Ukrainian Literature and Language

Citation metadata

Editor: Jonathan Dewald
Date: 2004
Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 93


UKRAINIAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. The history of a literary language in Ukraine begins with the Christianization of Kievan Rus' about 988 and the adoption of the Church Slavonic language for use in liturgy and literature (chronicles, saints' lives, sermons). The Mongol Tatar destruction of Kiev in 1240 and the fourteenth-century partition of Ukrainian lands, chiefly among Lithuania and Poland, had profound effects on the development of languages and literatures in the area. In 1433 the Polish king Władysław II Jagiełło introduced Polish usage in Galician chanceries (at first Latin, then Latin and Polish) for court records and documents of state. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, on the other hand (which included what would become the Kiev Palatinate at this point), Ruthenian (ruskii) was employed in the chancery. Although the language came to have Belarusian features at its base, it tolerated Ukrainian dialect features as well and could serve as the "vulgar tongue" (prostyi iazyk, prostaia mova) for a "Ruthenian nation" that had not yet differentiated into Ukrainians and Belarusians.

After the "silence" of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Ukrainian intellectuals helped to mount a Ruthenian revival. These activities came in reaction to the confessional and cultural challenges posed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among other things, the then Calvinist (and future Antitrinitarian) minister Szymon Budny had published a Ruthenian catechism at Niasvizh (Nieśwież) in 1562. The architect of the Union of Brest, the Polish Jesuit Piotr Skarga, had asserted in 1577 that only Greek and Latin could function as languages of learning and religion, because only they possessed grammars and lexicons and thus "are always the same and never change." Responses came from centers in Ostrih (the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy) as well as Lviv, Vilnius, and Kiev, where brotherhoods, schools, and printing presses were employed in the "national" cause.

Ruthenian scholars sought to answer Skarga's challenge by writing grammars and dictionaries of Church Slavonic, in which they wished to see a Ruthenian Latin. First attempts to produce a grammar (Adelphotïs, a Greek grammar with facing Slavonic translation, 1591; Lavrentii Zyzanii's Slavonic Grammar, 1596) culminated in Meletii Smotrytskyi's Collection of Rules of Slavonic Grammar (1618–1619), which served as the norm throughout the Orthodox Slavic world until the early nineteenth century. Pamvo Berynda (1627), Iepyfanii Slavynetskyi (1642), and Slavynetskyi together with Arsenii Koretskyi (1649) would offer lexicons and dictionaries.

Editions of Holy Scripture and liturgical books were a part of the revival. The Peresopnytsia Gospel (1556–1561), a sort of Slavonic-Ruthenian hybrid, remained in manuscript form. A Church Slavonic apostol (Acts and Epistles) was printed at Lviv in 1574, and a Bible, the first complete printing in the language, at Ostrih in 1580–1581. Metropolitan Peter Mohyla directed a project of correction and edition of Church Slavonic liturgical books in the 1630s and 1640s.

With the growth of Catholic and Protestant confessional propaganda and devotional literature (in both Polish and Ruthenian) came attempts to establish Ruthenian as a "national" vulgar tongue. Borrowing the argumentation of Protestant and Catholic discussions on the licitness and range of uses for popular languages, Meletii Smotrytskyi motivated his decision in 1616 to offer a Ruthenian translation of the old Slavonic Homiliary Gospel (a collection of sermons he hoped would stand in as an Orthodox postil) with the argument that, although he would rather use "the more noble, beautiful, concise, subtle and rich Slavonic language," he had Page 94  |  Top of Article listened to St. Paul and offered the work now in the "baser and more vulgar tongue," since "it is a more useful thing to speak five words in an intelligible tongue, than ten thousand in an unknown tongue (especially for the instruction of the people)" (1 Cor. 14:19). Although a certain number of works related to confession and devotion continued to appear in Ruthenian, Polish soon dominated in these areas of Ruthenian letters. The effects of the increasing Polonization that followed the Union of Lublin (1569) can be seen clearly in the history of the polemic leading up to and following the Union of Brest (1596). In the early stages, Orthodox, Uniates, and Catholics often employed Ruthenian in their tracts, sometimes issuing parallel Polish versions. By 1597 the Orthodox side had issued a first polemical treatise in Polish, and after 1628 all sides used Polish exclusively.

Thus by the early seventeenth century Ukrainians were using three literary languages: Church Slavonic in its new Meletian codification, Polish, and Ruthenian. Ruthenian usage began to accept more and more recognizably Ukrainian features; at the same time, Ruthenian texts came to look more and more like Polish written with Cyrillic letters. The program of Smotrytskyi and others had been to set Church Slavonic on a level with Latin as the language of Ruthenian culture, education, and high literature (including poetry), and to set Ruthenian next to Polish as a "vulgar tongue" with a wide range of usage in literature and private devotion. The program reached far beyond practice. Nonetheless, literature in Ruthenian experienced a modest flourishing in the seventeenth century. The archimandrite of the Kiev Caves Monastery Zahariia Kopystenskyi produced a monumental statement of the Orthodox position on the confessional debates in his Palinodia of 1620–1624, which, however, remained in manuscript until 1894. Monk Ivan Vyshenskyi used Ruthenian in the polemical tracts and epistles he sent to Rus' from Mt. Athos. The churchmen Leontii Karpovych, Meletii Smotrytskyi, Kyrylo Trankvilion-Stavrovetskyi, Ioannikii Haliatovskyi, Antonii Radyvylovskyi, Lazar Baranovych, Dmytro Tuptalo, and Stefan Javorskyi published Ruthenian sermons, individually and in large collections. Among exemplars of Ruthenian baroque poetry we may note Kasiian Sakovych's Verses on the Sorrowful Funeral of the Noble Knight, Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachnyi, Hetman of the Zaporozhian Army of His Royal Grace (1622), as well as the many encomiastic poems with which Ruthenian churchmen and scholars prefaced their works. Among Cossack histories, the Eyewitness Chronicle (late seventeenth century) and the works of Hryhorij Hrabjanka (after 1709) and Samiilo Velychko (c. 1720) deserve mention. Ruthenian was also used in school dramas and intermedia. Still, it is important to note that Polish continued to function as a literary language for Ruthenians, even for the Orthodox: it was in this language that Mohyla printed Sylvester Kosiv's version of the lives of the Kievan Caves Fathers (1635) and Afanasii Kolnofoiskyi's collection of miracles connected with the Caves Monastery (1638).

Ukrainian Ruthenian was employed in the chancery of the Cossack Hetmanate, but its use declined in all areas with the now increasing Russianization of left-bank Ukraine and the continuing Polonization of the right bank. With Hetman Ivan Mazepa's defeat at Poltava in 1709, the Hetmanate became more and more a Russian province. In 1720 Tsar Peter I banned printing of church books in Ukraine. In 1723 the Cossack state lost the right to choose hetmans. In 1775 the Zaporozhian Sich was liquidated; in 1783 serfdom was introduced; and in 1785 the Cossack starshyna was incorporated into the Russian nobility. Church Slavonic was eventually replaced (except for liturgical uses) by the Slaveno-Russian that Ukrainian philologists helped to create. The Ruthenian vulgar tongue continued to find some use in Ukrainian administration until about 1780, during the reign of Catherine the Great; from that point the language would be relegated to mostly private use, allowed, with the advent of classicism's theory of the three styles, to function only in the "lowest" genres of belles lettres.


Primary Source

Rothe, Hans, ed. Die älteste ostslawische Kunstdichtung, 1575–1647. Bausteine zur Geschichte der Literatur bei den Slawen, vol. 7. Giessen, Germany, 1976–1977.

Page 95  |  Top of Article

Secondary Sources

Čyževsk'yj, Dmytro. A History of Ukrainian Literature. Translated by Dolly Ferguson, Doreen Gorsline, and Ulana Petyk. Littleton, Colo., 1975.

Martel, Antoine. La langue polonaise dans les pays Ruthènes: Ukraine et Russie Blanche, 1569–1657. Lille, France, 1938.

Voznjak, Mykhalo. Geschichte der ukrainischen Literatur. Translated by Katharina Horbatsch. Bausteine zur Geschichte der Literatur bei den Slawen, vol. 4. Giessen, Germany, 1975.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3404901146