28.10.2006 | Yevhen Khodun, Kharkiv

The integrity of the Ukrainian linguistic-cultural environment and minority rights


The so-called “language issue” which has very often been activated just before elections and forgotten after them is this time maintaining its topicality for longer. However in all cases there remains one common element: the language issue is most pushed by politicians among whom there are no language specialists. At the same time among the average population false impressions are spread about the functioning of languages and the legal aspects of their use, in part through genuine lack of understanding by members of the discussion, and in part deliberately, in order to deceive.  Unfortunately, the voices of professionals in this field who, not descending into naked displays of emotion, could add scientific clarity to the essence of the matter, are virtually not heard. Yet clarity is vital in order to more precisely formulate the tasks and direct fruitlessly squandered energy into their effective implementation.

These considerations are extremely pertinent since a Draft Strategy for language policy in Ukraine is being drawn up and a new draft law is being prepared for the second ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

A Strategy for language policy in Ukraine must provide the direction for specific actions. It should not therefore contain declarative provisions which are impossible to implement. For example, in Part II § 1 of the draft Strategy it is stated that “The contemporary language situation in Ukraine is above all the result of a long war against the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian statehood ..” Does this mean that the Strategy, in stating the results of a war, is demanding that military action be launched in response?

The historical facts in general do not arouse objections, although the stylistic presentation could be improved, however its place is in a publicist work, and not in a Strategy.  Teachers of foreign languages know how important it is to motivate students as much as possible to want to learn. The same applies to the will to affirm the Ukrainian language among those who do not presently speak it, which requires above all else positive psychological motivation. Irritation here is counter-productive.

This is the most crucial failing of the draft Strategy for language policy in Ukraine which makes it impossible to analyze the document in more detail. We will therefore confine ourselves to some general comments: the draft Strategy has on the one hand internal contradictions, while on the other it repeats similar provisions in different places. These would be better placed in adjoining paragraphs, in their logical order. The shortcomings in the draft are so numerous that it would not be feasible to make isolated corrections and in my opinion it needs to be completely re-written.

The draft law “On introducing amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages” is the official name for the draft law proposing to ratify the said Charter for the second time, having introduced more clarity into the principles of its application and in the actual text of the official translation into Ukrainian.

Article 1 of the Charter defines such concepts as “regional or minority language”, “territory in which the regional or minority language is used”, as well as “non-territorial languages”.  Article 3 adds the term “official language which is less widely used on the whole or part of its territory”. Three fundamental concepts connected with the status of languages are thus proposed, while a fourth – with the territory of use of the language. Thanks to these concept definitions, the Charter has a high level of democratic potential envisaging that in some cases the official (or state) language may also, regardless of its formal status, require real protection.

Thus in Article 5 of the new draft law the Ukrainian language with entire justification is declared an official language which is less widely used on a part of its territory and which requires certain protection in this part: in the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, in the Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhye, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Kherson regions and in the city of Sevastopol.

The draft law also lists other languages which are offered state assistance in Ukraine, however that is done incorrectly. It is necessary to not only name the languages, which should come under the state’s protection, but also define the territories on which this support will be provided. This follows both from the content of the Charter, and from sheer common sense. After all if one provides only a list of languages without defining the territory of their protection, then this would mean that the Ukrainian state commits itself to support them all (including, for example, Yiddish, Karaim, Hungarian and a few dozen of those listed) over all its territory which is not expedient, wasteful, and therefore not feasible and irresponsible.

Since the territory for special support in the given draft law is clearly defined for the state Ukrainian language it is unjust in the same act to provide broader territorial assistance to any other languages than the state Ukrainian language. Therefore it is proposed that the status “not connected with a particular territory” not be granted to any languages in Ukraine. Specific territories for support need similarly to be defined for the Russian language which should not become an exception.

It is clear that the territory on which the state commits itself to support each language must be defined by experts with the participation of the relevant ethnic and cultural societies in Ukraine. Expert assessments on the territory should be included in the draft law, and this should be passed by the highest legislative body in the state. This is a laborious task however there seems no other way to correctly approach the matter.

The Charter states that regional or minority languages and the territory of their use are defined by each Contracting State, and that means by each state which has signed the Charter. Thus attempts to do this not at the state level, but by bodies of local self-government are in contravention of the Charter itself.

The creation and cultivation of a language environment is one of the basic conceptions in the study and support of languages about which there is no mention in the Draft Strategy for language policy in Ukraine. We understand an integrated language environment (or language continuum) to be the combination of all those conditions under which this or that language functions on a particular territory at a sufficient level to mean that people who use the given language do not feel the need and are not forced within the confines of that territory to change to another language.  The speakers of regional or minority languages may feel the need to change to another language, usually Ukrainian, when leaving that environment. For speakers of Ukrainian, according to the Constitution, this environment must be ensured over the entire territory of Ukraine and the need to change to another language may only arise when travelling abroad.

An integrated Ukrainian linguistic and cultural environment over the entire territory of Ukraine and the existence on the territory of integrated local centres of other languages and cultures would seem to contradict each other, yet this in actual fact only appears to be a contradiction which can be resolved at least through concepts of the theory of multitudes in maths if one assumes that a sufficient number of elements belong to two or more of the quantities at the same time (in our case – if a sufficient number of citizens of the state at one time speak two or more languages). In this case one achieves an optimum level of comfort both for speakers of Ukrainian (which is the state or official language), and for representatives of linguistic and cultural minorities.

In order to achieve this level of optimum comfort, a range of short and simple principles are proposed which are connected with breaking down certain flawed stereotypes and affirming rational rules in their place.

The first flawed stereotype is that what is not supported by the state is somehow infringed upon or prohibited. If the Russian language is not a state language this supposedly means that it is being forced out.

This in fact is not the case. The state must through all means support the functioning of the state language which is Ukrainian, in all spheres, and can do this with regard to other languages or on a voluntary basis, or  in accordance with commitments under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which is, in fact, also signed on the basis of free will).  However nobody is prohibiting non-state, including private, structures from supporting any language, ethnic and cultural society, educational institution or media outlet, through any lawful means, including through financing them. Assistance is possible from abroad with examples of this being the information and cultural centres of various countries which also promote the study of the relevant languages.

A second faulty stereotype is that granting the Russian language second state language status is very simple, and that it will supposedly only extend citizens’ rights.

In fact this will not so much extend rights, as impose additional duties on cultivating the Russian language alongside Ukrainian, and that is by no means simple.

The term Russian speaker is very often used about citizens not because they speak Russian perfectly, but because they know any other language a lot worse.

Maybe in jest, or perhaps seriously, British supporters of the culture of the English language sometimes say that they almost hope the language of the United States will move so far from theirs that they will stop understanding one another! Then the language will already be called American and they won’t bear any more responsibility for any of their linguistic oddities.

And will the ardent supporters of a Russian language culture be happy with a “contribution” in the creation of a new variant at the Ukrainian state level? Even now guests from neighbouring cities in Russia are shocked by words used by the local authorities in Kharkiv with different endings or meanings for words.

One recalls the rage with which a top official from Kharkiv spoke about one Ukrainian figure who set off for negotiations in Moscow with an interpreter, and by so doing supposedly spoiled inter-state relations for some time. However, firstly, the basis for such relations seems weak if one can believe that they could easily be spoiled by one person in a day. And secondly, examples of unqualified Russian language creation in Ukraine have been increasing recently, and the seditious thought cannot but come to mind that if our public figures are not able to express their thoughts in literate Russian, then perhaps it is indeed better to entrust this to a qualified interpreter?  Particularly since even in the Soviet past one hears of interpreters having been involved in some cases of Ukrainian – Russian inter-university communication.

It is clear that the responsibility for cultivating the Russian language were it to be given state language status in Ukraine would fall as an impossibly heavy burden on those who are blithely planning this. With such a great duty to the Russian language they already now obviously aren’t coping, and that, although not only that, begs one conclusion:

There must be only one state language in Ukraine – Ukrainian.

When the supporters of Russian as a state language in Ukraine speak of two state languages in Finland and Israel, of four official languages in Switzerland, they keep quiet about the existence of rules regarding the compulsory command of this or that language the regulated procedure and use and circulation in them of information.

A glaring example is the speculative reference to the second paragraph of Article 6 of the still current Law “On languages in the Ukrainian SSR”: “Lack of knowledge of the Ukrainian or Russian language shall not constitute grounds for not employing a person”. They do not however quote this very paragraph to the end where it is stated: “After being employed, an official must learn the working language of the body or organization to an extent sufficient for carrying out his or her duties”.  A similar requirement is contained in the first paragraph of this Article, and its very title reads: “The duty of officials to master the working language of bodies or organizations”. If the sense of the Article was that which political con artists try to give it, pulling out a chunk, then it would be called differently, for example: “The right of officials to not know Ukrainian and do not reply in Ukrainian to appeals from members of the public”.

Thus in ensuring an integrated linguistic and cultural environment both for Ukrainian and for regional or minority languages, certain rules must be drawn up for their application.

In an integrated language environment there must be a principle that a person can not be denied the right to function in a language, whether this be over the entire territory of the state (for a state language), or over a certain designated territory (for a regional language).  This means that if a person wishes, for example, to communicate in Ukrainian with a public official or bank clerk, or purchase a newspaper in Ukrainian, s/he must not be stopped from doing so, under any pretext, and most certainly not in an offensive manner (“We don’t sell Ukrainian publications”, “Besides you, nobody needs them”, “Most Kharkiv residents speak Russian”, etc)

Even if some measures are economically less viable and the demand in places is really not so large, then firstly, this is the reason for a state language, in order that the state provides for the needs of citizens, covering possible financial losses, for example, through private distributors of the press, and secondly, it is not only demand that dictates supply, but also civilized offers form a culture of demand.

Similarly access to information in the regional or minority languages must not be denied in those parts of the state which are recognized for these languages in accordance with the provisions for the given state’s joining the European Charter on the basis of expert assessments.

Also where languages co-exist, their separation must be ensured. This means defining the place and time where and when speakers of the given language are guaranteed the opportunity to receive information and / or speak with people solely in that language. Confusion or mixing of languages is not admissible since this runs counter to linguistic culture. A very simple and clear example of this would be the fact that anyone wishing to hear beautiful Russian can tune his or her radio to the appropriate Russian radio station with confidence that s/he will hear that language, and no other. The same on Ukrainian radio and television stations must be provided for those who wish to hear Ukrainian, and no other.

Some exception might be made for multi-language radio stations, however here too multi-language does not mean chaos, the times when broadcasts are in a particular language should be regulated by a firm timetable known to the listeners.

Before finishing, there are several other flawed stereotypes which require scientific denial, since they obstruct the implementation of constructive language policy.

One of these is the supposedly Russian-speaking East and West of Ukraine, the supposedly largely Russian-speaking North, which allegedly you can’t do anything about except recognize their language as the second state language.

This is not true, and in order to become convinced of this, it’s enough to just drive or walk around villages in the Kharkiv region, and further around the Donetsk region and the Luhansk steppe. The truth is that against a background of largely Ukrainian-speaking rural regions, cities stand out in unnatural contrast, where Ukrainian and Russian exist on an approximately fifty-fifty basis, with certain city industrial, financial, engineering and technical, sporting and other elites predominantly Russian-speaking. They emerged artificially through a mechanism of the old times with getting to such elites and to the according level of prosperity being associated with the compulsory requirement that they reject the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian sense of identity.

Even if this requirement was not formally expressed, means were worked out for creating psychological discomfort for Ukrainian speakers.

This mechanism, through lack of understanding of its essence, inability or lack of desire to finally get rid or it, continues to function unfortunately in places even in independent Ukraine. The understanding of this phenomenon, the ability and wish to rationally impact upon it could make it possible to set realistic goals and achieve them.

There is no need to artificially foist the Ukrainian language on anyone. It would be sufficient simply to stop the mechanism through which the Ukrainian language remains artificially kept out from the elite, and it will entirely naturally and without any coercion occupy its proper place.

There is no need to attempt to immediately encompass the wide masses, it is enough simply to focus on those people already in the elite who speak Ukrainian. The state should firstly provide support for them so that they feel comfortably speaking Ukrainian. When they become a critical mass, the others in the elite will, without any compulsion, follow their example. The elite in their turn will have a positive influence on the rest of the population. This is demonstrated by the historical examples of the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Russia where in previous times the elite spoke German, Polish and French, respectively, and then the national language “from the countryside” began being used by the elite and soon quietly took its proper place at the state level.

Yet another speculative anti-scientific stereotype asserts that you virtually don’t hear “pure Ukrainian” in rural areas of the East and South of Ukraine, so there’s nothing, supposedly, to be put on a pedestal.

The truth here is only in the first part of the assertion, and the full truth is that nowadays, when rural communities are also swamped with mass communications, you won’t find any “pure language”, not Ukrainian, not Russian, nor any other. Gone are the days of Ivan Kotlyarevsky, Taras Shevchenko or of Vuk Karadjic who simply recorded his rural dialect  and thus established the basis for literary Serbian. In our times the elite in all countries, including the rural elite, do not speak in the dialect of their own villages, but in the standard forms of the language taught in schools at all levels and cultivated in means of mass communication. And what kind of language comes from these means depends directly on them.

Since educated people in our time need to study some language, this also leads to another form of speculation. The need to study a language is treated as though it was being “foisted” on people. At the same time the difficulties are wildly exaggerated of learning specifically Ukrainian, as though they didn’t exist in mastering Russian. It’s clear what the aim here is, to change one language in the studying process for another, albeit related.

They sometimes say that a person must speak the language in which they think best. This too is playing with words since it misses out an important prerequisite: a person thinks best in that language which s/he was taught in. This can be achieved even in several languages, with a teacher or privately, with greater or lesser success, with higher or lower levels of “purity”.

And this means that if one is genuinely concerned that our Ukrainian countryside speaks more “in a pure language”, then it would be logical to make this the modern standard Ukrainian language which is most easily accepted.

In fact no learning comes easily, and effort is needed in studying any language. An accountant must at least now figures and master arithmetic, this being concerned a normal requirement and not an encroachment on their liberty. A driver must know and follow the Road Code, and if s/he considers that an infringement of his or her rights, s/he has the right to not drive. These generally understood principles are not subject to political speculation, and we would endeavour to achieve the same in the language sphere.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a good basis for harmonizing the use of languages in Ukraine. As mentioned above, for this expert assessments of the state of these languages and the territory on which they’re used are needed, with these taken into account in the ratification.

If some do not aspire to broad inter-language harmony, and use the Charter and authority of Europe only as a demagogic cover for achieving their rule aims, for example, providing unlimited privileges to only Russian over the entire territory of Ukraine (at present they are having no success in making it a state language), then they don’t need any expert studies, and all is much simpler.

What step Ukrainian politicians and legislators will choose this time will be an indicator of their real intentions.

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