Despite years of coverage on the language conflict in Ukraine in Language Magazine and many other media outlets, and a heartfelt, poetic explanation of the subjugation of Ukrainian, there are still commentators who question the status of Ukrainian as a language in its own right.
On April 19, ACTFL, the US association for World Language Educators, published an email newsletter titled: “Ukrainian — a separate language or dialect of Russian?” with a link to the corresponding article published in The Conversation.
The article by Joshua Holzer, assistant professor of Political Science at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, starts by remarking on the number of people taking up Ukrainian on Duolingo, and immediately asserts that, “Most of those who are taking up Ukrainian are probably unaware that there is a long-running controversy about this particular form of speech. One side views Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” and the opposing side does not.”
It continues: “The former claim that Ukrainian is just a dialect of Russian, while the latter argue that it is a separate language. Who’s correct?
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer. The difference between a language and a dialect depends upon whom you ask.”
Dr. Ruslana A. Westerlund (author of What Does it Mean to Ask How Does Ukrainian Compare With Russian?), a US-based Ukrainian author, researcher, speaker, linguist, and activist, commented: “I am absolutely outraged at this that ACTFL would include that article into their newsletter without checking the source and giving even a slight consideration of how Ukrainians who are currently fighting for their existence would react to it. I am outraged not just the obvious title and the “it depends who you ask” answer, but I’m also livid because no one bothered to invite a Ukrainian linguist to contribute to this piece. It’s like British colonists in the 17th century debating whether Wanpanoag was a legitimate language without asking the Wanpanoag themselves. We must decolonize our view of Ukraine and whose voices are legitimate, and whose voices are heard and recorded in writing. We are so tired of being marginalized. Language organizations like ACTFL need to strategically seek out the contributions of Ukrainians to fill up the information space with the Ukrainian narratives which have been pushed out for centuries and replaced by the Russian ones. We invite ACTFL and other organizations to publish information about the linguicide of the Ukrainian language which was carried out through dozens of attempts to eradicate the Ukrainian language in all spheres of society over the span of at least 300 years. If ACTFL is interested in publishing on dialects, we invite you to write the history of surzhyk, a dialect in Ukraine which was born as a result of the Russificiation efforts mentioned above. We invite you to write about the burning of the Ukrainian books and firing of Ukrainian teachers in the annexed Crimea. By writing about the Ukrainian language and its fight for survival, organizations like ACTFL will help raise the status of the Ukrainian language because it deserves to be studied widely. It will help Ukrainians themselves who are are exhausted from answering questions how does Ukrainian compare with Russian? (while no one is asking How does it compare with Polish?) Is that Russian that I heard you speak? Is that accent of yours from Russia? We are tired of proving our worth to the world and our existence in our own right.”
Dr. Corinne A. Seals (author of Choosing a Mother Tongue: The Politics of Language and Identity in Ukraine, 2019, Multilingual Matters), a Ukrainian-American New Zealander and senior lecturer of Applied Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), was likewise indignant, “It is shocking to see an article published by The Conversation and shared by ACTFL that ignores the ethics of modern research. No article should be published about a group of people, including their culture and language, without proper consultation and co-research with said people. Not only was this ethical requirement not adhered to, but the author also wrote as an authority on a linguistics issue while not a linguist himself. The question of whether Ukrainian is a language or a dialect is not even a question to linguists. Ukrainian is a language according to Ukrainians themselves and has a documented linguistic history separate from Russian dating back to the 10th century, with Modern Ukrainian existing since the 17th or 18th century. To ignore these facts and to so flippantly remark that whether it is a language or a dialect ‘depends’ shows a clear lack of knowledge and understanding about Ukrainian linguistic history and modern language politics. It is deeply disappointing that The Conversation and ACTFL would give airtime to such a flawed piece, ethically and factually.”
I mentioned that Dr. Max Weinreich, a Yiddish linguist, popularized the notion that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” In other words, governments can call just about anything a language if they pass appropriate legislation and/or make the necessary changes to their constitution. As such, the difference between a language and a dialect is just as much about politics as it is linguistics.
I build upon the quip Dr. Weinreich made famous by arguing that “a language with an army and a navy can call other languages mere dialects.” To illustrate this point, I discussed how the People’s Republic of China “has long promoted a language unification agenda” by arguing that Cantonese and other forms of speech are mere dialects of Standard Chinese—even though many would disagree.
If Russia wins the war and annexes Ukraine, there will be zero countries on Earth where Ukrainian is the sole official language. Ukrainians, at that point, could find themselves in a situation similar to those who speak Yiddish. While Yiddish has a long and proud history, its speakers are scattered throughout the world, and in no country is Yiddish the only official language. Given these realities, Yiddish is often derided as a corrupt dialect of German. This does not mean that it’s true, but without an army and navy providing backup, it can be hard to argue otherwise.
Far from being anti-Ukrainian, my article highlights how this war is not only a fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity but also for “the independence of a unique and distinct cultural community.”
If Ukraine wins, it can continue to maintain a safe space for the Ukrainian language to flourish. However, if Ukraine loses, Ukrainians could end up as another diasporic people without a place of their own, and arguments that Ukrainian is but a mere dialect of Russian—however unfounded and inflammatory they may be—will likely only become louder.
Joshua Holzer is an assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Missouri and an MA in teaching from the University of Southern California. He is a former US Army analyst and studied Chinese at the Defense Language Institute. He has been certified by the state of Missouri to teach Chinese at the K–12 level and has recently become enamored with Esperanto.