[lg policy] Ukraine’s State Language Law Enshrines the Lingua Franca

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 17 11:56:16 EDT 2019

Ukraine’s State Language Law Enshrines the Lingua FrancaPublication:
Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 72By: Vladimir Socor

May 16, 2019 04:46 PM Age: 19 hours
(Source: Kyiv Post)

On May 15, Ukraine’s outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, promulgated the
“Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State
Language.” The accompanying communique characterizes this law as “one of
the fundamental acts in the formation of Ukrainian statehood” (Ukrayinska
Pravda, May 15).

The long-debated language law is a centerpiece of Ukraine’s post-Maidan
transformation, alongside such nation-building gains as the development of
the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the establishment of the autocephalous
Orthodox Church of Ukraine (see EDM, September 13, 2018
; March 11, 2019
These processes consummate Ukraine’s break with the Russian metropolis. In
this perspective, the language law strengthens the efforts to reverse the
centuries-long russification of Ukraine. After 1991, Ukrainian state
weakness and the persisting ascendancy of the Russian language on the
psycho-social level prevented the Ukrainian language from assuming the
normal functions of a *lingua franca* in Ukraine’s public sphere. Moreover,
Ukraine remained fully exposed to the impact of Russia’s far more powerful
mass media and mass-culture products until 2014. The regime change and
Russia’s war at last inspired measures to protect and promote the Ukrainian
language as a state-building foundation.

The Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) adopted the language law on April
25, 2019, with 278 votes in favor, 38 opposed, and the remainder seemingly
uncommitted in the 450-seat chamber. Motions by the pro-Russia opposition
to block the law’s promulgation were defeated by similar margins on May 14
(Ukrinform, April 25, May 14). The less-than-overwhelming majority is
illustrative of the inertia that the de-russification process still
encounters in some sections of Ukraine’s society. At the same time, the
constituency actively defending the legacy of russification has dwindled,
as the balance of political forces has shifted. For comparison, the 2012
language law, which favored the Russian language, was adopted with the
votes of 248 deputies in the Verkhovna Rada at that time (Ukrayinska
Pravda, June 6, 2012).

The just-promulgated law (Ukrinform, April 25; Golos Ukrayiny, May 16)
obligates state officialdom to be capable of speaking the state language,
and to use it in the performance of their official duties. The officials
covered by this legislation range from the head of state, prime minister,
ministers and heads of government departments, members of parliament, heads
of state institutions and enterprises, and on down to civil servants,
judges and notaries, police officers, professors and teachers in the public
education system, postal workers, as well as medical personnel in state and
municipal health care institutions.

Law enforcement, medical, and other personnel providing public services
are, however, free to use languages other than Ukrainian when dealing with
persons who cannot speak Ukrainian. State officials and civil servants in
those categories are given a three-year transition period to learn the
Ukrainian language with state assistance (see below).

These provisions are meant, in part, to remedy a uniquely Ukrainian
linguistic imbalance. Russian remained the primary language of political
elites (in interconnection with the business elites) in Ukraine long after
1991. Of all the presidents and prime ministers of this era (21 persons in
toto), only one president (Viktor Yushchenko) and one prime minister
(Arseniy Yatseniuk) are Ukrainophone in terms of native language and
language of first choice. Several of Ukraine’s leaders (e.g., Petro
Poroshenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, Volodymyr Groysman) chose to switch from
Russophone to Ukrainophone as their preferred language. Ukraine’s
industrial-financial “oligarchs” are all Russophone, as is the business
sphere generally (this language law does not affect the private sphere).

This law introduces a state program to assist in learning the Ukrainian
language, to be approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. The state program
shall sponsor courses to help achieve Ukrainian language fluency for adults
who did not have such an opportunity until now.

Under this law, foreign citizens who apply for Ukrainian citizenship will
have to pass a Ukrainian language test. Foreigners serving in Ukraine’s
armed forces and applying for citizenship shall have that test deferred by
one year.

The law regulates the use of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian language content
in television and radio broadcasting, printed publications, IT systems, as
well as advertising in these types of media. Ukrainian-produced print media
in “other” languages (meaning, primarily, Russian) must offer a parallel,
Ukrainian-language print run. (Many Ukrainian-language media outlets of all
types offer parallel Russian-language versions). At least 50 percent of
printed publications offered in each retail distribution site should be in
Ukrainian. Breaches, such as exceeding the proportion of non-Ukrainian
language content in audio-visual media, are punishable by fines. Insulting
the Ukrainian language in public is deemed a criminal liability and may
result in prison terms.

This law establishes a National Commission on State Language Standards and,
in parallel, a Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language, both
under the authority of the Cabinet of Ministers. The Commission is mandated
to define requirements for language proficiency and conduct the testing.
The Commissioner’s office shall consider complaints and impose fines for
breaches of this law, mainly in the sphere of consumer services.

While regulating the public use of the Ukrainian language, this law (or any
other) does not apply to private communications, the business sphere, or
the use of national minority languages. These and other languages shall be
freely used in the cultural life of national minorities, religious rites,
academic publications, as well as publications in English and the other
languages of the European Union, regardless of whether those publications
include texts in Ukrainian or not.

Ukrainian society and members of parliament had debated the terms of such
legislation literally from the next day after the EuroMaidan-precipitated
regime change. The Verkhovna Rada adopted the first draft in October 2018.
In total, no fewer than 2,000 amendments were considered until the law was
finally adopted on April 25 (see above). In his message on this occasion,
Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman commented that Ukraine honors its ethnic
and linguistic pluralism, “but our state language can only be
one—Ukrainian—which we must protect and develop. Esteem of the state
language is self-esteem” (Liga.ua, April 25).

President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky’s message (via his campaign team) has
straddled the issue, apparently seeking to hold together his heterogenous
electorate. Inaccurately claiming that this law was adopted “hastily” and
that it had been prompted by electoral considerations, Zelensky’s message
nevertheless fully endorsed the status of the Ukrainian language as the
sole state language deserving of state support. But he objected to the
penalties contained in this law, and promised to undertake a “thorough
analysis” as soon as he takes office as president (Ukrinform, April 25). In
his entertainer’s career, Zelensky has a track record for satirizing (among
many other things) Ukrainian national values, even in front of Russian
audiences. As a presidential hopeful, in October 2018 he criticized the
Ukrainian authorities’ language policy for “dictating” to Ukrainians what
to watch and “how to speak” (BBC Monitoring, November 13, 2018). As
president, however, Zelensky will undoubtedly become respectful of
Ukrainian national values.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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