Ukrainian language is not that small beer!
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Apr 3 19:21:55 UTC 2005
>>From Ukrainska Pravda http://www.pravda.com.ua
Ukrainian language is not that small beer!
translated by Oleg Gorbik , 31.03.2005, 23:43
Once we were drinking coffee on Khreshchatyk Street as a little Gypsy boy
drifted up to us and peddled his learned phrase in Russian: Please spare a
few coins. There is no food at home. Being in bad humour we replied
quickly in Ukrainian without giving it a second thought: Keep walking
buddy, we dont understand Russian. However, the little beggar immediately
switched into Ukrainian and repeated the familiar pitch about no food at
home. We couldnt counter that and had to reach for our wallets. Having
taken the loot the little Gypsy instead of saying thank you declared the
following: In Ukraine everyone should speak three languages Ukrainian,
Russian and English.
We were stupefied, for these words sounded too familiar. We already heard
something similar to that, and not that while ago. It seems in December
the now acting President Yushchenko declared something similar to that
from his podium in the Independence Square. The crowd applauded. However,
now this reiteration of the election campaign lessons in internationalism
didnt appeal to us that much.
Ok - we said to ourselves, Mr. President claims that in Europe everyone
speaks several languages. Well, he probably knows better. Surely England
is not quite Europe yet because the English are quite comfortable with
their own language, and in Germany the bilingualism didnt struck roots
either, and you know what it is like in France with this question.
Moreover, Spain and Portugal are starting to veto the EU laws because they
are not translated in their own languages. However, the Ukrainian
President is perched up high, sees far and probably notices something
So, without being argumentative, lets just reflect on this question: how
many languages can an average person speak? Not on the primitive level
like I am job but speak decently. Our personal experience tells us that
there are certain difficulties even with two languages. Our command of the
Russian language has deteriorated for the past few years. Ok, maybe it is
us dumb folks but the rest of Ukrainians are smart and they all as one can
master the three languages. The ones that Mr. President committed to
immortality through the lips of the little Gypsy.
But lets imagine that this average person is not ethnic Ukrainian but a
Bulgarian. Upon my word, these things happen! We grew up in a village
called Deleny, in Odessa Oblast, where 90% of people are ethnic
Bulgarians. And they speak the real Bulgarian language in everyday life,
and along with them the whole population of the Bolhradsky district in
Odesa Oblast speaks that language too.
So, does that mean that every ethnic Bulgarian in Ukraine has to speak
four languages? And every Gagauz and Karaim four languages too? Isnt that
a bit too many languages? It is scary even to imagine how many languages
will, say, an ethnic Armenian have to learn who happens to live in the
Bolhradsky District. Poor ethnic minorities! They will have it the
hardest! Either someone missed something when they wrote Mr. Yushchenkos
speech or it is time to abandon the election campaign rhetoric and start
to develop the state policy in this matter. And this policy has to be
subtler than the one expressed by our Gypsy friend.
And while different kinds of political rabble keep registering laws to
give the Russian language a special status, and the Presidential
Administration helps them in every way by preparing the last nail in the
coffin of Ukrainian language in the form of the Decree on Protection of
Citizens Right To Use The Russian Language And The Languages of Other
Ethnic Groups in Ukraine lets reflect on something Where did this wording
the Russian language and the languages of other ethnic groups- come from?
Why not simply the languages of other ethnic groups or ethnic minorities?
Why ethnic Russians are Russian, and Crimean Tatars are other?
These two ethnic groups are indigenous population and a Crimean Tatar
seems even more indigenous of the two. Why is a Russian better? Apologists
for the official status of the Russian language immediately counter with
this: It is so because of the numbers of active speakers of it. So, then
in a Hungarian village the Russian language has to be official too? What
about active speakers of it there?
Dear MPs from ethnic minorities, dear head of the Parliamentary Commission
on Nationalities, Mr. Chubarov! Dont you understand that an attempt is
being made to discriminate against your ethnic groups, your cultures and
your languages? The discrimination is in application of a value scale to
different ethnic groups.
Please, refresh our memories as to how the Ukrainian laws separate ethnic
groups into primary and secondary! Are you really going to resurrect in
Ukraine the Big Brother ghost? Personally, not to overburden ourselves
with unnecessary subjects in school we didnt take Ukrainian it was simple
back then. Now, thank God, the situation has changed. Now Ukrainian is a
state language and is considered compulsory in schools.
Then, we ask ourselves quite a logical question: is it in the states
interests that everyone should take Ukrainian at school? Nowadays in
Ukraine you can get by quite comfortably without the state language. The
state, however, still stubbornly tries to make every citizen speak
Ukrainian. What for? Frankly speaking, the state doesnt know it either.
But we know what it is for to make every citizen without exception
understand state decrees, public appeals and information on all
territories and without translation. This is the key for the state
apparatus to work smoothly the same way as the common currency, common
laws and other things work. The state status of the Ukrainian language is
neither recognition nor a compensation for the past infringements against
it. It is the function of being the general equivalent.
Now the strategic goal of the language policy takes shape. Ukrainian has
to be the state language not as a status but as a function. Then we wont
have to resort to doubtful election campaign maneuvers. It appears to be
quite simple. Every citizen of Ukraine has to understand Ukrainian. Then
if this citizen wants to communicate with people beyond his or her ethnic
community, he or she will have to speak the state language too. And dont
tell me that this in any way infringes upon or impedes the development of
What languages, pray tell me, a Hungarian-speaking ethnic Hungarian and a
Romanian-speaking ethnic Romanian are planning to use to communicate
between each other without feeling infringed upon? You wont believe it, it
is Ukrainian! And even when a Russian-speaking ethnic Russian joins those
two, they will still perfectly understand each other when they speak the
state language, because everyone is guaranteed to know it.
Dear politicians, please pay attention! Ukrainian is not dogshit but a
language of interethnic communication in this great, diverse and
multicultural Motherland of ours. Achieving this particular condition
should be the goal of the Ukrainian government. This approach in
particular will safeguard against infringement on ethnic minorities and
will guarantee the free development of all languages in Ukraine. In
general, the demands on ethnic minorities will decrease: it is more
realistic for people to learn two, not four languages.
Lets imagine ourselves to be again the ethnic Bulgarians from our Deleny
village in Odesa Oblast. At home and among friends we speak Bulgarian, our
kids go to Bulgarian-language school, and we have local press in our
language. On TV we watch Ukrainian-language programs and read national
women magazines too. All questions in Odesa can be settled in Ukrainian
the same way they can be in Kyiv, and we can communicate with our Tatar
friends in Crimea as well. English, Hungarian, Russian, Belarusian can be
optional. Wouldnt that be a perfect world? But how does one achieve that
Lets look around and prove to ourselves one more time that nowadays the
Ukrainian language is economically discriminated against. Even open
ukrainophobes dont deny that. A powerful, market-driven russification goes
on. In its results it promises to be far more terrible than the political
russification of the past. The Ukrainian-speaking part of the population
is completely separated from the main information channels and is driven
in an information ghetto a kind of amateur club for those who agree to pay
extra for the translation into Ukrainian.
One keenly becomes aware of this situation by looking at the printed mass
media. In the front line of russificators there are not Russians but
rather Germans. Their Burda publishing house owns almost half of the
glossy magazines from Lisa to Cool Girl and Vot Tak! Next to them are
Americans with their Korrespondent and Afisha. This is not the proverbial
hand of Moscow but rather hand of Berlin and Washington. So, reveal this
mystery to us how do they profit from russification? Well, they dont.
Economy and our own laws motivate them to use Russian.
It means those are bad laws. Have you ever wondered why TV stations are
required to produce half of their programs in the state language? This is
not in the spirit of democracy! This is typical kuchmism! It appears that
the new administration must stop this outrage and allow people work in any
language. That means work in Russian. (To tell the truth, the TV people
already do so, but it is off topic.)
The new administration, however, will never do so because deep inside they
understand what state language is. They do understand it - they just
cannot say it. But we can say it, and so we ask the following: why dont we
extend this requirement to other subjects of the information market? It
makes sense that if you publish a newspaper with circulation in Bolhradsky
District let it be published in Bulgarian.
However, the Fakty newspaper is circulated not only in Luhansk, why then,
cannot I read it in Ukrainian? Somebody probably wants it in Russian but I
want it to be in the state language. And I want not only
Ukrainian-language TV but glossy magazines too. Why at the time of
registration are the state language editions of nation-wide publications
not required? It makes sense economically: we have examples of successful
bilingual publications - and you wont believe it even monolingual ones!
The same story is in the book market. 10% of an edition in Ukrainian wont
collect dust in the warehouse and some publishers may become keen on it
too. Once upon a time we arrived to a literary soiree in Mykolayiv and
were stunned by a question posed to us by a local newswoman: So, you
publish books in Ukrainian, where does this hatred of Russian come from?
This is not a joke but a standard of public perception.
If one speaks Ukrainian it means one infringes upon Russian? Back then we
answered her question with another question: Irene Deryugina likes
track-and-field athletics, does that mean that she discriminates against
heavy athletics? The newswoman got the part about athletics but not about
the language. Thats why we offer a meditation exercise for everyone who is
perturbed by the language question in Ukraine: whenever you speak of the
Russian language, after comma add Romanian, Bulgarian and all the other
languages in the list.
Thats the way to do it. Not Russian language and other, but by name. For
example, The Law On The Official Status of Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian,
Gagauz Or, if I want to be better understood in Donetsk I will switch into
Russian. In Crimea I will switch in addition into the Crimean Tatar
language and into Armenian When we are talking exclusively about Russian
lets make it clear too: the state is interested in the free development of
the Russian language in Ukraine and is not interested in the free
development of the Polish and Romanian languages.
Having had enough of these exercises lets remember that in Ukraine also
live Ukrainian-speaking people and there is still no law that can make
them learn all of the aforementioned languages. And thus the following
conclusion arises: all nation-wide information in this country has to have
a viable Ukrainian-language equivalent.
Do you hear me, state?! We, Ukrainian-speaking citizens, have the right to
know in detail about what is going on in this country. And your role,
state, is to guarantee us this right. And you, state, also have a role to
guarantee equally free development of all the ethnic languages in Ukraine
without exception. This is reflected in the laws of the land. Do you hear
us? Equally free development. Today Ukrainian children of different ethnic
groups de facto have to learn a language of one ethnic minority, which is
somehow considered better than the languages of other minorities.
State, you have to finally understand that the state language is an
information space frontier. Yes, a state frontier. And exactly like a
geographical frontier, it has to be clearly demarcated and protected. And
if you, state, wont understand this you will be left without citizens from
any ethnic group. At the moment we have been herded into an information
space of a neighboring country.
We, the people of Ukraine, communicate with each other using its language
and its communication channels. Hello! Who is in charge of national
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