Language as Political Force in Urkaine

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Among the conflicts currently underway in Ukraine is one over the most powerful tool in the world: language. Should Ukrainians speak Russian, Ukrainian, or maybe even dabble with English?

The answer is more than just political, as the history of languages -- and efforts to suppress or impose them -- has shown throughout the world, say language researchers.

"Although language planning is considered as quite a recent discipline in language studies, it has long been practiced as part of a government activity in empires throughout history," explained Iranian language researcher Mehdi Gran Hemat of Universiti Putra Malaysia. "As examples of language policies in the 20th century, one can refer to language programs in Iran, Malaysia, and very recently after the shift of power, Hong Kong."

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In Ukraine, language issues mirror the political struggle the country is facing: whether to be more Russia- or Europe-leaning -- and in neither case lose their identity as Ukrainians.

"There is a mutual bond between language and identity," said Hemat. "There are plenty of research studies that investigated the issue of language use and identity construction."

After the recent ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich, one of the first changes was a repeal of a law that gave the nation's minority groups, which includes Russians, the right to use minority languages. Next the Ukrainian parliament considered a law which would outright ban all broadcasts in Russian. Most recently there was a bill calling for the recognition of Russian as a second language.

All this is all on top of a Soviet-era history during which Stalin moved non-Russian speaking people -- including Ukrainians -- far and wide to work, which caused those workers to use Russian as their only common language, explained Bernard Spolsky, language researcher and professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

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In the post-Soviet years, Ukraine, Poland, Yugoslavia and other former Soviet Bloc countries have revived native languages. There are signs that they are continuing to push the Russian language to the fringes.

"In Eastern Europe they used to teach Russian (as the second language)," said Spolsky. "Then they retrained the teachers and now they teach English."

This might seem like a strange choice an a time in history when American global influence appears to be waning. But the choice has little to do with America, and more to do with being European and global, says Spolsky.

"The most useful language is the one that people turn to when they do not speak the same language," said Spolsky.

English does well in this role because it already has many varieties worldwide and is more flexible than some other widely spoken languages which are more strictly controlled, he said.

"English is an open language. It doesn't object to other varieties" as do the French and even Russians when foreign words are introduced.

While no one is suggesting English will ever be an official language of any kind in Ukraine, it does have one feature, along with French, Mandarin and a host of other languages, that Russian does not: no historical baggage.