• Official language: Ukrainian
  • Unofficial languages: Russian, Surzhyk

In Ukraine, the language of football consists of phrases from Russian, Ukrainian and heady blend of both known as “surzhyk” (pronounced “sUr-jeek”, and literally meaning flour or bread made from mixed grains).

Why the mix?

While it has been easy (or perhaps facile) to divide Ukraine neatly between nationalist west and Russian-facing east, with the amount of bilingualism that exists in both areas the same absolutely can’t be said in terms of language.

For the majority of its existence Ukraine was part of the Soviet football system, and a successful part at that. Ukrainian players and coaches sat prominently in the USSR national team, while club sides enjoyed league and cup success.

So the common language in the Ukrainian football community has long been Russian, but players generally also speak Ukrainian, and some favour it as their first choice. Those that do are usually from the more nationalist west of the country.

More about surzhyk

Surzhyk has an interesting backstory: in tsarist times it was the slang of Ukrainian-speaking peasants who learned Russian when they moved to big cities. Under Stalin, certain Ukrainian words were banned for being nationalist and replaced with Russian ones.

Now that Ukrainian is the official language, Russian-speaking officials have occasional difficulty with it, so surzhyk is on hand to help.

What’s Ukrainian like?

Similar to Russian, although not so similar as for it to be a mere dialect, as the Soviet Union once tried to claim. An anecdotal measure of similarity is that the two are about as mutually intelligible as Spanish and Italian.

Ukrainian is much softer-sounding than Russian, and sports additional tenses and some nifty extra sounds, such as the h in hryvnia (the national currency) and the yi in Ukrayina.

Choice phrases

An unforgiving bunch, the Ukranians have plenty of ways of letting you know when you’ve done a blunder. When a player skies the ball high over the bar you can variously say:

  • “He who kicks higher, plays better”: (Xto vyšče b’je, toj krašče hraje – sarcastic Ukranian)
  • “He’s kicking it at the sparrows: (Vdaryv po horobcjax – Ukranian)
  • “He’s hit milk”: Popal v moloko (Russian and, no, us neither)

On more pleasant ground, the inside of the foot is known as the “cheek” (schoka), while the outside is known as the “shveda” or “shvedka” (pronounced shvEh-da or shvEh-d-ka) which literally means “a Swedish girl”. We can only guess that this one is a reference to the curvaceous form of the outside of a foot, perhaps?

And while in English we talk about a player daintily waltzing through the defence as though they aren’t there, in Ukraine you can use your Russian to say “he rode through the defence on a motorcycle” (on ob’ehal zaŝitu oak namotocikle). They’ll presumably kick our sandcastles over while they’re there.

Who speaks what

Russian prevails in the Ukraine squad, while Ukrainian is generally used by footballers from Western Ukraine (Artem Fedetskyy, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk). However, the range of accents are not so diverse or unusual that the players have any communication issues, particularly when they can fall back on surzhyk.

Recently the Kiev-born goalkeeper Denys Boiko, a former Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk player, declared that he has switched from using Russian to Ukrainian within the squad in order to show his patriotism and commitment to Ukraine.

Songs they sing

The Ukranian national anthem – “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet died” (Shche ne vmerly Ukrainy ni slava ni volya) – is popular in the stands, as is Chervona Ruta, a folk song about a mythological luck-bringing, love-bringing flower. If that’s not charged and masculine enough for you, there is a popular chant about the not-always-so-popular Vladimir Putin.  

With thanks to Oleksiy Yatsenko at FutbolIPapirosi.