite the romantic-nationalistic claims of the nineteenth-century Russian academic establishment, neither the Ukrainian language nor its source dialects were ever derived from the Russian language. More accurately, each of the East Slavic languages that derived from Early Rusian experienced its own linguistic development by means of internal evolution and external influence, the latter from East Slavic and non-East Slavic sources.

Michael S. Flier
Oleksandr Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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