Surzhyk (Ukrainian and Russian: суржик, IPA: [ˈsurʒɪk]) is a UkrainianRussian pidgin used in certain regions of Ukraine and the neighboring regions of Russia and Moldova. There is no clear definition for what constitutes the pidgin; the term surzhyk is, according to some authors, generally used for "norm-breaking, non-obedience to or non-awareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages".[1]

More generally, "surzhyk" can refer to any mixed language, not necessarily including Ukrainian or Russian. For example, colloquial Ukrainian which is spoken in western Ukraine is often called incorrectly a Polish-Ukrainian surzhyk due to its loanwords which don't occur in standard Ukrainian,[citation needed] while in Moldova one may hear the Russian-Romanian pidgin.[citation needed] When used by non-Ukrainian speaking people of Ukraine, the word is most commonly used to refer to a mix of Ukrainian with another language, not necessarily Russian. When used in Russia, the word almost always specifically refers to a Ukrainian-Russian language mix. It differs from both Ukrainian and spoken "Ukrainian Russian", although it is impossible to draw a clear line between them and surzhyk.[citation needed]

The vocabulary mix of each of its constituent languages (Ukrainian and Russian) varies greatly from locality to locality, or sometimes even from person to person, depending on the degree of education, personal experience, rural or urban residence, the geographical origin of the interlocutors, etc. The percentage of Russian words and phonetic influences tends to be greatest in the east and south and in the vicinity of big Russian-speaking cities. It is commonly spoken in most of eastern Ukraine's rural areas, with the exception of the large metropolitan areas of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, where the majority of the population uses standard Russian. In rural areas of western Ukraine, the language spoken contains fewer Russian elements than in central and eastern Ukraine but has nonetheless been influenced by Russian.[citation needed]


The Ukrainian word surzhyk (from Proto-Slavic *sǫ — «with» + *rъžь — «rye») — originally referred to mix of different grains that includes rye or a product like flour or bread made from such a mix. The other version is that it is a shortened, colloquialized version of the word "surrogate" i.e. surrogate of Ukrainian and Russian.[citation needed]


Prevalence of Surzhyk in the regions of Ukraine. Data by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2003.[2]

According to data presented by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2003, 11% to 18% of the people of Ukraine were found to communicate in Surzhyk. Specifically, in western Ukraine, Surzhyk is spoken by 2.5% of the population, while in the south, it is spoken by over 12.4% of the population. In the east, 9.6% of the population speaks Surzhyk. As Western Ukraine has a higher ratio of Ukrainian speakers to Russian speakers than the rest of Ukraine, the lesser proportion of Surzhyk speakers compared with the east and south is understandable.[2]

One problem in analysing the linguistic status of Ukraine is that there is a tendency for code-switching errors to exist across the entire spectrum of languages. In other words, those who identify themselves as Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking can often be found blending the two languages to some degree. Only a few of these individuals were found to acknowledge the non-standardness of the use of either or both languages, or the fact that they were actually blending Russian and Ukrainian in their speech at all.[3]


Pre-Soviet era

Surzhyk originated at the end of the 18th century, when Ukrainian peasants started to have greater contact with the Russian language as Ukrainian society modernized. Industrialization resulted in workers migrating from Central Russia to Ukrainian cities and the urbanization of the Ukrainian peasantry. Russian civil and military administration, together with cultural, business, religious and educational institutions, soon became forces of linguistic Russification.[1] Ukrainian peasants moving to the cities regarded Russian as being more urban and prestigious than their own language. However, because their schooling in the Russian language was inadequate, most Ukrainian peasants who strove to speak it ended up blending it with their native Ukrainian; this was how Surzhyk was born.[4]

The speaking of pure Ukrainian (i.e. a language without elements of Russian), was for the most part avoided by the urban intelligentsia, because the Ukrainian language was associated with provincialism and nationalism.[4] At this point, the majority of Ukrainians found it easy to become competent in Russian. The association of the Ukrainian language with a rural lifestyle or narrow-minded nationalism encouraged more Ukrainians to adopt Russian as their language of choice.[3] Such decisions led to an increased prevalence of Surzhyk in everyday speech and the further dilution of the Ukrainian language.

In 1721, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great prohibited the publication of books in Ukraine, except for Russian-language religious works, and decreed that Ukrainian books and records were to be burned. In 1786, it was decreed that services in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were to be conducted using only the Russian pronunciation of Old Church Slavonic, and not the Ukrainian pronunciation. Decrees in 1863, 1876, and 1881 prohibited the publication and importation of Ukrainian books, as well as the public use of the Ukrainian language in general. The Russian regime of the day viewed the use of Ukrainian as evidence of political opposition and harshly suppressed it.[4]

The use of the Ukrainian language in theatre and music was also banned, and it had to be translated into other languages. Education in the Ukrainian language also suffered similarly, with ethnically Ukrainian teachers being replaced with ethnic Russians. In the early 20th century, children were punished for speaking Ukrainian to one another in school, and people sometimes lost their jobs for speaking it.[4]

The Kingdom of Hungary's rule in western Ukraine in the late 18th and 19th centuries was also linguistically oppressive. For example, in Zakarpattia, Hungarian was the only language permitted by the regime, so Ukrainian was excluded from institutions like schools.[4] Even so, language policies here were not as restrictive as those applied in eastern Ukraine by the Tsarist regime of Russia.

Soviet era

Main article: Russification of Ukraine § Soviet period

In the 1920s, after Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language saw a revival under the Soviet policy of korenizatsiya (nativisation), which supported the development of non-Russian languages. The purpose was to gain the support of those ethnic groups that had been oppressed by the Tsarist regime. Soviet government business in Ukraine was conducted in the Ukrainian language, with the aim of integrating the Ukrainian people into the new Soviet system.[5] This Ukrainianisation brought with it a significant advance in the development, standardisation, and codification of the Ukrainian language. Accompanying it was an increase in the number of Ukrainian-language publications, as well as theatre productions and schools in which Ukrainian was used.[4]

From the 1930s onwards, the Russian language exerted significant influence on Ukrainian, and the regime of Joseph Stalin began to actively suppress the Ukrainian language[citation needed], but it remained overwhelmingly the main language of education. Along with many of the other languages spoken in the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was viewed as a challenge to centralised power and the linguistic unification of the Soviet people. Terminology and wording similar or identical to Russian were emphasized in dictionaries, grammar books, and the official guidance issued to editors and publishers. This resulted in a generally more Russianised Ukrainian than had existed prior to the Soviet Union. After Ukraine became independent, this outcome would eventually generate disagreement regarding the question of what constitutes pure Ukrainian.[4]

Words and other Ukrainian-language speech forms that are similar to those of Russian were emphasised. In addition, many Russian words or terms replaced their Ukrainian equivalents and were then modified by Ukrainian grammar and phonetics. The following table contains a few examples of how the Ukrainian language was changed during the Soviet era.[4][6]

Pre-Soviet forms Late Soviet forms Standard Russian English translation
Відтак, відтоді
(Vidtak, vidtodi)
З тих пір
(Z tykh pir)
С тех пор
(S tyekh por)
Since then

Members of the cultural elite who promoted local languages were later purged from positions of authority during the reign of Stalin, as part of an effort to strengthen the cohesion of the Soviet Union and promote Russian as the official language of the Soviet Union.[4]

False friends

Between Russian and Ukrainian languages there are many words known as interpreter's false friends.

Ukrainian Semantics in English Russian Semantics in English
kind, good ласковый
Tender, gentle
dwelling господа
gentlemen, sirs
красна площа
(krasna ploshcha)
beautiful square красная площадь
(krasnaya ploshchad)
red square
infant детина
enormous person (stalwart lad)
time час
man, male person человек
person, human
pumpkin арбуз
tie кроватка
duck качка
rocking motion
peace (only) мир
the world; peace
the world свет
light (also 'the world', chiefly in set expressions)
useful корыстный

Independence in the modern era

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Ukraine as a sovereign state, the Ukrainian language became a key issue in the nation's politics. Ukrainian became Ukraine's sole official language, and therefore the ability to master it in speech became an important skill for politicians and other prominent figures. Many such individuals were speakers of Russian who began to use Ukrainian, but because they had not perfected it another form of Surzhyk emerged which clearly showed the effect of Russification on the Ukrainian language.[1][4]

Additionally, many Protestants who emigrated to the United States as refugees early in Ukraine’s independence still use antiquated forms of Surzhyk from their respective regions, having missed the language revitalization occurring since Ukraine gained independence. As a result of this migration in the 1990s, Ukrainian protestants in the US tend to use Surzhyk more heavily than speakers in Ukraine, and occasionally note difficulty understanding Ukrainian vocabulary that they were not exposed to during the Soviet era.

Linguists began to engage in debates over the 'correct' way to speak Ukrainian, because the Soviet language policies had had a profound effect on the Ukrainian language. On the one hand, some linguists argue that Ukrainian should only use the forms that existed prior to the Soviet Union, while others argue that the current forms, which emerged from the Soviet language policy, are more up-to-date and more familiar to the Ukrainians of today, and would therefore be better at meeting contemporary needs.[1][4]

Ethnopolitical issues

In Soviet times, the usage of Ukrainian gradually decreased, particularly during those times when the Russification policies intensified (i.e. in the 1930s and during the late 1970s to early 1980s), and so a sizable portion of ethnic Ukrainians possess a better knowledge of formal Russian than of formal Ukrainian. Since 1991, however, Ukrainian has been the sole official language. After this change, it was realised that much of the population of Ukraine was actually unable to speak Ukrainian fluently. This was highly apparent in the case of many Ukrainian officials (including the President of Ukraine), who were observed to make code-mixing mistakes in their speech.[3]

The prevalence of Surzhyk is greatest in the countryside. In the cities, people tend to speak more standard forms of Ukrainian or Russian. This contrasts with the more rural inhabitants, who lack the prestige associated with the educational and technological advantages that people in the cities have. However, in spite of the differences that exist between the rural and urban varieties of the spoken language, many visitors find that they have trouble communicating with the local population of Ukraine when they follow guidebooks published abroad. This is because these books tend to focus on either pure Russian or pure Ukrainian and disregard the hybrid form.[3]

The speaking of Surzhyk instead of Russian or Ukrainian is viewed negatively by nationalist language activists. Because it is neither one nor the other, they regard Surzhyk as a threat to the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture.[1]


Nikolai Gogol used the language extensively in his short story collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Surzhyk has been an object of parody in Ukrainian literature since the very emergence of the Ukrainian literary language. For example, in the 1798 poem Eneyida, written by Ivan Kotlyarevsky and based on the Latin poem Aeneid, for satirical purposes the character "Filozop" speaks Surzhyk while standing over the dead Pallas.[7]

In popular culture

Surzhyk is often also used for comic effect in the arts. Examples include the short plays of Les Poderviansky, and the repertoire of the pop star Verka Serdyuchka. The punk-rock group Braty Hadyukiny (literally “viper's brothers”) sings many of its songs in Surzhyk, often to underscore the rural simplicity of its songs' protagonists.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e "Surzhyk and national identity in Ukrainian nationalist language ideology (Niklas Bernsand in Berliner Osteuropa-Info, Vol. 17 page 41, Freie Universität, Berlin)" (PDF).
  2. ^ a b Київський міжнародний інститут соціології
  3. ^ a b c d Podolyan Ilona E. “How Do Ukrainians Communicate? Observations Based upon Youth Population of Kyiv”. Kyiv National Linguistic University, Ukraine. p. 2-4
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bilaniuk Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.
  5. ^ Pauly, Matthew D. Teaching place, assembling the nation: local studies in Soviet Ukrainian schools during the 1920s. History of Education Vol. 39 No. 1. (2010) 75-93
  6. ^ Karavans'kyi, Sviatoslav. Sektrey Ukrayins'koyi Movy. Kyiv: Kobza, 1994.
  7. ^ Масенко, Лариса. Суржик: між Мовою і Язиком. Києво-Могилянська Академія, 2011.