Russia’s administration likes to argue that there is no Ukraine, that the country doesn’t have an identity. But a new study confirms the opposite: not only does Ukraine have an identity, but this identity is manifesting itself strongly in a linguistic shift.
Against the turbulent backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, researchers have noted a significant linguistic shift on social media, marking a profound change in the way Ukrainians express their identity online. “Apparently the war is causing people to increasingly turn away from the Russian language,” says Daniel Racek, lead author of the team’s study, which has been published in the journal Communications Psychology.
The research delved into over 4.4 million geo-tagged tweets from around 62,712 users on Ukrainian Twitter (now called X) from January 2020 to October 2022.
Language as identity
Russia’s invasion has ravaged many Ukrainian cities. This conflict has led to over 23,000 civilian casualties and the displacement of millions, sparking a global outcry and reshaping the digital conversation within Ukraine. But Ukraine’s resilience has been outstanding, and this also shows online.
In times of crisis, social media’s impact on society has been immense. Ukraine’s case, is no exception. Social media has become a platform for mobilizing aid, disseminating live updates, and reflecting the collective sentiment of a nation under siege.
Here’s the context. Many Ukrainians are bilingual, speaking both Russian and Ukrainian. Around one quarter of the population used both languages regularly — but as the invasion raged on, that started to change.
The study revealed a clear trend: a steady decrease in Russian language tweets and a corresponding rise in Ukrainian language usage, particularly after the Russian invasion. Many were actively shifting from Russian to Ukrainian. The outbreak of the war served as a catalyst for this shift, significantly altering the linguistic fabric of Ukrainian social media.
“We observe a steady shift from the Russian language towards Ukrainian already before the war, which drastically speeds up with its outbreak. We attribute these shifts in large part to users’ behavioural changes. Notably, our analysis shows that more than half of the Russian-tweeting users switch towards Ukrainian with the Russian invasion. We interpret these findings as users’ conscious choice
towards a more Ukrainian (online) identity and self-definition of being Ukrainian,” the researchers write.
A significant change
This shift coincided with the invasion and was widespread. It wasn’t just a subset of users or a part of Ukraine’s social media — there was a major shift for virtually all demographics. These shifts were observed not just in aggregate trends but on an individual level, highlighting a conscious movement towards a Ukrainian linguistic identity in the face of the Russian aggression.
The choice of language on social media is not just a matter of communication but a reflection of identity. In a nation like Ukraine, language choice can signify cultural allegiance and political stance. This is particularly significant in the context of Ukraine’s history, where post-Soviet nation-building efforts have seen a tug-of-war between Russian and Ukrainian linguistic identities.
“The use of language is innately political, often a vehicle of cultural identity and the basis for nation building,” the researchers write in the study.
Essentially, Ukrainian users are distancing themselves from Russia and reaffirming their Ukrainian-ness. The researchers also emphasize that the majority of Ukrainian Twitter users were young, with significant usage among the 18-39 age group. So Ukraine’s youth in particular are opposing Russia.
The research underscores the profound impact of political conflict on language use in social media. In Ukraine, the move towards Ukrainian and away from Russian in online discourse mirrors a broader assertion of national identity and resistance. This linguistic shift, precipitated by the Russian invasion, is a powerful testament to the role of language in nation-building and cultural resilience in the face of adversity.
The study was published in the journal Communications Psychology.
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