It is a common saying among bloggers that if one chooses to title one’s post in the form of a question, then readers should simply assume the correct answer is a definitive “NO!” and move on. So, end of post, goodbye, THE END.
No, really, though. I want to give it the Old School Try, possibly even speak as Devil’s Advocate. Putting on my Linguistics cap as one who trained formally in that field and even received an advanced degree in it; although not currently practicing this noble trade. Also not one who technically speaks, understands, reads or writes Ukrainian, although I can get by just from knowing Russian; but there is a saying among Linguists, that you don’t really need to know a specific language in order to pass judgement on it.
My starting point is this piece by reporter Nikolai Storozhenko. The title is:
Ukraine Found A Way To Turn Into Poland
Well, not exactly. One may doubt that this “Latinization” initiative will go anywhere except to an early grave; but reporting on it is a good way to toss red meat and enrage Russian patriots who adore their own Cyrillic alphabet. The lead quote goes something like this: “We need to rid ourselves of the Cyrillic alphabet and switch to the Latin alphabet.” And Russians go “Grrrrrr! GRRRRR!” Storozhenko is quoting Alexei Danilov, Ukrainian Secretary of Defense and National Security. So, an important person within his own society, but clearly a bit of a tool. Born in 1962 in the Luhansk Oblast, Danilov graduated from Veterinary School in 1981 and worked as a farm vet for several years, while also serving a 2-year stint in the Soviet army.
Then he switched careers and graduated in 1999 from Luhansk Pedagogical Institute, his specialty as a history teacher. Eventually got involved in politics (as a member of the Julia Tymoshenko Party) and rose up the ranks; was appointed in 2019 to his current position in the government. He should have stuck to healing animals. It was in an interview with Radio Freedom that Danilov uttered the above utterance about Cyrillic vs Latin; and the reporter, according to the editorial standards of the Russian press denotes that infamous media outlet with not just one but 2 asterisks ** and denotes in the footnote as a designated foreign media agent in Russia. Which it is.
The reporter then goes on to provide some history of the issue, which I will elide over, in order to get to my main theme of Ukrainian phonology and orthography. The political/historical subtext is all about Orthodoxy vs Catholicism, of course. Major Catholic Slavic nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Croatia use the Latin alphabet to encode their phonological utterances. (And I know it’s heresy to say this, but the Latin alphabet actually serves these languages pretty well, their alphabets having been designed by scientists who knew what they were doing.) In the Ukrainian Borderlands, split between East and West, it is only natural that the political and geographic divide should result in an occasional flare-up of alphabet wars. Crudely put, one can say that the Ukraine is torn between “Latin” Poland and “Cyrillic” Russia.
After detailing some of this history, Storozhenko notes that, in the past couple of years, proponents of Latinization have included such “patriotic” Ukrainian politicians as Pavel Klimkin. But ironically, the worst of the Banderite Nationalists and outright Nazis, such as Vladimir Vyatrovych, support Cyrillic. Surprising as that sounds, but recall that 200 years ago a similar thing happened when the Galician intelligentsia supported Cyrillic as a way of avoiding Polonization.
Okay, so here’s the thing: The Ukrainian language/dialect has (more or less, with some regional variations) 38 phonemes, consisting of 6 vowells and 32 consonants (using International Phonetic Alphabet symbols to denote):
- /i/ (IPA #301)
- /u/ (IPA #308)
- /ɪ/ (IPA #319)
- /ɛ/ (IPA #303)
- /ɔ/ (IPA #306)
- /ɑ/ (IPA #305)
- /m/ (IPA #114)
- /n/ (IPA #116)
- /nʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /p/ (IPA #101)
- /b/ (IPA #102)
- /t/ (IPA #103)
- /tʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /d/ (IPA #104)
- /dʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /k/ (IPA #109)
- /ɡ/ (IPA #110)
- /t͡sʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /d͡zʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /t͡ʃ/ (IPA #103 and #134)
- /d͡ʒ/ (IPA #104 and #135)
- /f/ (IPA #128)
- /s/ (IPA #130)
- /sʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /z/ (IPA #133)
- /zʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /ʃ/ (IPA #134)
- /ʒ/ (IPA #135)
- /x/ (IPA #140)
- /ɦ/ (IPA #147)
- /ʋ/ (IPA #150)
- /l/ (IPA #155)
- /lʲ/ = palatalized version of above
- /j/ (IPA #153)
- /r/ (IPA #122)
- /rʲ/ = palatalized version of above
My personal favorite phoneme, by the way, is #10, the “Voiceless Bilabial Plosive“. #24 is also pretty cool, it’s the Voiceless Labio-Dental Fricative. They sound so naughty! Ukrainian, however, lacks an even naughtier sound beloved of Acoustic Phoneticists, namely the “Voiced Bilabial Fricative”, otherwise known as the “English Raspberry” !
As the intelligent reader can detect, this language possesses quite an extraordinary number of consonants and relatively few vowels, hence one might call Ukrainian a consonant-heavy language. By some amazing coincidence, Russian is exactly the same kind of language! The modern version of the Cyrillic alphabet, when encoding standard Russian, uses an ingenious method to cut down on the number of symbols needed in the alphabet (otherwise you might need to buy a bigger keyboard). This trick consists of using the same symbol (for example, for the letter T) to encode two different consonantal phonemes, both the regular and the palatalized form. In which case the burden of phonemic distinction is carried by the vowel; which is why Russian employs 2 different symbols for each of the 5 vowels. The cunning reader must deduce which consonantal phoneme to pronounce, based on the vowel symbol that follows it. Linguistic Purists might raise their eyebrows at such an “unorthodox” (pun-intended) solution, but it does get the job done while keeping the number of alphabet symbols down to a reasonable level.
What about Ukrainian, though?
According to wikipedia, modern Ukrainian orthography dates to 1619 and the work of Meletius Smotrytsky. That was back in the days when the Ukrainian dialect was known as Ruthenian. As part of his innovations, Meletius introduced the letter ґ (“Ge”), the digraphs дж and дз, as well as й (for the consonantal phoneme yod). In 1907-09 Ukrainian spelling took its almost final form in the works of B. Hrinchenko. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukrainian spelling entered its official form in 1918. But further reforms took place in 1926, 1929, 1933, 1959, and 1960, some of the changes motivated by political issues such as Russification, Ukrainization, and suchlike.
In Soviet times the “Literature, Language and Arts” Department of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences curated the Ukrainian alphabet and oversaw these various changes. These Academicians earned a very good living, although I personally would never trust a Linguistics Department that was grouped under The Arts instead of The Sciences. Also, these Soviet language departments tended to be overly-heavy with Philologists. Who are more literary critic than scientist, in nature. Philologists are the kind of people who fall in love with their own language and go hunting for old folk tales, and they don’t usually understand the scientific principles of Language as such. At least not since the days of the Grimm Brothers, but those guys were effing geniuses, hence the exception that proves the rule.
The most recent version of Ukrainian orthographic reform dates to as recently as 2019, and had to deal with the deluges of foreign borrowings — an issue which has also been mercilessly destroying the Russian language in recent years. Unfortunately, this latest effort at reform was put into the hands of rabid Ukrainian neo-Nazis such as Iryna Farion; who claims to be a “Doctor of Philology”, by the way. So, nothing good can come of this at all. And, by the way, a “Doctor of Philology” is an oxymoron. Might as well call an Astrologist a Doctor of Astrology.
Anyhow, it is time to look at the existing Ukrainian alphabet and grade it based upon its adherence to the laws of Scientific Linguistics.
The Ukrainian alphabet consists of 33 symbols. Right there we see there is not a one-to-one, phonemically speaking, otherwise there would be 38 letters. But that’s okay. We can’t expect all alphabets in the world to be as absolutely perfect as the alphabet of Classical Greek, so beloved by pioneer Linguists Cyrill and Methodius. And we see right away that Ukrainian adopted the same trick as Russian, in doubling the vowels (well, almost, there are 10 vowel symbols for 6 actual vowels) and having the vowel symbol carry part of the load for distinguishing between different consonantal phonemes. Thus, 20 consonant symbols can represent 32 actual consonants, and we don’t have to buy a bigger keyboard.
Not bad, overall, but somewhat messy, even messier than the Russian alphabet (but way superior to, say written English); wiki:
There are other exceptions to the phonemic principle in the alphabet. Some letters represent two phonemes: щ /ʃt͡ʃ/, ї /ji/ or /jɪ/, and є /jɛ/, ю /ju/, я /jɑ/ when they do not palatalize a preceding consonant. The digraphs дз and дж are normally used to represent single affricates /d͡z/ and /d͡ʒ/. Palatalization of consonants before е, у, а is indicated by writing the corresponding letter є, ю, я instead (but palatalization before і is usually not indicated).
Frankly, it is not bad at all, I was expecting worse. I was expecting something almost as bad as the modern Belorussian alphabet which is more phonetic than phonemic in nature; but what can you expect when it was designed by air-headed Philologists instead of Linguists!
Next, proceeding to the final bullet point: Would it be possible for somebody to design a Latin-based alphabet for Ukrainian that is superior to the current Cyrillic one? Well, obviously it could be possible. One could do something like what Jan Hus did with Czech, use accents and superscripts, like č for ч, and suchlike. You’d just need a bigger keyboard, that’s all. It would take a generation to get everybody reading in the new script, but yeah, it’s theoretically doable. Will it actually happen? Probably not.
And with that, I end this piece and stoically await the stonings to come.