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Ukraine: Walking the Linguistic Tightrope

The fact is, Russian is useful. In this part of the world, its the language of business and science” said one Ukrainian (“Ukraines language,” PRI, 2009). Ukrainian is sometimes used in popular music, but that is because it is often used as slang rather than as the dominant language of conversation or commerce.

So the dissenting question arises, if Russian is already so dominant, and understood much of the population that is not solely Russian-speaking: Why not teach Ukrainian in school, and leave bilingual speakers to their own devices? However, if the Ukraine school system must neglect Russian, due to the nations official policy, than the next generation of children will speak inferior Russian to their Russian and other Slavic counterparts. Russian will persist, but more sophisticated use of the language will ebb away. Another problem is class divisions: Russian is weakest in the poorest sections of the Ukraine. Denying these Ukrainians access to Russian in the schools could shut them out of the language of business and science in a dangerous fashion.

To change the linguistic status of the Ukraine would require changing the constitution (Khineyko 2007). However, there seems to be support for such a motion. Polls indicate that 26.4% of all Ukrainians believe that Russian should be raised to the status of a state language and 24.7% consider support elevating Russian to the second state language in areas where Russian-speakers are a majority (Marples 2007). In case this seems like a surprise, given the animosity that currently exists between Russia and the Ukraine regarding control of natural resources, on a personal level, “Russians were often not perceived as aliens,” even during the height of Soviet aggression by Ukrainians, “due to the similarity of languages” and religion (Kulyk 290). Russians were never culturally marginalized in the way they were in non-Slavonic republics

Popular support for the reintroduction of Russian as a national language is also simply a reflection of reality and common practice: “in the early 1990s the gradual transition of most printed and electronic media to Ukrainian seemed inevitable” yet “by the end of the decade Russian retained or even strengthened its prominence” in the media, as ” Ukrainian-language newspapers and magazines in the total circulation fell far below the percentage of (however defined) Ukrainian-speakers, and most new high-circulation outlets appeared in Russian (Kulyk 307).

There is also a certain degree of perceived hypocrisy in official policy.

For example, regarding the budding film industry presented its films in Russian to ensure a wider audience: “The Russian-language movies produced in Ukraine since the early 2000s, often in cooperation with Russian companies, were presented as a national alternative to foreign production, our movies, and the media celebrating their appearance as an important media/cultural achievement did not even mention what language those movies used” (Kulyk 308). When celebrating Ukrainian nationalism, the government did not condemn these films and Ukrainians eagerly watched them.

In short, while declaring Ukrainian the sole language of the nation may have been patriotic during the foundation of the new nation, on every conceivable practical level it makes little sense: more than 50% of the population speaks Russian nearly exclusively, there is widespread support for using both languages, and teaching and using both languages would improve the future of the nation in commerce and the arts, as well as create a more economically attractive labor force and place for foreigners to build enterprises and visit as tourists. Many bilingual and multilingual nations exist, such as Switzerland, and the Ukraine should follow their example.

Works Cited

Khineyko, Ilya. Tempest in the (linguistic) teapot? Ukrainian analysis. March 7, 2007.

November 13, 2009. http://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/category/russian-language-in-ukraine/

Kulyk, V. “Constructing common sense: Language and ethnicity in Ukrainian public discourse.”

Ethnic & Racial Studies, 29.2 (Mar 2006): 281-314

Marples, David. Ukrainians shun NATO, support ties with Russia. Ukrainian analysis.

July 25, 2007. November 13, 2009.

http://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/category/russian-language-in-ukraine/

Reid, Anna. Borderland: A journey through the history of Ukraine. Boulder, CO: Westview

Press, 1999.

“Ukraines language.” PRI International. (Public Radio International). October 29, 2009.

November 13, 2009..

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