Linguistic Insights into Ukrainian History

Culture & Science
16 November 2012, 16:04

Professor Tyshchenko of Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University has several dozen languages in his arsenal, including  exotic like Basque, Welsh, Finnish, Persian and others. He does not view his multilingualism as worthy of special note, because it is merely a research tool to him. Tyshchenko is known for several accomplishments, such as a meta-theory of linguistics which one of his colleagues aptly dubbed “the periodic system” for linguistics. He is also the founder of the world’s first and only Linguistic Educational Museum (located in the Red Building of Kyiv University) where he eagerly acquaints students and interested outsiders with the achievements of the modern linguistic science. Finally, Professor Tyshchenko has authored a series of works that trace the influence of other peoples in the language, history and genotype of Ukrainians. He is scheduled to share this knowledge in a series of lectures in the Ye Bookstore in Kyiv. The first such meeting took place on 2 March 2012. He also explained the aspects of his position in detail to The Ukrainian Week.

U.W.: Can linguistics be called an exact science? It seems to operate on facts that can be interpreted in dozens of different ways. When a researcher first interprets a place name as being of Celtic origin and several years later changes his mind and argues for its Iranian roots, doubts naturally arise: How reliable is this knowledge?

You almost cited an entry left by one of the notable visitors to the museum: “I would like to thank the enthusiasts who have demonstrated that linguistics, too, is an exact science.” Considering that it was left by a theoretical physicist, it came as a surprise.

Now, as far as my observations are concerned, they do not come from a superhuman mind. They have been made by an ordinary mortal. Engels once said: “The human truth revealed by the mind, which is said to be all-embracing, is, in fact, perceived from aside as wondering in roundabout ways, following a twisting path, returning to the beginning, missing the right turns and failing to recognize the truth even when we press our nose against it.” Homo sum et nihil humani a me alienum puto. This is why when a researcher delves into a certain problem, there is only one way – ahead – and no turning back. In my case, I had to empirically try different things, i.e., figuratively speaking, make a trip to the Celts and pick up things along the way. All of this was published in a book in 2006. There were clues, and they had to be checked. The logic of research pushed me go further and beyond the Celtic trace only. I have to explore other areas, and now readers have a choice. The best thing to do is to read several versions and either stick to your own opinion, or create some synthetic solution from the findings that would take account of the new data and, at the same time, be consistent with your convictions.

Foundations of Scientific Research, a subject I have taught for many years, includes the following statement: if you find a new fact that contradicts the previous theory, you need to reject that theory and come up with a new one that would include also this fact. In talking to students, I present this in the following way: Do you respect Newton? They do. Copernicus? Yes. Einstein? Him too. The thing is that Einstein negated Newton’s system, and Newton had done the same thing to Copernicus. But eventually each of the previous systems became a special case of a more complicated one.

U.W.: Your research about foreign traces in Ukrainian place names, general vocabulary and folklore are astounding. One case in point is Viy, a character in Gogol’s writings. Viy is found in Ukrainian folklore but also has a counterpart in Irish sagas!

Note that Iranianists saw that Viy was an Iranian name. But I was dumbfounded when I read that passage from a Celtic myth. Moreover, a figure like Balor is also found in Irish and Welsh folklore and also has one as deadly. Do you see what the Ukrainian truth is like? A god from the past, very complete in its form, has an Iranian name but speaks the words taken from Celtic mythology! Moreover, it turns out that Ukraine is halfway between the Celtic and Iranian worlds.

Now, this is one of the ideas put forward by Vyacheslav Ivanov: space is materialised history. Spatial distribution of events, such as dialect varieties, reflects history. It is frozen in dialects.

For example, the [o]-[u]-[i] vowel shift is common to the Ukrainian and Celtic languages. They have examples of it. These are eye-opening facts of mutual influence and mutual conditioning, and science only begins to come close to them. The old straightforward schemes are the achievement of the past century.

U.W.: Basic knowledge of history is considered a necessary part of knowledge for educated people. But another humanitarian science, linguistics, remains the exclusive provenance of professionals even in its elementary postulates, even though linguistic knowledge is crucial to understanding no less important issues. Where does this injustice come from?

Language seems to be such a common way of existence that not everyone is aware of the complicated and historically charged nature of this phenomenon. A French linguist once said: “We are in a language as in our own body. We don’t notice it as we strive for another goal.” Take another comparison: some people simply use money, others collect it and yet others study it as criminalists to find out who printed it and when and whether it is authentic. Language can be used on the consumer level where it is just a means of communication. If a historian looks into it, he will see historical depths, and an ethnographer will see other depths. Moreover, many political circumstances have been linked to language in Ukraine.

U.W.: Just like with history!

True, but history is somehow easier to capture.

U.W.: Can it be that linguistics requires a higher degree of abstraction?

That and also perhaps the possibility of contrast. Here is another thought from Engels: We don’t know our native language until we study some other. If you have several of them at your disposal, it makes you look at the world somewhat differently than if it is your only language. In this case, a person is naively convinced that this one language will do in any circumstances. Such classics as Cyril and Methodius were bilingual. They were not Slavs – their father was Greek! If it had not been for their Greek father, we would have remained in the dark. Or take our classic Taras Shevchenko – he was also bilingual. He wrote his diaries in Russian. Two concordances of Shevchenko’s works were published – one Ukrainian and the other one Russian. (His Russian vocabulary was as rich as that of Pushkin.) Pushkin, a Russian classic, was also bilingual: he wrote letters to his beloved, spoke with the tsar, told jokes in salons and talked to children – all in French. He created in Russian at his leisure.

U.W.: Some of us are also bilingual, and the generation that emerged after 1991 is sometimes even trilingual. Meanwhile, everyday consciousness is wandering not simply from one myth to another, which is more or less normal, but between two misconceptions about Ukraine: it is either “the cradle of three brotherly peoples” or “the Urheimat of all Europeans.”

We are still in that framework. When they say that “it was a historical development,” it really means that someone was developing it for so long that it registered in everyday consciousness. There was a reason why teachers of Russian [in Soviet Ukraine] received a bonus to their salaries for their especially important mission for 30 years until independence. It won’t be easy to shed this burden.

Mykhailo Braichevsky published the work Pokhodzhennia Rusi (The Origin of Rus’) some time ago in which he clearly identified three ancestral Slavic tribes that later evolved into the Ukrainian people: the Polianians, Derevlianians and Siverianians. No one has refuted this study. In other words, the tribes that lived in what is now Ukrainian territory eventually produced contemporary Ukrainians. This can be seen in the Ukrainian dialects, phonetics and at other linguistic levels. This automatically means that the Dregovichs and Radimichs were ancestors of Belarusians and the Krivichs and the Ilmen Slavs of Russians. However, a huge corpus of birch bark documents shows that only the upper stratum – the vicegerent of Kyiv – spoke a language we can understand, while the locals did not. When the first birch bark writings were found, the traditionally minded public was shell-shocked. They tried to present these as the writings of illiterate Novgorod residents while there was a handful of them. When hundreds more were found, those scholars very reluctantly agreed that it was a local dialect. And now there are theses written about it. Academician Andrey Zaliznyak is doing a splendid job in this field. Ukrainian Professor Hryhoriy Pivtorak has shown that the entire Novgorod group of modern dialects is different from the rest. It has a number of features in common with Polish dialects. This is how the dialect base grows.

U.W.: So the “cradle” is not in the picture?

It is not if you did not reject, while still in school, the idea of concurrently existing tribes, i.e., that there were the Krivichs, the Vyatichs (another tribal ancestor of Russians), the Radimichs, the Dregovichs, as well as the Siverians, the Polianians, the Derevlianians and, more to the south, the Tiverians and the Ulichs. … If you acknowledge that all these tribes existed and trust chronicles for this fact, there is no place here for “the cradle theory.”

Incidentally, Russian linguist Oleg Trubachev has a stunning article which he wrote a long time ago. It has an innocent title, “On etymological dictionaries of Slavic languages,” and it analyzes… But let me begin by saying that Alexandr Tikhonov wrote in the preface to his Slovoobrazovatelnyi slovar sovremennogo russkogo yazyka (A Word-Formation Dictionary of Modern Russian) that Russian is a unique language and consists largely of its own words with a mere 10 per cent of loan words. If it were so, it would be a catastrophe for a language. A typical example is Finnish which has five per cent of borrowings. The Finns lament that it is “Europe’s most private language.”

Now, here is what Trubachev says: Max Vasmer’s Etimologicheskiy slovar russkogo yazyka (An Etymological Dictionary of Russian) contains around 11,000 words of which 6,300, or 57 per cent are late borrowings. Moreover, 1,119 words (10 per cent) have unclear origin, so they are certainly not Russian. Together, that makes up two-thirds. Another 3,191 words are common Slavic or Indo-European lexemes. The German Bruder and Schwester are cognates of Russian brat and sestra. Now back to your question about the “cradle.” There are common East Slavic words (in this dictionary) – as few as 72! Thus, While the arm-chair historian says: “Here it is, the friendship of the peoples of Kyivan Rus'”, they share a mere 0.6 per cent of their vocabulary. Finally, the sacramental question: How many uniquely Russian words are there? The answer is 93 out of 11,000. And these are not the “holy of holies.” On the contrary, these words were urgently coined in the 18th century to patch the vocabulary and translate texts from damned Europe. Two examples are kislorod (oxygen) and vodorod (hydrogen) proposed by Mikhail Lomonosov.

Ukrainian patriots are convinced that things are different with Ukrainian. But Trubachev specifically studied the Czech and Polish vocabularies to show that they have the same structure. From more than half and up to two-thirds of their words are borrowings, and just a handful of lexical items are unique to each of these languages. Well, Czech also has words like hudba (music) and divadlo (theater) which were coined to resist German and avoid assimilation. But that was an artificial process.

The same is true of Ukrainian. But in all of this, under all these linguistic currents and interactions, lies our true treasure…


Metateoriia movoznavstva (A Metatheory of Linguistics, 2000)

Arabskyi plast toponimii Ukrainy (An Arab Layer in Ukraine’s Toponymy, 2008)

Etnomovna istoriia pradavnioi Ukrainy (An Ethnic-Linguistic History of Ancient Ukraine, 2008)

Elamski diieslivni osnovy u toponimii Ukrainy (Elamite Verbal Stems in Ukraine’ Toponymy, 2011)

Khalifat i sivera (Caliphate and the Severians, 2011)

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