Ukraine should shift from Cyrillic to Latin script, former Verkhovna Rada deputy says


More, Op-ed

To solidify its break from a Russia-dominated space, Ukraine should shift from the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian language to a script based on the Latin alphabet used by European countries, according to Oleksandr Doniy, the head of the Last Barricade social organization and a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada.

He has been pushing this idea on his Facebook page, arguing that the Latin script developed for Ukrainian by a Czech linguist in the 19th century not only is more adequate to the sound values of Ukrainian but also represents more accurately Ukraine’s position in the world.

Such a shift would be difficult and expensive and would certainly outrage Moscow which has opposed all shifts away from Cyrillic in other post-Soviet states, most recently in Kazakhstan. But it is not as marginal and exotic an idea as many in the West may think.

Not only were Ukrainian texts of the 16th and 17th centuries written in the Latin script, but several scholars in the 19th century – Iosif Lozinskyi of Lviv and Joseph Irecek of Prague – worked out a modernized Latin script for Ukrainian. And in the 19th and early 20th century, Ukrainians living in Austro-Hungary used a Latin script.

Doniy says that he is encouraged by Kazakhstan’s decision and that of other post-Soviet Turkic republics to shift away from the Russian script Moscow imposed on them in the 1920s and 1930s and by the fact that many Slavic peoples, including the Poles, the Slovenes, the Slovaks, and the Czechs use the Latin script.

The benefits to Ukraine of such a shift are obvious: it would mark a final break with the Moscow-centered state to the east and put Ukraine on a trajectory more like Poland and the Czech Republic.

But there are real costs beyond those imposed on the state by such a shift – and they will have to be considered before any such step is made.

  • On the one hand, it is virtually certain that ethnic Russians in Ukraine would insist on retaining the Cyrillic script of their nation, something that would exacerbate the tensions between the two peoples by underscoring the civilizational divide between them and possibly create conditions for even more Moscow-orchestrated Russian separatism in Ukraine.
  • And on the other, every time a country changes alphabets, it not only tends to cut off its population from the past when a different script was used but leads to a decline in reading of the media and literature because many people familiar with the older script find it uncomfortable to say no more to use the new one.

Over time, these difficulties can be overcome; but in the short term, they may be prohibitively large. At the very least, however, talking about shifting away from a Russian alphabet that the Russian empire in its various guises imposed throughout Ukraine is a useful next step in Ukraine’s turn away from Eurasia toward Europe.

Edited by: A. N.

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  1. Avatar W8post says:

    Baby steps, Baby steps…this is already a beginning!

    1. Avatar rifak says:

      I think it is obvious that the dominant language in the world is English. What is preventing people from understanding that one oppressive cultural paradigm can easily be replaced with another?

      What of the words of Taras Shevchenko…

      Учітеся, брати мої!

      Думайте, читайте,

      І чужому научайтесь,

      Й свого не цурайтесь
      Бо хто матір забуває,

      Того Бог карає

  2. Avatar Taras Kachkowski says:

    The beauty of the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet is that each letter has only one sound, unlike many other alphabets, including Russian. Latin transliteration tables sometimes have to use two or even three letter combinations to inaccurately approximate what one Cyrillic letter expresses. This is not a good idea.

  3. Avatar Sherlock16 says:

    Cyrillic goes back to the 9th century AD. Moscow doesn’t. Why do we have to throw away OUR historic alphabet just because Muscovy stole another piece of Ukraine’s past. What are we going to give up next in the name of severing ties with a despotic nation that rests on the laurels of those it has enslaved?

    1. Avatar Lev Havryliv says:

      I agree. A more realistic approach is for the the government and society to actively promote Ukrainian and for Ukrainians themselves stop using the Russian language and Russian language books, newspapers, magazines, films etc.

      As a second language Ukrainians should learn English and other European and world languages and shun the Russian language. After all, Russian is the language of our past colonial oppressors and current aggressor against the Ukrainian nation.

    2. Avatar rifak says:

      You are correct. It is bad enough that the name “Rus” was stolen by Muscovia, and that the Orthodox church along with historic and cultural treasures were usurped by Moscow, and that the history was rewritten and implanted into the minds of the people of Ukraine.
      This idea of changing the alphabet would be humorous if it weren’t so foolish.

  4. Avatar Philippe de Lara says:

    Although I am not competent since I am just an early beginner in the Ukrainian language, my first reaction is to disagree strongly with this idea of shifting to Latin alphabet. The first thing I am learning in Ukrainian is the difference between its alphabet and the Russian one, of which I have some knowledge! The most important argument on the issue, mentioned in the article but not with the appropriate weight is that breaking with an ancient alphabet is always a breaking with the past, and in the case of Ukraine, this past is extremely rich, and genuine despite the Russian efforts to eradicate or assimilate it. What is happening today is the final battle for the distinct existence of Ukraine as a nation, as a culture. This battle has been fought successfully in the cyrillic alphabet. How can one figure out as a good thing that if Schevchenko or Stous were to come back to life, they would have to learn a new alphabet? This is not a matter of transition. The shift from Arabic to Latin alphabet was a huge breaking for Turkey, meant to make the Ottoman empire and the modern Turkish nation two different entities. The shift from ancient ideograms to Latin alphabet successful in Viet Nam (implemented by French colonization), failed in China (it was one of Mao’s madness) were also meant to cut a nation from its roots, its history.

  5. Avatar slavko says:

    There’s no need to abandon Cyrilic. Namely there are so many translators available why should Latin letters be given priority. In fact Latin letters and English spelling are even more confusing. Phonetic spelling is much simpler and clear. This is English imperialism at work in my opinion. Those who want to understand will make the effort. Those who don’t want to understand will try to change another to the English way.

    1. You could take Polish or Czech alphabet 😛

  6. No need to abandon your culture for short term political circumstances. But Latin signs on the streets would be really helpful. And on the transport infrastructure. Every time I try to learn where a bus goes, it leaves before I finish reading the name on it 🙂 Have mercy for the tourists 🙂

    1. Avatar W8post says:

      I understand your problem, [as I’m in Lviv at the moment] – so I walk! Takes the same time as trying to read the bus/tram signs…

          1. Yeah, I fell in love with this place too. And with the people. Especially with the taxi drivers. Chatting with them was as enlightening as reading a book on history and current politics. But I had the advantage that I understood them speaking Ukrainian almost 70%. It’s probably a bit more difficult when you have to count on their knowledge of English.