Poland Bullish On Ukrainian…. Ukrainians Not So Sure

An interesting thing regarding the ongoing migration non-crisis of Ukrainians coming to Poland to work is language. I live in the large city probably the least affected by Ukrainian migration and within a year it went from where a person might overhear a conversation in Russian or Ukrainian (or a mix thereof) once or twice a week and then at least once a day and now it’s impossible to walk for ten minutes without hearing people speaking Russian or Ukrainian.

Recently coming home on a streetcar with a little screen showing announcements and ads there was an ad recruiting workers to work for a company producing fish products (mainly herring). This isn’t unusual as large companies began recruiting campaigns a couple of years ago (there is functionally no real unemployment in large Polish cities at present). What was odd was that it was in Ukrainian. I got off the streetcar to change and there the ad was again. I’ve since seen the poser in Polish as well but it appears more commonly in Ukrainian.

Would you buy a used herring from this man?

This is typical as pretty much all the ads I’ve seen advertising work for Ukrainians have been in Ukrainian and never in Russian. I also recently saw that an automatic touch screen ticket machine next to the bus-train station where many arrive in town has added Ukrainian as a language option (alongside Polish, English and German).

This would all seem normal were it not for the fact that I hardly ever hear Ukrainian anymore on the street and I do hear more and more Russian. But still the signs I see going up to accomodate Ukrainians are invariably in Ukrainian.

Things might be different in Warsaw which has had a Russian speaking minority since the 1990s and where Russian has long been integrated into some multi-lingual signage. But where I am, the assumption reigns that the best way to reach Ukrainians is in Ukrainian.

This comes from a probable cultural misunderstanding. The Polish language is the single biggest anchor around which Polish identity is built (far more important than Catholicism or anti-German or Russian feelings) and is absolutely key to functioning and integrating in Poland. Polish people probably assume that Ukrainians do (or should) feel the same about ‘their’ language but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

It’s may be a bit more like written Nynorsk in Norway – maintained vigorously by a committed minority but largely regarded as a nuissance by the majority who are happy with a written language that is essentially Norwegianized Danish.

There is also the fact that for years Poland has heavily invested in promoting both Ukrainian and Belarussian (despite Belarussians being even more lukewarm toward ‘their’ language than Ukrainians). Polish radio has maintained broadcasts in those languages even after cutting back on others. This again is probably both projection and the idea that helping (even a tiny bit) to resist the hegemony of the Russian language will also help weaken Russian political influence.

There’s also a possibility that Ukrainians use Russian to speak to each other in Poland because spoken Ukrainian is partly mutually intelligible with Polish and if they have in interest in not being understood that’s easier to do in Russian (since knowledge of Russian is extremely limited among the population under 60 or so).

There’s no way to tell how much longer Ukrainian migration will continue to Poland or what the long term effects on language will be either way, but the current cognitive dissonance is intriguing.


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2 Responses to Poland Bullish On Ukrainian…. Ukrainians Not So Sure

  1. Pingback: Ukrainians in Poland – Clarissa's Blog

  2. Olena Hart says:

    “Polish people probably assume that Ukrainians do (or should) feel the same about ‘their’ language but that doesn’t seem to be the case”

    Well, you are wrong. Are you aware of the war happening right now between Russia supporting pseudo-republics in the Eastern Ukraine and Ukraine? Majority of Ukrainians are now switching from Russian to Ukrainian in their everyday life. Even though previously they used to communicate in Russian. Believe it or not, but Ukrainians do care about preserving the Ukrainian language. Unfortunately, decades of Russiafication of my country did it no good. But, on the other hand, I am bilingual by birth and it helps me to get more work here in the USA as I cover both: Ukrainian and Russian interpretation/translation. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing in Ukrainian for Ukrainian speaking people on the web platform UAmodna.com. And I do see the raising number of high-quality mass media working in Ukrainian rather than Russian. And it makes me proud of being a Ukrainian who is a true patriot and makes sure her children know their language as well, even if they speak it with an American accent.

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