On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Russian, Ukrainian, and the Perils of Linguistic Nationalism (May 25, 2014)


Nations are notoriously difficult to define—unless, that is, you stick to such a simple category as whether or not a state is accepted as a sovereign member of the United Nations. Few would be satisfied with such a limited notion of nation, however, and indeed nearly every recognized nation-state is fissured with at least one, if not numerous would-be nations straining to be recognized. We in America, of course, know this better than most, what with the almost countless indigenous nations that coincide with United States territory, each with its own relative proportion of autonomy (though with none currently meeting the standards of sovereignty that would allow its entry as a full member-state of the United Nations).

One of the many criteria according to which entities have claimed national status is linguistic solidarity—though it is of course crucial to recognize that linguistic unity is in no way a requirement for national status (as such multi-lingual nation-states as Switzerland, Belgium, and South Africa make clear; indeed, the lack of an official language in a country such as the United States, which, while teeming with multiple languages, is nevertheless dominated by English, suggests that linguistic cohesion is in no way essential to national unity). Arguments that shared linguistic life is a vital means of maintaining national community appeal to perhaps the most profound way in which we culturally perceive the world—our primary language. As Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o shows so powerfully in his essay, “Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship” (available here in a transcription of a 1999 conference version),
one’s maternal vernacular (if singular) can alone convey the truly magical, emotional quality of language that is either only faintly reproduced, if not entirely absent, in the highly rationalized languages acquired through education, particularly those master languages learned by colonized subjects. Such magic can surely do more than just convey literary emotion; it can also serve to bind citizens together in linguistic communities that can then become nations, as happened, for example, throughout the post-Ottoman Balkans.

How such linguistic communities are defined, however, is extremely unstable—with both the extent to which linguistic solidarity should be seen as transcending borders, and the notoriously slippery distinctions between languages and dialects each being dangerously unclear. What we see being currently played out in the Ukraine and Russia seems to show both brands of volatile linguistic instability. Firstly, Vladimir Putin’s unsettling claim to be acting on behalf of Russian speakers in Ukraine (sometimes referred to in media reports as “ethnic Russians”) presents quite chilling implications, as many commentators have pointed out. While it is highly unlikely that Putin would ever claim to act on behalf of the large Russian-speaking minorities in places like the city of Los Angeles or the state of Israel, it is nevertheless crystal clear that he is asserting that linguistic bonds might trump the recognized borders of sovereign states. The acutely controversial March 16, 2014 referendum on the Crimea’s status (which resulted in claims for a 96.7% vote for dissolving ties with the Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, and the results of which have been thus far rejected by United Nations votes; see the excellent Wikipedia article) and the ongoing separatist clashes in eastern Ukraine indicate clearly how violently appeals to linguistic bonds can threaten, if not eradicate, political boundaries. Who knows where such linguistic nationalism might next arise?

But the profound similarity of Russian and Ukrainian also seems to play a powerful role in this conflict. While my knowledge of these languages is too minimal for me to effectively analyze linguistic analyses of the subject (I did take Russian 1 and Russian 2 as an undergraduate, but—alas!—gave up on Russian 3 because it met at 8 am, and I have, regretfully, not yet gone back to try to master the language), I have been fascinated by how controversial the status of Ukrainian and Russian as either separate languages or dialects seems to be. (For some fine academic discussion of the topic, with views ranging from claims of true mutual intelligibility to severe qualification of any proximity claims to assumptions of linguistic independence, of any such proximity, see here, here,  and here).

It seems clear that the consensus view among linguists is that Ukrainian is a distinct language, standing alongside Russian, Belarussian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian in the broader Slavic language family. At least two, decades-long periods of suppression of Ukrainian in the U.S.S.R. era (1933-57 and 1973-89) have clearly indicated the material stakes of this linguistic difference: intra-Soviet competition showed that Ukrainian posed a threat to Russian preeminence as a lingua franca in the empire. However, commentators often also mention, sometimes in passing (as in this excellent Wikipedia article on Ukrainian), that Russian and Ukrainian are to a certain extent mutually intelligible. To my mind, languages that are to any appreciable extent mutually intelligible would seem to be, not separate languages, but dialects—and so it is with great wonder that I learn about the various ways in which Ukrainian and Russian difference is marked on political and cultural fronts.

Indeed, political factors are often appealed to b in the classification of languages, allowing for what would otherwise simply be dialects to be marked as separate languages. As one can learn in this excellent discussion excerpted from Michael Gasser’s How Language Works, political difference makes all the difference in choosing distinct language rather than dialect in such cases as Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, and indeed some have sought to identify the quite obviously mutually intelligible English and Scots as separate languages (which would seem to necessitate that American, Australian, and Irish, among others, then become independent languages). While mutual intelligibility, as Gasser explains, is often quite subjective, it is hard for me, as currently informed by my rather superficial, post-Crimean-crisis-inspired survey of some readily available research on Russian-Ukrainian difference, not to assume that political (and, presumably, also cultural) difference is a major, if not indeed the primary factor sustaining this ethnonational conflict.

As a scholar specializing in medieval Britain, I am fascinated by how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict reminds us that some of the fiercest conflicts can come from a xenophobia forged by dangerous proximity. There was certainly ample evidence of inter-linguistic hostility in Britain: Edward I’s English armies (which would, by the way, have had many of the elite members speaking French as well as English) brutally conquered Wales in the 1280s, and much of English policy in the ensuing years involved the treatment of Welsh-speaking members of the populace as emphatically second-class citizens, which bred much discontent, resulting in such flare-ups as Owain Glyndŵr’s 1401-15 rebellion. Moreover, internal conflicts within Scottish lands often appealed to actual (not perceived) linguistic difference, with the Celtic language of Gaelic spoken primarily in the Highlands and Isles emphatically not mutually intelligible with the Middle Scots spoken in southern, lowland Scotland, whose citizens increasingly saw themselves as a civilized region bordered by barbaric Highlanders.

However, it is the intense conflict between the northern English and southern Scots that, to my mind (which is perhaps biased because I have spent a very significant amount of time studying the region) seems to generate the most violent expressions of inter-ethnic conflict in late-medieval Britain. Whether during periods of war or inactivity on the Anglo-Scottish border, vicious statements of xenophobia can be found in both Scottish and English sources, whether it be the anti-English venom of a Blind Harry or the anti-Scottish xenophobia of a Laurence Minot (anyone who studies the period knows that examples of literary inter-ethnic loathing could be easily multiplied). Perhaps not despite, but because of shared language and a terrain that was not obviously divisible at any particular geographical site, medieval Scots and English turned to deep ethnic hate to sustain what were primarily politically consolidated differences.

Much as it is grimly fascinating to see ethnic and linguistic identification inflecting both the material and propaganda wars currently wracking the Ukraine, it is highly interesting to see the much cooler and more deliberate, yet possibly equally decisive deployment of such artificial differentiation in the Scottish Independence referendum set for September 18, 2014. In both Britain and in the Black Sea region. communities who are in many ways highly linguistically similar (differing, perhaps, in dialect rather than in language), and who share so much else in terms of economic, environmental, and geographic concerns, are nevertheless reaching for various criteria in order to destabilize existing political borders. The central role of an uncannily proximate yet dangerous linguistic difference continues to strike me as suggestive of a new phase in the development of nationalism (though one that is in many respects atavistic). It is hard not to wonder, judging from these roughly concurrent events, whether a new era of ethno-linguistic nationalism, not unlike that in the late-nineteenth-century tied to the prolonged collapse of the Ottoman Empire, might be upon us. Who knows where the entropic energies of linguistic nationalism might next converge?


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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