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What language do they speak in Ukraine?

Over the course of history, numerous peoples have lived in what is modern-day Ukraine, with empires shifting its borders as they fought over the territory.

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Over the course of history, numerous peoples have lived in what is modern-day Ukraine, with empires shifting its borders as they fought over the territory.
OSWALDO RIVASAFP

Like many European nations, Ukraine is a linguistically diverse country with many other languages and dialects spoken. This reflects its long history and cultural heritage that comes from numerous migrations of different peoples over centuries.

Of the nation’s roughly 44 million inhabitants the vast majority, just under 68 percent, consider their native language to be Ukrainian, the official national language. About 30 percent of Ukrainians consider their first language Russian, the second largest group. Russian and Ukrainian, along with Belarusian come from the East Slavic family of languages.

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The ”Rus” family of languages

The Dnieper River, which cuts through Ukraine from north to south, has been an important route for trade and migration from the Baltic to where it ends in the Black Sea throughout history. Additionally, migrating peoples settled on its fertile lands with one group in particular giving birth to the East Slavic language group.

Centered around Kyiv, Ukraine became the home to the “Rus,” a group of Scandinavians that settled in the area. They went on to form a loose federation called the Kievan Rus which expanded to cover broad swaths of territory encompassing modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. From which the latter two nations derive their names.

Invasions and Empires shape Ukraine's linguistic landscape

With the invasion of the Mongol Golden Horde, the Tartars settled along the north coast of the Black Sea and formed a Khanate based in Crimea. Their descendants were forcefully relocated after World War II by Stalin and weren’t allowed to return until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Speakers of Crimean Tartar make up the third largest linguistic group in Ukraine, representing less than half a percent of the population.

Ukraine’s modern-day borders were established while it was part of the Soviet Union. The Crimea peninsula was granted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The area has seen multiple incursions by Cossacks, Ottomans and Vikings, among other over the centuries.

Portions of the territory within the internationally recognized borders have over time fallen under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. All of what today is considered Ukrainian territory was finally consolidated after World War II within the Soviet Union.

Around 40 languages are spoken in Ukraine

The nation’s long, storied history has left Ukraine with over three dozen languages and dialects. Although attempts were made by Russian leaders for over two hundred years to suppress the Ukrainian language and identity, both have lived on. Now, Ukrainian is enshrined in the constitution as the official language, but guarantees are in place for Russian and other minority languages.

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