Long before shots were fired, a linguistic power struggle was underway in Ukraine, explains a linguistics expert
By: Philip Carter, Associate Professor of Linguistics, Florida International University
How is the Russian invasion of Ukraine related to language?
If you ask Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian government policy promoting the use of the Ukrainian language is evidence of the "genocide" of ethnic Russians in the Russian-speaking east, thus providing part of the rationale for the invasion.
We'll put the propaganda aside, but something else links war to language: power.
Long before shots were fired, a power struggle was going on in the area surrounding the language - especially around the question of whether Ukrainian is a language or not. Professional linguists and Ukrainian speakers agree that Ukrainian is a separate language, and the distance between it and Russian is like between Spanish and Portuguese. However, Russian nationalists have long sought to classify it as a dialect of Russian.
Status of Russian as a strong international language (language of power)
It turns out that the classification of a linguistic dialect as a "language" is less clear than one might think. Popular understandings of "language" versus "dialect" are usually based more on political criteria than on linguistic criteria. As the sociologist Max Weinreich succinctly put it, "Language is a dialect with an army and a navy."
Russian, the language of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, is one of the handful of influential international languages in the world (something known as a language of power). Along with languages like Mandarin, Spanish and English, Russian is deeply intertwined in world politics, business and pop culture.
Of the 260 million speakers of Russian, about 40% - 103 million - speak it as a second language, a sign that people see value in learning it. Russian is a lingua franca throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, and is widely spoken in the Baltic states. In Ukraine - Russia's largest European neighbor - Russian is the mother tongue of about a third of the population, about 13 million people. "The number of speakers" is not the defining characteristic of an influential international language; Bengali, for example, has 265 million speakers - more than Russian - but most people do not want to learn it.
Russian, on the other hand, is unique among the Slavic languages in that it is taught at the most prestigious universities throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States.
The international languages derive their status not from anything inherent in the linguistic system, but from the historical power arrangements that give their speakers - and the culture - perceived status and value. Russian supplanted other languages starting with the beginning of the expansion of the Muscovites, residents of the Grand Duchy of Moscow that preceded the Russian Empire, who moved east and north, and took over Kazan and Siberia during the 16th century. By the end of the 19th century, the Russians had conquered Central Asia, all the way to the Chinese border. After World War II, the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence to Eastern Europe.
Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922. In 1991, it gained its independence, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Although no one knows for sure, it appears that Putin is seeking to make all of Ukraine, or at least parts of it, part of Russia.
Two components of the same linguistic branch
So if Russian is a "language of power", what is Ukrainian?
If you ask Russian nationalists, Ukrainian is not a language at all. In 1863, the Russian Minister of the Interior Pyotr Valoyev stated that "a separate Ukrainian language ('Little Russian') never existed, does not exist and will not exist". Another quote - attributed to Tsar Nicholas II - "There is no Ukrainian language, only illiterate peasants who speak little Russian".
"But according to linguistic history, Ukrainian and Russian emerged as separate languages from a common source language that was spoken around 500 AD, a language that linguists call "Proto-Slavic". The Slavic languages share more than grammatical and phonological linguistic similarities. They also have a common homeland, and that homeland was, apparently, Western Ukraine.
For reasons that linguists, archaeologists, and other researchers are still debating, Proto-Slavic speakers spread from their homelands and moved north, west, and south.
As they passed, Proto-Slavic gradually gave birth to the language varieties that would eventually become the modern Slavic languages, which include Polish, Serbian, Russian, and Ukrainian. By the 9th century, Slavs who remained in the area where the language developed established the first East Slavic federation known as the Rus of Kiev centered, as the name suggests, in Kiev. The Rus of Kiev can be considered the forerunner of the modern Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian nations.
Since the language has become so tied to national identity, it's no wonder that restoring Ukrainian to its status as a dialect of Russian is an integral part of Putin's campaign, just as it was for Tsar Nicholas II 200 years ago. Part of holding power, it turns out, is the ability to frame the discourse, and the title of Putin's article, "On the historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians", published in July 2021, leaves little doubt as to his position. If everything in Ukraine - including the language - are simply derivatives of all Russian counterparts, the invasion looks less like an act of aggression and more like reintegration.
The Ukrainians, of course, disagree about the characterization not because Russian is not spoken in Ukraine - Volodymyr Zelensky himself speaks Russian - but because for many, Ukrainian identity involves bilingualism. Many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian and even mix them in a way that people call "surzhyk" - the East Slavic version of "Spanglish".
In Ukrainian public life, concerns about the supremacy of Russians or Ukrainians have led to conflict in the past. In 2020, heated debates and protests were held over a bill that would have abolished the mandatory condition that 80% of studies take place in Ukrainian. In 2012, a fight broke out in the Ukrainian parliament following a bill that would have made Russian an official language, alongside Ukrainian, in parts of the country.
Recently, reports show that in eastern Ukraine, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians are abandoning Russian to avoid using the "language of the occupier". Of course, speakers all over the world give up their mother tongue in favor of languages they perceive as more valuable all the time, but usually this happens gradually, and in the direction of strong languages. Except in circumstances of extreme duress—an outside invader or forced submission by a dominant group—it is somewhat unusual for speakers to abandon their native language overnight.
In El Salvador, Lankan and Cacapuare speakers did this in the 30s to avoid being killed by Spanish-speaking Salvadoran soldiers. But in Ukraine, many speakers do not adopt the invader's language; They give it up.
Putin's attack will almost certainly accelerate this trend. While the status of Russian as a strong language will probably not be affected with all the attention on Ukraine, maybe the world will appreciate that in the Slavic homeland people prefer to speak Ukrainian - not Russian.
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