Since 2019, a team of Austrian and German researchers has been investigating the history of “Surzhyk” in the – meanwhile embattled – regions of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson. Surzhyk is a mixed code of Russian and Ukranian spoken by many Ukrainians in everyday life. © BBC, Institute for the Study of War

Anyone who painted with watercolours as a child is familiar with the almost endless possibilities that the blending of colours offers. If you don't like the standard green in the paint box, you can mix your own shade of green from yellow and blue. The paint box is also the example used by Tilmann Reuther of the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt in talking about his research. The only difference is that the Slavist is not dealing with colours, but with “Surzhyk” – a mixed language based on Ukrainian and Russian, which is used by a large number of the inhabitants of Ukraine in their daily, oral communications. Since 2019 Reuther has been investigating “Ukrainian-Russian and Russian-Ukrainian code-mixing” in cooperation with the German University of Oldenburg in a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the German DFG.

Modern-day Russian and Ukrainian emerged in the middle of the 19th century. While the two Slavic languages are almost identical in terms of grammar, there are significant differences in other respects. Ukrainian is closer to Polish, with many loanwords that are missing in Russian. Speakers of one language will not readily comprehend the other – this takes practice.

Industrialisation brings adaptation to Russian

The fact that it is a mixed language does not mean that Russian and Ukrainian speakers will switch to Surzhyk in order to be able to communicate with each other. “Surzhyk is an oral language form and its use is determined by the communicative situation,” says Reuther. “A resident from the Odessa area, for instance, who speaks Surzhyk in everyday life, will try to use a cultured Ukrainian or Russian at official appointments in the city.” Russian, Ukrainian and oral Surzhyk are three different linguistic codes. Many Ukrainians (around ten million according to estimates) can speak at least two of these codes well and switch between them.

Surzhyk emerged as a necessity during industrialisation. In the 19th century, urban structures emerged in many formerly agrarian areas in central Ukraine where workers from the surrounding villages met immigrant Russian speakers. The Ukrainians had to adapt, at least to some extent, to the Russian-speaking professionals. This is how “Old Surzhyk” developed, a mixed language incorporating a larger proportion of Ukrainian. “A previous project described this Old Surzhyk for the central Ukrainian region,” says Reuther. “We are now concentrating on a territory in three regions on the Black Sea coast that we assume was initially quite strongly dominated by Russian.”

High share in southern Ukraine

Until the end of the 18th century, this area in southern Ukraine was a part of the Ottoman Empire. When it fell to the Tsarist Empire, it was repopulated within 30 years - by Ukrainians, Russians, but also Greeks or Bulgarians. The dominant language was Russian. But many Ukrainian-speaking people also migrated to the new lands because the inhabitants enjoyed greater freedom there even before the abolition of serfdom (which only happened in 1861).

“Potentially, the proportion of people speaking a mixed language will be higher in this region than in central Ukraine,” says Reuther. But the researchers' thesis goes even further. They assume that a “neo-Surzhyk” has emerged: a different variant of the mixed language with a higher proportion of Russian vocabulary. “For every region we ask ourselves whether the basis for this mix is more Ukrainian or more Russian,” says Reuther. “This question, or so goes our hypothesis, can be answered differently for different regions of Ukraine depending on their demographic situation.”

Students enable continuation of data collections

The data part of the project was designed in close coordination with a project completed in Central Ukraine by the partner university in Oldenburg. The research team now working on the project wanted to collect comparable data in a second region. This was the planned schedule: sociologists in Ukraine were to conduct 1,200 questionnaire interviews in the region, to be followed by in-depth interviews with 120 people who had indicated in the questionnaire that they used Surzhyk in everyday life. The innovative element was that the data was then to be subjected to a content analysis in the part handled by the Klagenfurt team in order to find possible correlations between linguistic biography and the language used.

The team was able to complete the first task by February 2020. When the pandemic began, however, it quickly became obvious that the partner company in Ukraine would not be able to conduct the in-depth interviews. Rescue arrived in the form of a support from students of journalism in Odessa, who stepped in under the guidance of their professor. As of April 2022, the empirical data collection and transcription of the interviews are complete. “We have run up a delay of about three quarters of a year,” says Reuther. The application for a cost-effective extension of the project is in preparation.

Evidence for Russian-based everyday language

Given that the analysis of the data has been ongoing, there are already a few tentative indications of where to dig deeper. “It seems that there is indeed a Russian-based Surzhyk,” says Reuther. In the content analysis his team has so far focused on people who moved to Odessa for their studies from their Surzhyk-speaking place of origin. So these young people know all three varieties: they learned Ukrainian at school, spoke Surzhyk in everyday life and now communicate in Russian in Odessa, which is the predominant language there. It is striking that essentially two of these three codes are practised, in whatever combination. Some even discard learned codes in their everyday life because they no longer need them. “With language, it really does depend on the social context,” Reuther explains. Not every code is suitable for every situation. “It's a bit like a paint box: I have to choose which colour is right for the present moment.”

Personal details

Tilmann Reuther studied Slavic languages in Vienna, Klagenfurt and the former Soviet Union. He is a specialist in lexicology, code-mixing and comparative linguistics. Reuther spent numerous research spells in Russia and overseas (Canada). From 2005 until his retirement in 2018, he held a position as associate professor at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt. The international project "Ukrainian-Russian and Russian-Ukrainian Code Mixing", funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with EUR 309,000, will run until April 2023.

More information about the project

Gerd Hentschel, Tilmann Reuther: Ukrainisch-russisches und russisch-ukrainisches Code-Mixing. Untersuchungen in drei Regionen im Süden der Ukraine. Ein dreijähriges Forschungsprojekt im Rahmen des D-A-CH-Programms von FWF und DFG, in: Colloquium: New Philologies Vol. 5, 2020