The problem with Irish

18 September 2018, 19:34

A few years ago, Manchán Magan, an Irish writer and journalist, travelled across Ireland from Dublin pretending he only spoke Irish. He discovered that the staff of most service providers and stores could not communicate with him. Here is how Magan described one of his experiences: “‘Do you speak English?’ a sales assistant asked in a cold intimidating voice. ‘Sea,’ I said, nodding meekly. ‘Well, can you speak English to me now?’ I told him as simply as I could that I was trying to get by with Irish. ‘I'm not talking to you any more,’ he said. ‘Go away.’” Encouragingly, Magan told the sales assistant that he could understand him if he spoke English. “English only,” was the answer from the sales assistant’s boss, who repeated it twice. When Magan asked them what other languages he could speak to them in, they pointed to a list of seven countries on the wall.

Magan encountered many problems in other parts of the country. His terrible experience was especially shocking given that official Irish statistics are that 25-40% of his countrymen supposedly know the language, and that Irish is one of the working languages of the EU.

What the polls say

To assume that Ukrainian is safeguarded from a similar scenario in Ukraine is to be overly complacent. Despite the rise of national sentiment and some growth in patriotism triggered by Russia’s aggression, the environment where Ukrainian is used in the country keeps shrinking.

At first glance, the latest polls across Ukraine—outside the occupied territories—look far better than those conducted prior to 2014. But this is misleading, because pre-2014 statistics included mostly russified Crimea and the equally russified parts of Donbas that are currently under occupation. Indeed, surveys show that most people in Ukraine feel that the Ukrainian language is under pressure and threatened, and are keen to see more proactive efforts on the part of the government to expand the use of Ukrainian.

According to surveys conducted by Ukraine’s top pollsters and published by Prostir Svobody or Freedom Space Movement, 17% of those polled believe that Russian speakers in Ukraine are experiencing pressure because of their language, while 72% reject this notion. 60% of those polled believe that the Ukrainian language should become the main language in all areas of communication and 61% say that the state language policy should “support the spread of the Ukrainian language in all areas of life.” 64% think that the government should support Ukrainian first and foremost.

Meanwhile, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the share of ethnic Ukrainians using Ukrainian at home is moving closer to 50%. According to a survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in the spring of 2017, 92% of Ukraine’s citizens, excluding the occupied territories, described themselves as ethnic Ukrainians and only 6% as ethnic Russians. A survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) revealed that 88% of Ukraine’s citizens described themselves as ethnic Ukrainians and less than 6% as ethnic Russians. 50% of those polled by KIIS say that they speak Ukrainian at home, 25% speak Russian mostly or always, and 24% speak both languages in their families. This reflects the nationwide situation. In big and mid-sized cities, Ukrainian is in a far worse position, especially in Southeastern and Central Ukraine. 

Stockholm syndrome

Ukraine has a lot in common with Ireland in this. Three centuries of being dismissed as “Little Russians” has engendered an inferiority complex that is most felt around the issue of language. Ukrainians could expect to pursue their personal and professional ambitions, or to join the upper classes only by abandoning their native language and switching to Russian. Eventually, the pressure exerted on several generations of Ukrainians turned them into the drivers of the process. As a result, russification continues in Ukraine, as if it were still a corner of the Russian empire, not a fully independent nation.

More and more Ukrainian-speakers continue to abandon their language because the government offers no clear and effective language policy, post-imperial inertia continues, and too many Ukrainian-speakers are passive about defending their language rights. As a result, Russian remains the dominant language in Ukraine today. The country’s colonial legacy means that Russian still dominates in its main economic and cultural centers, Lviv being the only exception among major cities. It dominates in business and mass media as the majority print products, except for textbooks and children’s books are published in Russian. Most mid- and top civil servants still speak Russian, at least in everyday life. In violation of the law and thanks to loopholes, Russian continues to dominate among bureaucrats, especially in unofficial or off-record communication.

Despite the appearance of ukrainization, Russian is de factooverly present in Ukraine’s school system, especially in the sciences in secondary and vocational schools, non-humanities faculties in universities, and most faculties across the board in post-secondary institutions in southeastern Ukraine. Lectures are often delivered in Ukrainian while seminars and consultations with professors are in Russian. In a nutshell, most schools with Ukrainian as the language of instruction, vocational schools and universities in big and mid-sized cities, both in southeastern Ukraine and beyond, continue to use Russian in education, especially for extracurricular communication. Non-school education is even worse in this regard. 

The domination of Russian in the media, radio and customer service remains a huge problem. According to data from Freedom Space, only 31.9% of printed press is in Ukrainian while nearly 62% is still in Russian. In fact, the share of press in Ukrainian has shrunk from 34% to 32% since 2015. Moreover, Ukrainian remains a minority language on radio and TV, both of which influence Ukrainians far more than the press. 

A study of cafes, restaurants and stores in 26 cities across Ukraine has revealed that Russian dominates in the service sector, too. Only 49% of the places covered by the survey make sure that the staff reply to customers in Ukrainian. In stores, 44% of sales assistants and consultants do so. This is better than Ireland, but is Ukraine moving in the right direction? 

Colonial cities

The threat of Ukraine becoming like Ireland linguistically is aggravated by the way it is being urbanized and suburbanized. While non-occupied Ukraine no longer has fully Russian-speaking regions, Halychyna in Western Ukraine, covering Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil Oblasts, is the only region that can be described as a Ukrainian-speakers. In other oblasts, small and mid-sized russified cities dominate the Ukrainian-speaking countryside. Proportions vary across Ukraine and urban-rural interactions result in mingling where part of the urban population switches to Ukrainian while some of those living in small towns and villages switch to Russian. But this is hardly changing the overall picture. Most big cities with suburbs and many mid-sized ones remain post-colonial centers of russification by inertia from the centuries when Ukraine was subjugated to Russia.

In Kharkiv Oblast, Russian dominates in only 9% of the territory – the part of the oblast covered by Kharkiv proper and its county and Chuhuyiv and its county. But the total population of this territory of under 3,000 sq km is 1.71 million people or 62.5% of the oblast population. As a result, the oblast is generally listed as a Russian-speaking one. The remaining 90.7% of the oblast, or 28,500 sq km, has nearly 1mn residents, which is comparable to the sizes of most oblasts in Central and Western Ukraine. In this part of Kharkiv Oblast, over 80% of the residents, ranging from 69 to 95% in different counties, speak Ukrainian as their native language.

In Dnipro Oblast, over 80% of residents in every administrative county speak Ukrainian. In some, 90-95% list Ukrainian as their mother tongue. Russian-speakers prevail in the big and mid-sized cities that are home to most of the oblast population although they cover less than 3% of the oblast territory overall.

In Mykolayiv Oblast, Russian-speakers make up an absolute majority in the oblast capital and its suburbs. As the city is home to 42.5% of the oblast population, Mykolayiv Oblast is also considered predominantly Russian-speaking. Meanwhile, 80-97% of the oblast population outside the capital speaks Ukrainian. All counties in Kherson Oblast, except for Henichesk County, are in a similar situation.

The domination of Russian in big cities of the otherwise Ukrainian-speaking country is a result of the colonial policy enforced by the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union. To understand just what Ukraine is facing now, historically, urban populations in Ukraine were quite small when active russification kicked off in the 18thcentury. In Kyiv, 129 Russians made up a mere 0.7% of the city’s 20,000 residents in 1742. They were the “Great Russian merchant folk.” Gradually their number increased by some 5,000-10,000.

A one-way process the wrong way

In theory, urbanization and suburbanization could serve as a melting pot for Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers. Instead, Ukrainian-speakers tend to get russified more easily than the reverse as they move to the cities. Once they leave their homes, many adjust to the language that dominates in their new environment. Surveys show that Ukrainian is used in public less than at home, leading to greater discrimination against the language in public domains. This is particularly visible in a range of regions and cities of certain types. According to an April 2007 survey by the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences and SOCIS, a pollster, 57.2% of Ukrainian citizens spoke Ukrainian at home and 53.6% did so in public. But the figures for southern and eastern oblasts, leaving out occupied Crimea and Donbas, were 41% and 34%. In Kyiv, 43.7% spoke Ukrainian and surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian, at home while only 35.4% did so in public. In other cities over 250,000, 37.7% spoke Ukrainian at home and 33.3% did so in public. 

As generations change, many young people who spoke Ukrainian with their parents at home and Russian in public, in school or at work, tend to gradually switch to Russian entirely—even at home. This process of russification may look perfectly natural to an outsider, but as it picks up pace, it is likely to lead to the gradual disappearance of the Ukrainian language and of Ukrainians as a nation on a big part of the country’s territory. Indeed, this is the very goal that those who are vehemently against “forced ukrainization” are promoting. Whether they realize it or not, all those who defend the “rights of the Russian language” in Ukraine’s post-colonial environment are, in fact, lobbying for Russki Mir, Moscow’s expansionist credo that Russia has no boundaries and wherever Russian is used is Russian territory.

What’s more, surveys reveal that the highest proportion of those who believe that the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine are being violated is in the very oblasts where the Ukrainian-speaking population has faced constant discrimination and intense russification has taken place ever since independence: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Odesa Oblasts. Those who say so are not looking for more opportunities to use Russian: they want Ukrainian to completely disappear from every aspect of their lives. Although they may overtly declare “tolerance” towards Ukrainian, Russian-speakers tend to actually be more aggressive in defending their right to speak Russian, whereas overly tolerant Ukrainian-speakers, especially in Central Ukraine, are quicker to yield to Russian in communication, viewing it as impolite, unattractive and unnecessary to insist on Ukrainian.

Bilingualism leads to russification

The long-standing campaigns that support the idea of a bilingual Ukraine, which is popular in some political circles, are also misguided. Over the last few decades, Ukraine has seen constant homogenization in bilingual environments. Unless the government adopts an effective pro-active language policy, bilingualism will just be an intermediate step in the process of russification. Of the 5% of bilingual Ukrainians in Central Ukraine, only 1% eventually switched completely to Ukrainian between 1992-2010, while the other 4% switched to Russian. In southern Ukraine, 1% of the 10% bilinguals switched to Ukrainian, while the other 9% became Russian-speakers. As a result, the share of those using Russian only at home has gone from 43% to 54% in southern Ukraine and from 56% to 64% in Eastern Ukraine. In short, the bilingual pool is being replenished by Ukrainian-speakers. 

Urbanization and suburbanization were expected to “blend” Ukrainians in small and mid-sized cities with villages around them that are beyond the reach of russification. However, as rural and small-town Ukrainian-speakers moved to bigger centers, they tend to switch to the language that already dominates in their new location—Russian—much as they did under the Russian empire and Soviet Union. Polls in Kyiv continue to reveal a huge gap between those speaking Ukrainian at home and in public, where Russian is still used as the default language of communication. And to outsiders, this seems like a perfectly “natural” process: since the cities are Russian-speaking, newcomers should adapt by switching to Russian, leaving Ukrainian at home. 

Whose side are we on, anyway?

The only way to turn this process around is for the government to radically intensify its language policy and stop the continuing russificationof independent Ukraine. Otherwise, like Ireland, Ukraine could face the nearly complete disappearance of its native language in the not-to-distant future. The longer the current trend lasts, the more difficult it will be to stop. At some point, it may well become irreversible—Ukraine has Belarus as a perfect illustration of this prospect. 

Ukrainian society has several different civilizational groups that can be narrowed down to two main categories. The first one includes Ukrainian-speakers, those who occasionally speak Russian, and ethnic Russians and other ethnic minorities who don’t mind the fact that their children, and grandchildren will eventually speak Ukrainian and leave the Russian world. The second group includes ethnic Russians, other russified minorities, and Ukrainians who, for whatever reasons, reject a Ukrainian identity and have made a deliberate choice in favor of a Russian one. This second group primarily sees the restoration of empire in the post-soviet environment, in the form of a Eurasian union, a union of three “fraternal” nations, or Russki Mir. They reject the idea of a Ukrainian nation or a full-fledged, independent Ukrainian state out of hand.

Many surveys show that the first group presents the majority both nationwide and in most of Ukraine’s oblasts. It provides the foundation for political forces that support the preservation and development of the Ukrainian state, and a civilizational choice in favor of Europe. This group is not homogenous and it’s not always sufficiently aware of its national identity, so it needs a proactive position on the part of pro-Ukrainian political forces that it can support. If such political forces can deliver positive innovations in other areas of life in Ukraine by reforming the socio-economic and political models, they will be supported even more. 

The second group represents a substantial share of Ukraine’s population and considers itself a national minority, not an ethnic one, identifying with a nascent Russian political nation. In some parts of Ukraine, this group probably constitutes a majority, although censuses and polls suggest that its true numbers do not reflect the potential share of ethnolinguistic groups in Ukraine’s society. That number can only be established after the “undecided” part of Ukrainian society makes its choice. Since this group is passive and opportunistic, its choice will be determined largely by post-colonial inertia and the influence of Russian media.

This is why Ukraine’s political players today must decide whose interests they will defend: those of the Ukrainian political nation or those of the Russian national minority. For now, most of Ukraine’s political leaders offer only lip service and a ritualistic, formal place for the Ukrainian language while accepting the abnormal domination of Russian in key spheres not as a temporary phase in Ukraine’s post-colonial process, but as completely acceptable development trend. 


A stepping-stone to identity

This situation is not just about language, either. Russification is both a means and an end for Russian and soviet elites looking to gain dominant positions in Ukraine and continually pull it back into the Eurasian space. Any territorial patriotism that is not backed by linguistic and cultural self-identification sooner or later turns into mere “regionalism,” and every generation finds it harder to explain the difference between their “local” identity and the identity of a neighboring nation with the same language, many similar traditions and a common media environment. Language is one of the key factors in the ability of ordinary Ukrainians to differentiate between domestic and foreign products, which affects their ability to resist outside influences. 

What Ukraine needs is consistent language policy oriented towards consolidating the political nation with the Ukrainian language as the basic marker of identity and the key instrument to overcome post-colonial inertia. State language policy needs to enable Ukrainian citizens who were previously russified by brutal force or indirectly, or were deprived of opportunities and incentives to learn the indigenous language and to freely master the language of the country they live in. In everyday life, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians are not only loyal to Ukrainian but actually want to switch to it. However, they have little opportunity to do so in an environment that has been russified for centuries. So, it’s up to the government to ensure proper access to media products in Ukrainian and to expand the use of Ukrainian to a scale that can transform it into a properly functioning state language from its current formal position. The only way to accomplish this is to make sure that mastering the language is a must, without depriving individuals of the chance to fulfill themselves while living in Ukraine. 

The first step towards this is strict ukrainization of all public services. Lack of Ukrainian language skills should block access to public sector jobs. At the same time, courses in Ukrainian should be established wherever necessary. Meanwhile, violations of the language law in the private sector should incur serious fines, especially when customers address service staff in Ukrainian. Any discrimination against Ukrainian-speaking employees or applicants by employers or colleagues should be treated as harshly as sexual abuse.

First and foremost, however, the focus should fall on derussifying the media and printed press. All TV and radio channels should broadcast in Ukrainian exclusively. A few nationwide and regional channels can be set aside for national minorities. Post-imperial inertia and the expansion of Russian-language products in Ukraine have led to a situation where real demand among readers is distorted. Most Ukrainians can read Ukrainian, but there simply aren’t enough Ukrainian-language products, so they read Russian products instead. This leads to supply driving demand, a situation that is unacceptable and dangerous when it comes to Ukrainian in Ukraine. 

To defend the position of the state language for a transition period of 20 years, the government needs to establish a norm requiring all print periodicals circulating in Ukraine to have a Ukrainian-language version of their product, with at least an equal number of copies in Ukrainian and Russian available at every point of sale. This is the only way to overcome post-colonial inertia where demand is enforced by supply and the actual preferences of Ukrainians are not reflected.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter and The Ukrainian Week on Facebook

This is Articte sidebar