HURI is pleased to announce the publication of its latest volume, The Battle for Ukrainian: A Comparative Perspective. Edited by Michael S. Flier and Andrea Graziosi, this collection of 24 articles is the most up-to-date examination of the history and status of the Ukrainian language. With case studies of similar developments in other multilingual nations, the book offers a comparative perspective and global insights about language and politics.
The Battle for Ukrainian: A Comparative Perspective
Edited by Michael S. Flier and Andrea Graziosi
paperback, 636 pages, $29.95
View the table of contents here.
States, People, Language
The articles gathered in this book are the fruit of a conference organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Valuev Circular, which restricted the use of the Ukrainian language in print. In planning the event, Lubomyr Hajda (Senior Advisor to the Director of HURI), Andrea Graziosi (Professor of History, University of Naples Federico II), and Michael S. Flier (Oleksandr Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology, Harvard) developed the topic through a broader, more comprehensive approach.
“On the one hand, we [planned to] follow the trajectory of the emergence of Ukrainian in southern Rus’ in the medieval period, its history of waxing and waning in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and in the Soviet Union, and its record as the official state language of independent Ukraine,” Flier said. “On the other hand, we wanted to gain deeper insight from a comparative perspective by investigating other instances of language competition within the confines of a single state.”
Although the comparative perspective was initially focused on Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian, the final scope represented a more global context.
“We decided to go for comparative perspectives not usually associated with Slavic or regional East European studies—Ireland, Catalonia, Canada, India, Kazakhstan—when these perspectives exhibited features in common with, or in instructive contrast to, their Ukrainian counterparts. Apart from the intellectual benefits of such cross-fertilization, the idea was to firmly place the Ukrainian experience in a wider international context, pointing to its relevance,” said Graziosi.
Broad in discipline as well as region, the conference and the resulting volume were enriched by contributions from linguists, historians of languages, sociolinguistics, literary specialists, historians, and political scientists.
Wars of Words
While the Ukrainian language’s tumultuous path is centuries old, as the Valuev anniversary attests, news headlines today are a constant reminder that the role of Ukrainian remains a matter of public and political debate, with implications for nation-building. This timely publication “demonstrates the origins of the current vulnerability of Ukrainian and the need for its support by the state,” said Volodymyr Kulyk, author of one of the articles and Head Research Fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “It shows that the current situation does not result from a natural development of an interaction between languages, but rather from intentional policies of containment and, at times, overt prohibition of Ukrainian, with only several short periods of its promotion.”
Despite the fact that the status of Ukrainian as a distinct language is rarely questioned anymore, and few dispute its speakers’ right to use it freely, the impact of its history remains strong.
“Those willing to retain the accustomed predominance of Russian call for Ukrainian citizens to have ‘free language choice’ without mentioning (or sometimes even realizing) that an inherited structural disadvantage of Ukrainian continues to limit opportunities to actually use it in many domains,” Kulyk explained. “Against this background, many speakers of Ukrainian embrace a radical position denying the right to publicly use any other language, a position contributing to social tension within Ukraine and criticism in international fora.”
At the same time, Kulyk added, many Ukrainian citizens who would like to see an increase in the use of the Ukrainian language, and expect the state to support it, are “reluctant to make their own contribution to its spread,” especially when it comes to giving up their accustomed use of Russian in many domains, such as in restaurants, hospitals, airports, and stadiums.
The Battle for Ukrainian can serve as a useful reference for those who want to support Ukraine’s independence by speaking Ukrainian, laying out the historical development of Ukrainian and indicating the strengths and weaknesses of specific approaches other lands have used to develop language in similar situations. “As the case studies show,” Flier noted, “there is no single road to success, and a positive outcome is by no means guaranteed.”
Beyond the Battle
Flier and Graziosi, editors of the volume, answered a few questions about The Battle for Ukrainian and its contribution to scholarship and contemporary debate.
The collection covers a lot of ground. What is one takeaway that stands out to you?
Flier: If there is one fact that runs like a red thread through all the narratives of languages striving for authoritative functionality in a given polity, it is the extent to which the battles that ensue are waged at all levels of society and government, battles that come to be linked with the specific views of politics, geography, institutions, class, culture, and education. These battles may take on different forms, but the outcomes are never assured, and the consequences for waging them may be severe.
That is certainly true in the case of Ukrainian in Ukraine, where a battle for viability and dignitas has lasted for centuries and will continue to affect the direction of Ukraine politically, socially, and culturally for the foreseeable future.
Graziosi: The comparisons discussed in, or suggested by, the essays allow the reader to pointedly ask, and partially answer, a crucial question: What makes a language perspektivnyi or besperspektivnyi, to use the very pregnant Russian terms—that is, capable of surviving and flourishing, or doomed to stagnate?
By using the materials presented here in one volume, one could draw up a list of usable levers, differentiating the indirect from the direct, and thus trying to assess the respective “virtues” of soft power versus hard power. This is shown in particularly stark contrast by the Ukrainian experience from the 1920s through the 1970s, when the language development was first directly favored and then brutally repressed, to be followed after WWII by years in which a “softer” version of repression was implemented.
Considering the case studies of other languages included in the volume, how unique is Ukraine’s story?
Flier: The Ukrainian story is unusual but not unique in its juxtaposition of two languages vying for authority that are very closely related from a genetic point of view. Ukrainian and Russian are both East Slavic languages with a considerable overlap in grammatical structure and vocabulary. An analogous case can be made for the two southwestern Romance languages, Spanish and Catalan.
This fact of specific points of proximity stands in sharp contrast to contact languages from completely different families: English (Germanic) vs. French (Romance), Finnish (Finnic) vs. Russian (Slavic), Gaelic (Celtic) vs. English (Germanic), English (Germanic) vs. Hindi (Indo-Aryan), Ukrainian (Slavic) vs. Hungarian (Ugric), Yiddish (Germanic) vs. Hebrew (Semitic). And there are interesting comparisons and contrasts to make between language contacts somewhere between, such as Ukrainian (East Slavic) and Polish or Slovak (West Slavic), or Belarusian (East Slavic) and Lithuanian (Baltic).
Graziosi: All histories are unique, and all may be fruitfully compared and thus “illuminated” if we choose the right comparative angles.
Yet the history of Ukrainian presents us with a rather extreme case of conscious “building” and then “un-building” of a language, followed by the use of systematic soft power in order to keep this language in a secondary, “stunted” status, from which it reemerged thanks to an extraordinary resilience.
Ukrainian also provides a most interesting case of what has been a common story of empire disintegration/re-formation and state building the world over, a narrative in which languages have been “planned,” promoted, standardized, and repressed, or have learned to co-exist in multilingual communities.
What impact will this study have on our understanding of nationhood in Ukraine (and beyond)?
Graziosi: As the experiences of Ireland, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine confirm, language is not the only (and at sometimes not even the most important) “flag” of national identity and independence. And one may easily conceive of policies inspired by a political, inclusive concept of national belonging in which linguistic freedom and diversity may coincide with strong—and even ethnically but not linguistically based—identity feelings, as recent events in eastern and southern Ukraine seem to indicate.
What do you think are the next pressing questions for Ukrainian language and linguistics?
Flier: Will Ukrainian be able to make gains in its functional status as the official language of Ukraine through a combined effort of organic growth among younger speakers and governmental prescription for its wider use in the media, in book and newspaper publication, and in education?
Is there anything else we should know?
Flier: The Battle for Ukrainian will be of interest to historians, linguists, political scientists, and literary scholars concerned with the development and functionality of multiple languages within a single state or empire in general, and in the territory of Ukraine in particular. Students of Ukrainian-Russian relations will find striking similarities and differences in the comparison of other linguistic confrontations within a confined political or social space.
The conference on which this book is based provided the opportunity to invite scholars whose work offers the most current perspectives on specific periods of the development of the Ukrainian language. The book would be particularly useful for students concerned with the historical development of Ukrainian.
Graziosi: The book stresses the importance of, and the opportunities offered by, evading the constricted bilingual confrontational stance.
The Soviet, Yugoslav, and Indian (in its Hindi-based narration) experiences are all cases in which the actual or would-be dominant language pressed for a bilingual model—Russian, Serbo-Croatian or Hindi vis-à-vis this or that “minor” language—relegating the latter to an inferior position, and feeding arrogance on the one hand, and resentment or impotence on the other. A more liberal, “trilingual plus” solution would offer an opportunity to open a much freer space.
Obviously, it is not a “natural” solution, but one in need of human agency to affirm itself. Yet, the coming of age of English as the new international vehicular language makes such a solution available in a plurality of contexts today, creating the possibility of breaking out of the oppressive bilingual scheme, easing the tensions between the old contenders, and promoting the partial dislodging of the previously dominant language. How these alternatives might fare in the battle for Ukrainian remains to be seen.