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In Ukraine, “Every village has its own words” (Кожне сільце має своє слівце), an old proverb says. Anyone who ever visited Ukrainian villages in the times past would get enchanted with the nectareous fragrance of the local dialects. Those dialects nourished the base of the standard Ukrainian language because it has always been the people’s language rather than some artificial and academic construct. Those dialects constitute the authentic and pure Ukrainian language.
But time does not always treat the most precious things kindly. This pure Ukrainian language now mainly lives in the oldest generation of Ukrainian villagers, the 70- and 80-year-olds. In my ancestral Hetmanshchyna, the Poltava-Kaniv dialect, which everybody knows from Kotliarevskyy’s Eneida, Shevchenko’s Kobzar, and Nechuy-Levytskyy’s Kaidasheva Simya, blossomed on every corner, in every village store and on every Ukrainian oven (піч, which Ukrainians used to sleep on) in every clay hut and brick house. This was the case just 25 years ago.
Now, the youngest crop of the father of the Ukrainian language’s descendants has lost many nuances of Taras’s pronunciation and lexicon. The beautiful and probably the world’s-softest Poltava L consonant has all but disappeared – you will be lucky if you hear it in the region which gave the world this linguistic gemstone. When something like this dies anywhere in the world, a part of the Universe dies with it.
The same is happening to all Ukrainian dialects – their richness is being increasingly depleted. The linguistic atrocities perpetrated by the Facebook, Telegram, and Tik-Tok contact vernaculars are adding to the long-term harm done by the Ukrainian-Russian surzhyk.
Unfortunately, the same is also happening to the authentic Ukrainian folk culture. Ukrainian folk songs, dances, and music have been among the most resilient globally. Unlike in many other European countries, one could readily hear traditional Ukrainian songs on a village street in the 1990s. Not anymore, in most cases.
Not all is lost, however. This generation, which carries the authentic Ukrainian language and culture, is still alive.
But we need to hurry. Urgent efforts should be made to ensure the transfer of this linguistic and cultural heritage from the older generations to the younger generations. This oldest generation of Ukrainians has never had it easy. In their early years, they saw the big war and its aftermath; in the past several decades, their life expectancy has been deteriorating; and now they are living through the big war once again.
The Ukrainian youth still live in this linguistic and cultural environment, they still hear the pure Ukrainian language from their grannies, they’ve been brought up on the age-old lullabies. They just need to be encouraged to return to their roots, to study and accept the richness of their culture, and to make efforts to carry all those treasures into the future. And a little financial motivation to do that will not hurt. In fact, it would be a novel and noteworthy approach to cultural and linguistic preservation, at least in Ukraine.
In 2021, the team of Canada- and Ukraine-based language and folklore enthusiasts turned to the Temerty Foundation with a project that would motivate Ukrainian youth to replicate their grannies’ language and culture. The project launched in late 2021, through the assistance of Canada-Ukraine Foundation. We aimed to obtain 100 videos from young Ukrainians where they would replicate the old people’s language, songs or folk music in the fullest detail. It was uncharted territory, we did not know what the response would be but the urgency of the problem encouraged the team and the sponsors to act.
The work done up until the start of the Russian onslaught, February 24, 2022, and even during the war showed that there is an encouraging number of folklorists and youth on the ground in different regions of Ukraine who support the idea of preserving the authentic dialects and cultures in their entirety.
There are several prominent examples:
• The team of folklore students at the Kyiv University of Culture (with Anna Khrystenko as the most notable example) and their professor Anna Tkach who knows different dialects and singing traditions in the tiniest detail. Anna Khrystenko is a folklore enthusiast with plentiful recordings of authentic local songs on her YouTube channel. She is aware of the problem that the local youth’s language is contaminated (surzhyk) and has departed from the authentic standard that was prevalent in the area 20-25 years ago. She recorded a video that we put on the project’s starting page as the example of replication of the regional dialect and singing tradition for the project’s participants:
• The folklore team Perlynka in the Khmelnytsky oblast led by Maja Saipel. The Perlynka participants recorded several videos which beautifully replicate the dialect and singing traditions of the southern Polissia region in detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRB7vbH_r8g&list=PLHAGqUAQ9LYwaH0j2FuO_rwhwnopzATKK&index=88 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqYCIu8J9hY&list=PLHAGqUAQ9LYwaH0j2FuO_rwhwnopzATKK&index=91
• The Verbychenka children’s folklore group in Nova Vodolaha in the Kharkiv oblast. Polina Votintseva (member of the Verbychenka) sang her local Cossack song in the bomb shelter during the first stage of the war. She replicated her beautiful Slobozhanskyj dialect and singing tradition carefully: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywx0sAhu0jY
• The Drohobych musical school’s folklore group with the Khreshchaetsia Vladyka: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IffzI683IOo&t=10s
• The Kalyniata folklore group from Helmiaziv, Cherkasy oblast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7mpjbC6HMM&list=PLHAGqUAQ9LYwaH0j2FuO_rwhwnopzATKK&index=12
To support and encourage young folklorists in the time of war, the project’s organizers strived to make as many payments as possible. The project’s manager, Ruslana Lotsman of the Kyiv-based The Folk Philharmonic, did a great job and made 123 payments of UAH 2,500 to the participants. The videos are now on the project’s website: https://savelanguageandculture.org/videos/
But the challenge to preserve and rekindle the authentic Ukrainian language and culture in the Ukrainian youth masses is now tougher than ever. Many Ukrainian children have left their ancestral places and have been separated from their grannies. Many villages and towns, which gave the world some beautiful Ukrainian dialects and unique songs, now lie in ruins. Such Ukrainian dialectical regions as Slobozhanshchyna, Polissia, and Donbas have been hit particularly badly. It is up to us to save all that Ukrainian heritage, for us, Ukrainians, and for the world.