Why and How We Must Support the Ukrainian Language

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July 17, 2015

Why and How We Must Support the Ukrainian Language

Not long ago, in response to the latest flare-up in the public feud over whether there is a language problem in Ukraine, Otar Dovzhenko laid out his position in ten theses (in Ukrainian).  One of these theses postulates that there is indeed a problem, and the others explain how to solve it.  These substantive and well-formulated theses can serve as the basis for what we could call a common platform for those Ukrainian speakers who see a problem in the limited use of this language in various social spheres, but who don’t want a solution based on state coercion and prohibitions.  At the same time, in my opinion, some of these theses are either not precise enough or not entirely well-conceived, particularly when they unreservedly reject any state involvement, with which a large number of advocates of un-coerced Ukrainianization do not agree (as discussion of Dovzhenko’s article on Facebook demonstrated yet again).  So I am going to try to offer certain clarifications, additions, and cautions regarding the proposed theses, but I will address them not in the order they were presented, but by importance and as they relate to each other – as I understand them.

I’ll start with the question of what the language problem consists of; for some reason, Dovzhenko doesn’t address this, simply postulating that there is a problem (thesis 2).  Different social groups answer this question differently (including by completely denying the existence of the problem), and a common platform needs to be based on a common answer: the problem is that there is too little of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine.  That is, there’s less than we – those people who are disposed to support this platform – consider desirable and, most importantly, just.  So the problem is not that in Odessa, for example, you hear more Russian on the streets than Ukrainian, but that the share of Ukrainian-language magazines is five times less than the share of people who speak Ukrainian at home, where they can choose their own language – and so the media market is essentially depriving them of a choice.  Because if in the former case the concept of injustice could only be invoked in terms of the historical causes of the present-day situation, in the latter case the injustice stems from an obvious inequality in present-day opportunities for Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking citizens to use their language.

Newspapers and journals in Ukraine mostly appear in Russian, although 46% of Ukrainians choose the Ukrainian language as their language of first choice (38% give preference to Russian, 16% consider both in equal manner - according to a 2010 poll by Research and Branding Group). Photograph source: inpress.ua

The notion of a just scope for the use of Ukrainian and Russian in certain social settings, however, is not only tied to the number of speakers of those languages.  Dovzhenko makes two more important arguments for why there should be as much Ukrainian as possible.  The first (thesis 3) concerns the Ukrainian language as a value: “it has particular significance for this territory and for the people who live here, and for its culture and statehood.” In my opinion, this is the key thesis, which, moreover, brings a large number of people who themselves (as of yet) speak Russian or some other language to the ranks of advocates of the wider usage of Ukrainian.  The Ukrainian language is not only the state language, it is also the national language, which is to say the language of our uniqueness and independence; and given that Ukrainian is the only language that can fulfill this role of the national language, it should therefore be the state language, as many Russian speakers agree.  The question is what exactly this role of Ukrainian as the state and national language means for language use in this or that field.  Because there are many people who think that the president should give his New Year’s message in Ukrainian, the news on the state television channel should be in Ukrainian, and maybe metro announcements should be in Ukrainian, but when it comes to newspapers, restaurant menus, and labels on washing machines, the status of Ukrainian is irrelevant.  So let the manufacturers write however they want – or, more precisely, whatever the consumers will buy.

But Dovzhenko also bases the need for wider use of the Ukrainian language on the grounds that “the dominance of Russian is a source of danger.  Because of Putin, Russia, the defense of the Russian world, etc.” (thesis 4)  That is to say, since Russia considers the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine to be its compatriots and can always cite concern for their rights as a pretense for intrusion, “a wise survival strategy for Ukraine – not the state, but the country and the political nation – is gradual, un-coerced re-Ukrainianization.” This thesis seems problematic to me: with regards both to the supposed problem and to the proposed solution.  Although Putin does indeed “cling” first and foremost to Russian speakers, in their absence he would be able to find another pretext; and, most importantly, in the last year and a half a large portion of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens have clearly shown that they don’t want to have anything to do with Putin and his “Russian world.” By identifying their Russian speaking as a source of danger, we thereby devalue their choice in favor of Ukraine, and thus we’re essentially agreeing with Putin that the boundaries of his “world” coincide with the boundaries of the Russian language.  Instead, we need to acknowledge that Russian is one of the languages spoken by the citizens of Ukraine, and thus we need to pose the question of the just scope of its usage – keeping in mind that Ukrainian is more than just “one of.”

Moreover, the proposition that we save ourselves from the “Russian world” by means of re-Ukrainianization is simultaneously confrontational and utopian.  On the one hand, from the perspective of intergroup dialogue it is not productive to suggest that “they” renounce their language, so that “we” can preserve ours – even if it is also theirs, to some degree.  On the other hand, in the modern globalized world there are few people who completely switch from one language to another; and, what’s more, they rarely switch from a language that is more powerful – in terms of access to information – and more attractive – in terms of job opportunities – to a language that is more limiting in terms of communication, even if it is ideologically correct, so to speak, and in keeping with their identity.  Although thousands of people have completely or nearly completely renounced the Russian language since Ukraine’s independence, millions haven’t done so and won’t.  The Russian intervention has prompted a certain number of Russian speakers to make a definitive break with the “language of the aggressor,” but many more speakers of that language reject this classification and insist on the social legitimacy of the Russian language and its speakers.  We can deem this position egotistical and unpatriotic, but that will just intensify their indignation and obstinacy and, therefore, this standoff between groups.

So what we should demand is not the renunciation of Russian in favor of Ukrainian, but complementing the former with the later. And, by the way, this corresponds to Dovzehnko’s sixth thesis: “It will be good for your children to know at least two languages, one of which is Ukrainian.” And indeed, when surveyed by sociologists, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens, even a majority of Russian speakers, agree that all citizens should know Ukrainian, and they even state that they themselves know it pretty well already.  What remains is to induce them to act according to their own assertions, which is to say to learn the language well and use it actively, rather than falling back on the fact that “it’s easier for me to speak Russian.”

This logically leads to thesis 5, which, according to Dovzhenko, “should be emblazoned on our flag in gold letters: we have no compaints against you individually.  You are totally fine.  No one is planning to Ukrainianize you personally.  You speak the language that you speak.  That’s how it developed historically, and that is your right.” And so “the problem is not the people who speak Russian, it’s the situations and factors that mold them.” Recognizing the confrontativeness of declaring a certain group of people to be a problem, and thus generally congratulating Dovzhenko on trying to avoid conflict, I nevertheless am going to clarify this thesis, which is to say that I would like to limit the scope of his proposed indulgence.  It's okay when you’re talking about the average person, unwilling to renounce his or her own comfort if the law doesn’t strictly demand it, i.e. those who oversee its enforcement.  Or when it comes to a consciously Russian-speaking citizen, for whom preserving the current scope of his or her native language is more important than helping to strengthen the national language – which such a citizen would hardly want.

But if you agree that there should be more Ukrainian, I have, let’s say, a wish for you: help make that happen.  Because forces act through people, and the structural advantages of the Russian language are created through the agency of those people who, for the sake of comfort, custom, or some other reason, choose that very language.  So the advocates of expanding the use of Ukrainian have to contribute through their own behavior – as producers and consumers of linguistic products and linguistic environments.  In other words, Ukrainian speakers have to give in to Russian as rarely as possible, and Russian speakers, on the other hand, need not to scorn or be too lazy to speak, write, read, and listen to Ukrainian.  To date, unfortunately, it’s the Ukrainian speakers who are less steadfast in their linguistic choice, which simultaneously reflects and perpetuates the effect of those factors that lead to the dominance of Russian.  We need to change this undesirable situation through our conscious efforts, beginning by drawing attention to the connection between the behavior of individuals and societal situations.

Now we can at last move from the problem to its solution and turn to Dovzhenko’s most controversial thesis, which he with good reason put at the very beginning: “the state has nothing to do with this.  The linguistic situation concerns society, people, and communities, while the state’s task is to perfect the laws and make sure that they function…Assigning the task of regulating and improving things in the linguistic sphere to the state is very dangerous: it is incompetent in doing so, and no one has any faith in it.  So, if you please, the main actor should not be the state, but the active segment of society, which – as the Maidan proved – is capable of coming together and changing things.  If it sees a problem.” The thesis is truly revolutionary, but, unfortunately, it’s erroneous.

In the first place, the state simply can’t absent itself from regulating the linguistic sphere, if only because it has to use a certain language or languages itself, and this linguistic choice has a profound impact on the realization of the linguistic rights of citizens.  Secondly, the state has a profound impact on the behavior of citizens in the private sector – not only through direct regulation (like linguistic quotas in licensing private television channels), but also, and no less importantly, through the production of knowledge and stimuli towards the use of certain languages, above all that language which has the status of a state language.  To put it more simply, the majority of non-state practices that foster the wider use of Ukrainian – from western television series translated into Ukrainian that are watched by millions to Plast scouting groups that thousands have taken part in – became possible in large part thanks to the state creating incentives to use precisely that language (for example, the aforementioned quotas) or at least teaching it to people who could later teach others.  Of course, in some cases private initiatives to learn and use a certain language arise without state encouragement, like in contemporary Belarus, but even then these initiatives often rely on resources created with state involvement, such as dictionaries, editions of classic literature, or specialists trained under the previous regime.

Thus the active segment of society should not supplant the state’s efforts with its own, but rather supplement them – including encouraging the state to take certain actions and discouraging it from others.  Advocates of the Ukrainian language should demand the state adopt regulatory measures that foster the language – from the constitution to tax breaks, quotas, and budget allocations – basing the demand for such supportive actions not only on past discrimination against Ukrainian, but on its unique value for the present and the future.  The implementation of such affirmative actions by the state at the encouragement of the public – if officials and activists explain that these actions create the conditions for realizing the rights of citizens and strengthening the position of the national language – will be less confrontational (and therefore more in keeping with Dovzhenko’s seventh thesis: “Languages should not compete with each other”) than if the advocates of the Ukrainian language fight for better conditions for it at the expense of others.  For this very reason I consider thesis 8 to be erroneous: “the Ukrainian language needs to be helped voluntarily, or else we will either lose it or be doomed to a state policy of Ukrainianization, which will lead to nothing good.”  Those who are predisposed to volunteer to help at least in some way, and who choose above all or particularly the language question out of all the needs, those people are already helping or will gladly respond when they hear the call.  To encourage – not to force, but to stimulate! – everyone else to use Ukrainian more is the task of the state, which in turn should be nudged to do so by the active segment of society.  And besides, who knows if the state will manage any sort of Ukrainianization without pressure from society.

As for thesis 9 – “environment is more important than content” – I consider it to be very well-conceived and original; at the very least, I haven’t yet encountered it in Ukrainian linguistic discussions.  There’s no sense in complaining about the lack of (quality) Ukrainian-language books, films, and computer games, unintentionally supporting the argument of our detractors that the main problem for Ukrainian is that there’s nothing to read or watch in it.  Instead, it is important to create environments in which people can develop and foster linguistic skills and habits – particularly by consuming, spreading, and where possible creating quality products.  In this case I agree with Dovzhenko that “these environments should be created at the initiative of engaged people” and not the state, but nonetheless I want to add that engaged people can and must demand state support for such environments.  Not their administration, obviously, but transparent financing on the basis of competitive selection, one of the conditions for which should be a certain level of Ukrainian language use – within the framework of measures that support the national language.

Finally, I have no objection to thesis 10: “people should articulate more precisely and voice more frequently their linguistic desires and demands.” Be bold!  Don’t be too lazy to switch from the default Russian to the Ukrainian version of the website where you read the news or the weather forecast, demand a Ukrainian menu and service in restaurants, go to demonstrations against laws that are unfavorable towards Ukrainian.  And articulate both your additions and your objections to these and other reflections on how we can better ensure that there is more of our language around us and that people speak it with pleasure.

KRYTYKA is grateful to Kate Younger for her volunteer work in translating this text into English.

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Join the conversation! (1)

Christian De Luca's picture
Christian De Luca September 8, 2016, 06:50 pm

We should make a petition to Rosetta Stone to get Ukrainian included into it's catalogue of languages. I believe they do a special program for languages that are in danger of extinction or becoming increasingly less relevant to public speaking.

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