The Ukrainians In Poland Arguing That The Way Poles Refer To Ukraine Needs To Change
18 January, 2020

“For me, it was to make a performance – to say: 'Hey, we are here!'” smiles Yulia Krivich, a Ukrainian photographer living in Poland, who has recently been protesting for changes to the Polish language.

Pictured at the start of December last year standing in one of the fountains in Warsaw’s city center, vivaciously waving a giant flag emblazoned with the words ‘W UKRAINIE’, Krivich’s protest about the way Poles say the phrase ‘in Ukraine’ has rapidly gone viral. She argues that the preposition should be altered from the current ‘na Ukrainie’ to ‘w Ukrainie’ – historically, the use of the word ‘na’ has referred to a province or island, rather than an independent state. The term ‘w’ is already used to refer to other countries, like France, though ‘na’ is used for Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus.

Krivich, who has lived in Poland for nine years, said she became aware of the linguistic discrepancy as soon as she began to learn the language:

“I realized it at the very beginning, but I was someone who learnt this language and I didn’t have the bravery to say it,” she explains. When she began to improve her fluency, Krivich realized the language change could become a springboard for a wider discussion on contemporary Ukrainian-Polish relations and geopolitics.

“My statement was not against Polish people, and it was not against the Polish language,” she emphasizes. “It was not about only language, but the Ukrainian minority in Poland.”

In recent years, Poland has experienced a surge in the number of Ukrainians immigrating to the country, seeking brighter job opportunities and more stable living conditions. Tensions with their western neighbors, however, have been running high – with recent cases of abusive behavior and negligence towards Ukrainian immigrant workers. Though opinions are mixed on whether Ukrainian immigrants have been fully accepted in Poland, Krivich feels both the Polish government and Ukrainian government are not doing enough to strengthen the ties between the neighboring countries.

“There’s a very complicated relationship between Poland and Ukraine right now. I was very worried – and still worrying about it – that my campaign could make a bad impact in their relationship,” said Krivich.

Krivich is not the first to suggest the language should change: on the Polish Dictionary webpage, Mirosław Bańko noted that the use of ‘w Ukrainie’ has increased after 1991, but the switch is yet to become widespread. Ukrainians like Krivich argue the use of ‘na’ implies Ukraine is a property, or subordinate – whereas many Poles suggest this is simply traditional. Some Poles, however, like language expert Professor Jan Miodek writing in Gazeta Lubuska, also argue that ‘na’ instead indicates “familiarity and closeness”.

“What is interesting that [the Polish view] is such an opposite and conflicting perspective from a Ukrainian one,” observes Polish language teacher Edyta Nowosielska.

“It’s clearly down to a lack of communication between our nations – otherwise how would this have lasted for so long?” added Nowosielska.

Nowosielska, who teaches Polish at the University of Cambridge and at Polword Polish Language School, feels Krivich’s protest marks the start of a productive debate on the phrase in Poland.

“I have never realized that it actually had been a problem to our neighbors and I’m very happy to switch my prepositions!,” she says. "I had never felt any sense of subordination in a use of ‘na’ as the knowledge of thinking of Ukraine as an area rather than a country has been gone for a long time.”

One of her students, Anya Yablonska, a Ukrainian-Canadian, also supports Krivich’s work.

“The Ukrainian and Polish languages are very similar, so it is very noticeable for Ukrainians. Polish people have largely been friends of Ukraine and hearing something that you perceive to be offensive from your friend is upsetting,” commented Yablonska.

But she also notes that progress is adopting a different preposition is slow-going.

“I understand that Polish language, unlike English, does not necessarily accept and allow evolution, hence the pushback the initiative is receiving internally in Poland,” Yablonska said. 

The debate has also ignited online in recent weeks: on January 4, the woman’s magazine Wysokie Obcasy, a supplement to liberal Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, ran a front-page story on Justyna Mielnikiewicz, whose photography exhibition, ‘W Ukrainie’, documents the changes experienced by everyday people in contemporary Ukraine. But the extent of antipathy towards using the phrase ‘w Ukrainie’ became clear with the magazine’s decision to feature the title of the exhibition on its front page: criticism raged on social media at what was seen as an attempt to reform the Polish language.

“There are more important things to discuss right now in Poland – it’s not about discrimination against Ukrainians, it’s traditional,” says Krivich. “But what is traditional? Language is like an organism, it’s alive.”

Igor Isajew, a Ukrainian journalist working in Poland, agrees that the dispute is not merely one of language, but rather about what he sees as the stereotyping of Ukrainians in Poland: "We need to talk not about [the Polish] reaction but about the fact that in many aspects of the functioning of Polish society exists a negative image of the Ukrainian immigrant.”

He has spoken Polish for over a dozen years, remembering that his teachers at the University of Warsaw in the 2000s used ‘w Ukrainie’ for political reasons – even back then, he recalls, the use of the term was met with a certain level of criticism from some Poles. However, he notes that the term is now being adopted more often in the mainstream.

And Krivich feels the debate is also down to an increased effort by Ukrainians to build their national identity, saying it has similarities to the #KyivnotKiev campaign, and efforts to encourage more people to use the name ‘Ukraine’ instead of ‘the Ukraine’.

“Since Ukraine was in a war with Russia, the Ukrainians started to fight for their rights – not just with Russia, but also abroad,” she explains. “For me, not just the language is important here – but through the language, to start a discussion.”

/By Juliette Bretan