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A new Ukrainian alphabet and the artist who created it
Mariya VLAD tells a story of Vasyl Chebanyk, an artist, who has devoted much of his time to the creation of a new Ukrainian alphabet because, in his opinion, “the currently used alphabet robs the Ukrainian language of its uniqueness.”
The currently used Ukrainian alphabet is based on the so-called “Cyrillic.” It is a writing system, which was developed in the 9th–10th century AD for Slavic-speaking peoples of the Eastern Orthodox faith; this alphabet is also used for Russian, Belarusian and some other languages, Bulgarian and Serbian among them. Based on the Medieval Greek uncial script, the Cyrillic alphabet was probably invented by later followers of the 9th-century “apostles to the Slavs,” St. Cyril (or Constantine), for whom it was named, and St. Methodius. As the Slavic languages were richer in sounds than Greek, 43 letters were originally provided to represent them; the added letters were modifications or combinations of Greek letters, or they were based on Hebrew. The earliest literature written in Cyrillic was a translation of the Bible and various church texts.
The modern Cyrillic alphabets have been somewhat modified from the original, generally by the loss of some superfluous letters and certain change in the shape of some letters to meet the needs of secular literature (up to the early eighteenth century all the books, most of which were religious, were published and printed in the old Cyrillic, and new secular literature and spreading literacy required considerable modifications).
There also existed another writing system, the Glagolitic script. It was mostly used by Roman Catholic Slavs, while the Cyrillic alphabet was used by Eastern Orthodox Slavs; and although the origin of Glagolitic is not clear, it is probably closely related to the Cyrillic alphabet. Slavic tradition is generally inconsistent as to which script to attribute St. Cyril. Although dissimilar to Cyrillic in letter form, Glagolitic had approximately the same number of letters as Cyrillic and identical sound values for the letters; this implies a common origin for the two systems.
The oldest extant secular materials in Glagolitic are believed to date from the early fourteenth century. The Glagolitic script flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries but since then it has been displaced by Cyrillic in Greek or Russian Orthodox areas and by the Latin alphabet elsewhere. It is still used, however, in the Slavonic liturgy in some Dalmatian and Montenegrin communities.
Vasyl Chebanyk was not quite satisfied with either of the scripts — he thought that they did not quite reflect the actual state of the Ukrainian language today and thus needed some modifications. Altogether, he introduced twelve letters which, according to him, were in a better relationship to the Ukrainian sounds they were designed to represent.
After Ukraine lost the last vestiges of its independence in the eighteenth century and became part of the vast Russian Empire, the Ukrainian language found itself under the heavy Imperial pressure, and its very existence as a literary language was threatened. Several tsarist directives relegated Ukrainian to the status of a dialect, which could be used only for limited purposes of everyday communication but not the lofty spheres of high literature and philosophy. The Ukrainian language had no official status either (conditions of the existence of Ukrainian in eastern and western Ukraine were somewhat different — in western Ukraine, which was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Ukrainian language was much more tolerated than in the eastern part of the Russian Empire).
“Unfortunately, the Ukrainian language continues to use the alphabet which was not modified — with a couple of exceptions — to suit the needs and sounds of the Ukrainian language. This alphabet is used by some other Slavic languages but I want to give the Ukrainian language its own script, fully suited to it,” says Vasyl Chebanyk.
There were earlier attempts to modify the Cyrillic alphabet to meet the needs of the Ukrainian language. In the twentieth century Heorhiy Narbut and Vasyl Krychevsky, the Ukrainian artists, advocated the introduction of a new Ukrainian writing system but their ideas were largely ignored, though a couple of modifications were indeed introduced.
Vasyl Chebanyk believes that the work of those artists should be continued and that such a new alphabet should be based on the Old Bulgarian Cyrillic rather than on the modifications to the Cyrillic introduced in the early eighteenth century in the Russian Empire. These modifications were aimed at improving the Russian alphabet and ignored completely the needs of the Ukrainian language.
“A language should have an adequate representation of its sounds. You can hear the Ukrainian language spoken — but you can’t see it written down in an adequate way. The present-day alphabet does not reflect the peculiarities of the Ukrainian pronunciation the way it should,” says the artist.
He has shown his new Ukrainian alphabet at exhibitions, and more than one. The exhibitions at the Art Gallery in Lviv in 2004 and at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (NUKMA) in Kyiv in 2005 were particularly noticeable events. Among the exhibits shown were books and posters, in which the alphabet designed by Chebanyk was used. He calls it the Ruthenian — the word that was used in the times of old for describing the Ukrainian language, particularly in its western-Ukrainian variety.
At a gathering of students, who came to see his exhibition at the NUKMA, the artist said that “this newly created Ukrainian alphabet will be of a great help in maintaining the positions of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine and in developing it — the Ukrainian language has once again come under the heavy pressure on the part of those who lack patriotic feelings and claim that the Ukrainian language is secondary to Russian and is not good enough. The new alphabet is ready — now it’s for the government to act and introduce it to secure the positions of the Ukrainian language.”
Vasyl Chebanyk also designed coats of arms and other symbols for the NUKMA.
“The Ukrainian language is in danger of being strangled — it can actually disappear from the face of the earth, if nothing is done to support it, and I do hope that my new Ukrainian alphabet will play its decisive role in preserving the Ukrainian language for generations to come.”
The artist’s grandson, Oleksandr, a representative of the young generation of Ukrainians, is also a new-alphabet enthusiast who says that he would do his best to see to it that his granddad’s ideas get governmental support to be implemented.
Photos are from
Vasyl Chebanyk’s archive
Vasyl Chebanyk, professor of the National Academy of the Visual Arts and Architecture, was born in the village of Klishkivtsi, Chernivtsi Oblast, on August 5 1933. His talent became evident at an early age; Chebanyk was educated at the Arts Institute in Kyiv (now Academy), majoring in graphics and book design; he studied in the studios of such prominent graphic artists as Ilarion Pleshchynsky, Heorhiy Yakutovych and Vasyl Kasiyan; Chebanyk graduated in 1963.
Even before graduation, he began teaching art at the Institute where he studied, and continues to do so at the Arts Academy.
His most considerable artistic achievements are probably to be found in the sphere of book design and book illustrations. In his designs and illustrations, Chebanyk has always pursued perfection, and his works are very impressive creations of graphic art, in which the form corresponded to the spirit of the book, and in which every little detail was extremely carefully thought of before being introduced into the design or illustration.
The list of books he designed and made illustrations for is a long one indeed; we should mention here the most important ones:
poetry: Sonnets by W. Shakespeare (1966); The Nocturnal Reflections of an Old Master by M. Bazhan (1976); Autumnal Holosiyivsky Forest by M. Rylsky (1985); Nobody Has Ever Loved a Woman So Much by V. Sosyura (1987); Somewhere at the Bottom of My Heart by P. Tychyna (1991);
novels: Notre-Dame de Paris by V. Hugo; The Gadfly by E. Voinich;
graphic portraits of the classics of Ukrainian literature and philosophy — Skovoroda, Shevchenko, Franko, Lesya Ukrayinka, Stefanyk, Dovzhenko, and of the towering figures of world culture — Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, Shakespeare, Moliere, and Beethoven.
All these names and books tell much about the artist and his views.
The elderly artist is not in the best of health but he never stops teaching graphic art and book design at the Arts Academy, and he spends a lot of time in his studio and at his computer creating new designs and developing his new alphabet ideas.
Typeface Mariya Scoropys. 2003.
Ivan Franko. Engraving. 1973.
Lesya Ukrayinka. Engraving. 1973.
The cover of the Book of Hours. Leather. 2000.
The cover of a book of poetry. Leather. 2002.
The cover of the Constitution of Ukraine.
A leather-bound memo pad
New Ukrainian alphabet