Politicizing Ukrainian language


The state, the language, and the conclusions we are to draw witnessing the two interact

“Nations do not die from just infarction. First, their language is numbed” (c) Lina Kostenko, Ukrainian writer

Language, both as an instrument of thought and as an instrument of communication, plays an undeniably important role in sustaining the functionality of any society: multilingualism sustains multilingual community, and monolingual societies dwell, respectively, on the dominant language. This dichotomy, however, does not do justice to the plurality of the processes which language partakes in on either side. To take an example from a society with a dominant language, members of such society receive the main bulk of information in the language which they identify as native/dominant, and are often likely to subject information presented in other languages to much greater degree of scrutiny and refuse it benefit of the doubt. In and of itself, it is not the language of the community which sustains the community; instead, it is the singularity of that language which does so. This distinction is crucial to point out for the further discussion.

Ukraine has always been in-between. In-between of wars, in-between of conflicts, in-between of geopolitical constellations and economic clusters, and, most crucially, in-between languages. Emanating from Old Church Slavonic, Ukrainian together with Rusyn were in the very middle between East Slavic languages to which they belonged and West Slavic languages like Polish and Czech to say nothing of Romance Balkan (Romanian) and even Uralic (Hungarian). Few countries in Europe sustained largely monolingual community despite being surrounded by a wide variety of vastly different languages. Still, Ukraine did; mostly due to its strive for independence, inextricably linked to language as a token, a symbol of such strive.

In today’s Ukraine, wide debates ranged over new versions of Ukrainian Grammar (Ukrajinskyi Pravopys). These debates recently took shape of court litigation, which is an alarming precedent from any point view. Such a precedent raises questions of not only language as a part of national and personal identity, but also the relationship between the language and the state. It is not unreasonable to see the latter question as an unlikely one to arise in the country where language has been the power and the fuel, inter alia, of the fight for independence lasting some three hundred years. The reality, however, proves otherwise. In this essay, I aim to analyze the tensions which arose over the course of the recent debates in Ukraine and give a linguistic account for them.

The structure of this post is as follows:

Changing the grammar: was it really that much of a change?

In what follows, I introduce a selection of changes which were the foci of media and debate’s attention. I then discuss their role and impact on Ukrainian more generally. While the essay does not aim at evaluating how appropriate or justified the changes were, it is important that the reader is informed what the changes to grammar were, in order to follow the arguments in the subsequent sections.

Within the last (1.6) category, are the following:

To sum up, the new rules (1.2.-1.5.) relate mostly to capitalization, inter-word morphology, or affixation while (1.6.1-5.) deal only with particular letters, or more precisely, sounds: all the changes offered concern related sounds, as /i/ or /ɪ/ vs. /u/; /ʕ̞/ or /ɦ/ vs /g/. It is also important to mention that in most cases (1.6.1-6.), the spelling is not really amended, but, rather, augmented by a supplementary form: moving from one acceptable spelling norm to two. On the surface the changes do not seem to be all that profound – and that is exactly what they are.

It is necessary to consider gendered nous in their own right. No doubt, this topic has been a subject of heated debates across many disciplines (secundum Sczesny et al., 2016; Prewitt-Freilino et al., 2012; Konnelly, 2020, inter alia). Looking at Ukrainian, it is easy to see both advantages (e.g., moving away from the existing gendered forms, like feminine “teacher, cashier, maid” to create alternative masculine, and vice versa for exclusively male “director, ambassador, doctor”) and drawbacks (the emerging two-gender dichotomy does not account for any other genders) of the decision to introduce the gendered forms. I view this addition, or rather, inclusion, as a staunch improvement since it is not possible for Ukrainian to be gender-fair like English is, just by the virtue of language typology (sc. fusional vs analytical languages and grammatical/lexical gender in languages). The scope of this augmentation is, however, not altogether grand: it involved adding either masculine or feminine forms to dictionaries and recognizing them as valid linguistic units. The utility of this is apparent: for example, a national examiner for the state exam in Ukrainian language will not be able to penalize a girl who wants to become a “doktorka” (doctor.FEM), and not a “doktor” (doctor.MASC).

The latter point, in fact, was behind the primary cause of the lawsuit. A seventh-grader was frustrated with the fact that the new spelling norms would be in place by the time she will be taking Ukrainian state examination in her native language. The changes would allegedly pose an obstacle for the seventh-grader’s successful application process to universities since the latter is based off the examination results. This concerns a larger impact of the new norms on Ukrainian society. It is admittedly not altogether grand as well.

Looking back at the changes proposed, similar considerations apply to some of the spelling augmentations in (1.6.1-5): their purpose is to include those speakers of Ukrainian whose pronunciation or conventional spelling have not been reflected in official language for a long time, but who make up a portion of Ukrainians significant enough to be recognized. The virtually minute innovations are further pacified by the augmentative nature of the proposal, as opposed to replacement.

The augmentation which is marked by a particular share of historicity is that of /ʕ̞/ or /ɦ/ vs /g/ in spelling. The sounds are reflected by letters “г” and “ґ” respectively. Letter “ґ” was always a member of Ukrainian alphabet – mainly, to be used in many loan words coming from Yiddish, German, and the languages of their kin. It earned its place among other letters of Ukrainian (and also Belorusian). However, per ideological concerns, it was removed from the Ukrainian alphabet in 1933 (cf. Konovaljuk 2001). Remarkably, and in line with the political status quo at the time, the revision of the alphabet was performed by N. Kahanovyč and A. Olinter (Xvylja), both avid political activists, fighters against nationalism and “nationalistic bourgeoisie” and the latter, notably, with no linguistic or any, in fact, degree. No attempts by Ukrainian writers (Tychyna, Ryls´k´yj) to restore the unlawfully outlawed letter succeeded. However, another disparity os connected to this phenomenon. It wasn’t until shortly before the onset of WWII that the Western Ukraine was subjugated by Soviet empire and the letter in question was outlawed there too (cf. Volovenko 2013; Hryhor’jeva 2001). Such a difference in timing added to the existing divide between east and west. In modern Ukraine, letter “ґ” was resurrected, but it never was the same for eastern Ukraine. After all, two generations grew up without knowing of its existence. However, the sound system did not change at the point when the alphabet did – and the sounds which letter “ґ” was and is used to denote still exist. The proposed change to the grammar is there to nullify the existing gaps in Ukrainian phonology, yet it is alien to some of the people in eastern Ukraine and this is met with opposition.

Arguably, the impact of such changed would not have been much seen or attended if it weren’t for the state assessment or the public and ever-vivid opinion on linguistic matters. To sum up, it seems to hardly debatable that the offered alterations or augmentations of the grammar were not grand-scale ones, yet still they caused a tempest of clamoring winds of disapproval and approval alike.

Looking for linguistic substance in the plaintiff’s case

What was the reason and the purpose of the lawsuit? Let’s consider two quotes which, in my view, are at the very heart of the argument here. According to the lawyer appealing the state’s decision (here and hereafter translation is mine - DMO):

The claims are clear, and allegedly logical. However, appealing to the “development” of the language, the plaintiff does not provide the definition of this concept, apparently taking it to be self-evident. However, in contradistinction to the presumptuous lack of definition, it is far from easy to put one’s finger on determining what exactly “development” of any given language is. Theoretical linguistics and sociolinguistics use the term “change” to refer to the historical trajectory of language change (see, for example, Lass 1997; Janda and Joseph 2003; Hock and Joseph 2019). The important point here is that language “changes” only naturally, no governmental order or court decision can “change” language in and of itself. The veridicality of this statement is easy to evaluate with a hypothetical. Say, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously approved the negative concord (viz. “he didn’t do no harm”, which exists as a form of variation of standard English). Trivially, no such court order will make all the people of the US suddenly start using the negative concord the very morning the decision is issued (albeit it might move some negligible minority of them to try).

To look at the “change” from another perspective, let’s turn to the definition of language. In generative linguistics, language is not a means of communication. Instead, the Language, put rather fancifully, is an instrument of thought, a cognitive faculty (see Chomsky 2006 for discussion of I-language, inter alia ). The main aspects of language are internal and intensional (sc. language computation) hence the conclusion that the use of language as a means of communication, i.e. the externalization of language to some phonetic form or otherwise, is peripheral (sec. Chomsky 1979 for discussion on e-Language, inter alia).

So, is it possible to change such a language (an internal one) by a court order or a governmental ukaz? On the one hand, it is, trivially, impossible to change language at once, as shown above. However, the plurality of linguicides prove that oppression of a particular language over time does yield change, as Irish, African languages, or other languages affected or driven to extinction by colonization will attest. In fact, the latter looks right into the crux of the Ukrainian case in question: Ukrainian was affected by Russophone expansion over and over again, and the court petition is effectively an attempt to stop revitalization of Ukrainian . Language change which happens within war or colonization, notably, includes alterations to one’s identity since language is a unalienable part of identity. The split identity then causes conflict which, in our case, met in the court of law.

However, can the alterations to a dozen forms of spelling be considered changing a language? Ukrainian government aimed to change some spelling rules (periphery at best), which have little in common with language as a cognitive, mental tool per se . A bigger problem would emerge if someone were to decide to actually change a certain fundamental aspect of the language, and add, for example, a pronoun. From the experience of English language, we know that none of the attempts to add a gender-neutral pronoun succeeded (Carnie 2012:64). The only pronoun that managed to play the role of gender-neutral is the pronoun they, which has been gender-neutral since Middle English (Chaucer 1400) and was attested in Early Modern English (Shakespeare CE 4.3.2). Thus, I do see that artificially changing a part of language (sc. parts of speech) that are closed (e.g., pronouns or numerals) is not possible (or barely possible), while languages are constantly being replenished with novel adjectives and nouns. The latter parts of speech are, respectively, open (Carnie 2012:52). The changes if spelling did not deal with the closed parts of speech and are therefore reasonable with respect to their implementability.

Given the considerations above, the argument for “changing the direction of language development” does not seem all that reasonable. The government did not change the language sensu described above, let alone any “direction” of change or development. Again, it is impossible to change the direction of language development by a court order. It can be changed – viz. obliterated, by war or colonization (Mühlhäusler 2002). However, the latter is not really a change itself in most cases: one wouldn’t say that Latin or Gothic languages changed when the speakers of these languages, in fact, vanished. Same applies to the sacked languages of indigenous tribes of South America which are dead or moribund largely due to massacre of native speakers over the course of hispanophone expansion, among other factors (Nette and Romaine 2000, Mufwene, 2002).

Here it is worth noting that the question of how appropriate the changes to the periphery of language, namely the changes to the spelling rules, were is an altogether different question and definitely deserves careful, but separate, consideration. This question is a philological one rather than a linguistical one, and should be adjudicated upon by researchers in respective fields. However, no matter which framework one considers this issue in, the questions of changing spelling do not belong in the judicial branch.

The government and the language

Is it necessary for the state to have the authority to control language rules?

Necessary? To forthrightly answer, no. Desirable, perhaps – especially in the specific case of Ukrainian. Why is this desirable?

One possible answer could be drawn from applying the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism dichotomy (see Santorini and Kroch 2007; Brewer 2010; Hong 2007). Prescriptivism is what the language is prescribed to be (do not start sentence with a conjunction, sentence should always have a subject and a predicate, do not split infinitives, etc.). And descriptivism is rather what language actually is, with an occasional negative concord (Tortora and Dikken 2010), drama so (Gonzálvez-Garcia 2014), a-prefixing (Christian et al. 1988), double comparative (Corver 2005), et cetera (for a more comprehensive review see Yale Grammatical Diversity Project). Prescriptivism is often accused of snobbery, but it is also much needed at times, and there is a historical argument for that.

English, the imperialist language (Suzina 2021), never had a body to regulate its use in official and academic documents. Now, many stylists are frowning and looking misty-eyed at France, where the Académie Française has long functioned as the strict regulatory body, concerned primarily with prescriptive norms. While academic French has not changed much since Moliere’s time (relatively, of course), Shakespeare is difficult for modern American teens to read. Often enough, English is presented as “correct” and “global” as opposed to Académie Française and French, who are labelled as “narrow”, “limited”, etc. (see, for example, the discussion in Estival and Pennycook 2011). Such polarization is not appropriate, but my point here is that the balance, the midpoint between the two approaches is the solution.

In terms of Ukrainian, certain prescriptive regulations are, of course, necessary, especially given certain pressure from the neighboring states (namely, the eastern one) who purports to defend Russian with a remarkable, sometimes even toxic, zeal. The regulation is necessary so that, as the plaintiff claims, “regional dialect” does not become the official state language – but scarce is their potential to do so. More in point, regulation is needed for the language standard to exist as such, and for a document from the eastern Ukraine regions to be understood in Transcarpathia, and vice versa. However, this standard should, no doubt, reflect the language which is being used by people – which was, after all, the purpose of introducing amendments to the current grammar. Standard should be in place in order to help the language in the rebound period after its escape from the Russophone cage.

The question of who should implement the language regulation, and who has the deciding voice on which peripheral norms to change does not have an immediate answer, but it is quite clear that those entities are not judges, lawyers or prosecutors.

A brief philological digression into history of Ukrainian

As mentioned above, the question of changing the spelling rules (periphery) is a question for philologists, but we would like to introduce some considerations here as well.

The first and the main consideration is that Ukrainian language was ravaged by Russian aggression ever since 1863. That was the year when the first ukaz was issued to stop publishing academic and clerical books in Ukrainian, modulo the 10% of the territory of modern Ukraine which was not controlled by Russian Empire at that time (Remy 2007; Remy 2017). The fiction, publishable under the 1863 law, was outlawed in 1876, finalizing the tsar’s venture (Himka 2002; Krys 2017). Naturally, Ukrainian writers were sought out and prosecuted. This led to expansion of Russian and partial assimilation of Ukrainian language into Russian which is evident in modern eastern Ukraine. Contrasting to this is western Ukraine which underwent significant influence of Hungarian, Polish, and Czech. The contrasts between the two parts of the country, apart from the political ones, show themselves in disputes on which version of Ukrainian is real Ukrainian. Naturally, they both are to some degree with respect to linguistic diversity which lends little substance to such debates. The attempts to reconcile the russified spelling and the spelling actually lead now to language appearing in the court of law.

Notably, the contrast is most easily seen when we compare the literature of the mid-19th century which reflected the spoken language with todays spoken language. Fortunately, there is Enejida Kotljarevs´koho which, published in 1842 was exactly that – the reflection of the language spoken by peasants across Ukraine.

However, the legislature of 1863 and 1876 proved to be quite liberal compared to the red terror of 1930s when teachers of Ukrainian, Ukrainian writers, and Ukrainian clergy were effectively shot by Soviet government (Hryn 2004; Lemkin and Irvine-Erickson, 2014), to say nothing of two genocides. The fact that most of the adults in eastern Ukraine are not able to speak Ukrainian because they grew up without studying Ukrainian at school (the only language they studied was Russian) is eloquent enough and speaks for itself. This division and split western-eastern identity of Ukrainian puts forth an almost impossible task for the pro-Ukrainian government – the reconciliation of the two sides. A seemingly acceptable solution is to augment the grammar with two options for spelling, and yet that did not work.

The accusation sometimes put forth against the novel regulations is that they will cause a “developmental delay” sensu returning to the language “old,” obsolete norms. It is quite possible (not a “delay”, of course, but a return) – and I support such a return wholeheartedly. As shown above, speech norms are the far from the same in the Kharkiv region (the east, influenced by Russian) and in the Vinnytsia region (the west, influenced by Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, and Czech). In my opinion, the variation is so great that sometimes the descriptive regional norms are polar, i.e., equidistant from the prescriptive standard. The decision to reinstate some spelling (not even grammar) rules must be made to reflect the majority or to clear the language of tercentenary influence of Russian step by step.

We, however, see the new spelling as balanced, and the changes as logical. The “developmental delay” and attempts to reinstate something that could not be reinstated per se would be, for example, attempts to return the really outdated language forms, such as the ones below.

The dual number, an intermediary between singular and plural, is one form which the Russian yoke took away (cf. Fox 2019; Attack 2016; Wild 2005). The dual number, although obsolete, sometimes does appear in Ukrainian literature (Zabuzhko 2007: “vonhyramy v oču”; Zabuzhko 2009: “zadvojilos´ v oču”; Ahejeva 2019: “v očy rjabyt´”, sec. Shvedova et al. 2017). An unexpected decision to reinstate the dual number, even though the latter ceased to exist because of the Russian’s mandated expansion augmented by ban on Ukrainian, would not have a logical basis or success.

Another feature that has disappeared from the language, and the return of which by the decision of the government would make headlines: aorist, a form of the past tense. Present in Bulgarian, this verb form was once used in Ukrainian, it can be seen as recently as in Shevchenko (“Ubyv staroho Rohvoloda,/ Potja narod, knjažnu poja/ Otyde v volosti svoja”; 1893:326). However, no one tries to return to this form, just as no one dreams about returning Drahomanivka, which is more of a periphery, akin to the recent changes, a change of alphabet pioneered in 1870s to liken Ukrainian to Polish and other western Slavic languages (see Ukrajinka, 2016:33ff). These interventions are thorough and would indeed cause change in a grand scheme of things – this is precisely the reason why no one is after reinstating these forms. There are many such examples, and the research community made informed decisions about what to reinstate and what not to; the same applies to language innovation, mutatis mutandis.

Conclusions, speculations, and looking into the future

The overarching conclusion with regard to the current litigation is that the linguistic validity of panoply of the presented arguments, which the lawyers are attempting to scaffold their claims on, is figmental at best. Being conjured casuistry in their nature, the language “change” claimed voluminously to be inflicting grave wounds on language “development” and exam-takers, as well as the purported “distortion” of language do not hold up to any amount of scientific, logical, or linguistic scrutiny. The arguments are thus hiding being a rather surreptitious objective to deter the rebound even of periphery of Ukrainian language.

Going forward, there are two kinds of conclusions which are to be drawn: anent the “revitalization” of Ukrainian and dealing with the reconciliation of the eastern-western opposition, and anent the court precedent of judicial intervention into linguistics.

Apropos the first one, we see it that those people residing in Ukraine who do not have the ability to speak Ukrainian do not have agency to adjudicate on the matters of Ukrainian grammar. We also view it as a necessary and unalienable part of Ukrainian identity to be able to speak the language of the country without trying to sway or steer the language to distort it to a form as close as possible to the language spoken by the loudly equivocating Russophone minority. The striking ignorance and abject negligence towards the history of the language which is recovering from three centuries of linguicide should not be subject of litigation in the court.

Apropos the second issue, the language being decided by the judicial system is fallacious by the same reason of lacking agency. The court is not the one to have conducted sociological, sociolinguistic, and lexicographical studies to show which forms are predominant or which forms should be reinstated in the official grammar. Trivially, the circumstances of the court case which is being scrutinized lead down the rabbit hole of multitudes of split identity questions and political division concerns. To reconcile these, the government needs to have the capability to influence that or that side – and regulating grammar shoulder-to-shoulder with scholars and researchers should be a part of that capability. However, the influence is not to be litigated.

The consequences of either vacillation neglection of any sort regarding either of the two conclusions drawn above will alike inevitably lead to further division between two sides of the conflict, as well as to failure to remedy the insidious russification of the Ukrainian people.

Finally, we must point out that the arguments presented here are rather eclectic (dozens of monographs and hundreds of articles have been written about language change) and subjective as they pertain to the continuing litigation of the fate of Ukrainian language. Of course, the discussion should continue, and I hope it will, yet not in the court of law.

I are sure that the research, including corpus studies, lexicography studies, etc. are vitally important. As such, the research methodology that underlies the changes proposed by the Institute for Ukrainian Language of National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and enacted by the government should be challenged and scrutinized. However, the methodology issues are never judicial issues, and they cannot be such a priori. Letting the judiciary intervene is the neglection of academic duty on the one hand, and setting a sinister precedent on the other. The logic is truant from such a decision.