Parlez-vous français? Так, я кажу українських.


Uncle Volodya says, "Мовна проблема? Що мовна проблема?"


A few years back, desperate for something new to read and in a situation where I couldn’t afford to be too discriminating, I picked up Margaret Drabble’s “The Witch of Exmoor”. After a couple of chapters of its dull, plodding prose, I was inspired to put it down and never finish it, although it would be a sovereign remedy for insomnia. There was something about it, though, that I always remembered. In those first few chapters, the characters are gathered to play a parlor game that should be a metaphor for the work of lawmakers and politicians everywhere. Called “Can You?”, the game requires the participants to devise a set of laws that will govern a hypothetical society, within which they must themselves live. The catch is that you don’t know, while you’re framing the laws, who you will be in the new society, except that it’s very unlikely you will be who you are now. You might be black. A lesbian. A cripple. Crazy as Glenn Beck. You might have fifteen children. You might have a terminal illness.

You might be an immigrant who doesn’t speak the official language.

Lawmakers, and those who aspire to be lawmakers, have a more complex job than you might imagine – and a couple of hours of mental exercise spent trying to devise imaginary laws that are fair to everybody while not disproportionately favoring anybody would demonstrate that reality to your complete satisfaction. Imagine, now, that your efforts to do so are being subverted by a hardline nationalist like Askold Lozynskyj (this article brought to my attention by Michael Averko).

The substance of Mr. Lozynskyj’s complaint appears to be the special status accorded to the Russian language in Ukraine by the National Constitution. Specifically, “…in Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.” No other language is specifically named as Russian is. Mr. Lozynskyj’s opinion of Russian as a language is fairly clear from the title of his editorial; “The Language of Czars, Commissars and Chauvinists”.

The part that really seems to turn Mr. Lozynskyj’s teeth sideways is as follows: “In Ukraine according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of the Russian language is guaranteed, taking into account that the Russian language is native, or such as is used daily by a majority of the citizens of Ukraine, equally accepted together with the Ukrainian language as the language of communication between individuals throughout Ukraine.”


Ukrainian in red, Russian in blue


Well, but Askold – do you mind if I call you Askold? Askold, I wonder if you’ve looked at the numbers when you began to develop your snit over the Russian language.  Have a look at this map – thanks, Wikipedia – and you’ll see that, generally speaking, the mastery of Ukrainian is increasing naturally, without any government intervention. As the caption points out, use of Ukrainian by region is represented in red (looks kind of pink to me), and use of Russisan in blue. The lighter-coloured column represents data from 1989, while the darker-coloured column represents data from 2001. In almost every region, use of Russian has declined, significantly in some regions. Even in areas where it has not, fluency in Ukrainian has increased. What does that tell you? If you’re paying attention, it tells you that more people are bilingual. Overall, the map also tells you that you can’t afford to officially eliminate Russian, because it’s a powerfully dominant second language, although it’s not threatening Ukrainian.

How many people speak Russian? Turning again to Wikipedia (which is not my favourite reference, but I couldn’t find the data so well-assembled and displayed anywhere else, although other references generally agree as to ethnic composition), we see that Russian is the native language of nearly 30% of the population. Wait, though, Askold; that’s only half the story. The reference points out that of the remaining 40 or so ethnic dialects, nearly all are languages of the former Soviet Union. As such, they could reasonably be expected to have an acquaintance with Russian as well. Moreover, surveys conducted by FOM Ukraine in 2009 revealed “52% of the respondents stated they use Russian as their daily language of communication” – better than a 10% lead over Ukrainian – and “54% of the population in Ukraine believes the language issue is irrelevant, that each person can speak the language he or she prefers, and that a lot more important problems exist in the country”. This information, taken as a body of evidence, makes a powerful case for Russian being designated a second official language of Ukraine.

Is there precedent for that? Probably several, although one occurs immediately and naturally to me, because I live there. Canada has two official languages, French and English, and both have protected status in the context that you have a right to be served in any capacity in the official language of your choice. That doesn’t mean everyone must be bilingual, although that’d be the ideal. If the person you’re dealing with cannot speak the language of your choice, someone else will be provided who does, unless you choose to exercise a bilingual capacity of your own. Sound unreasonable?

I submit it’s not, but lets take a look at your country and mine, to look for other parallels. In Ukraine, 29.6% of your people speak Russian as their first official language, although nearly twice that say they use it as their daily language of communication. In Canada, 22.9% speak French as their native language. Pretty close, right? In Canada, though, French is heavily concentrated in Quebec and parts of New Brunswick, and very weak everywhere else in terms of representation. Canada is becoming more and more a multilingual country, as English – while still the language of the majority – is spoken as the native language of 59.1%. Other languages, though, represent 18% of the population, and that number is up while those representing French and English are down slightly. For the moment French is the only language, other than the majority English, that enjoys protected status. Note that this policy did not extinguish the use of other languages, that they are in fact increasing.

Here’s a phrase that might go further toward convincing you, Askold; “Capital flees insecurity“. Keeping the country in a phony ferment over language rights is bad for business. Let’s look at that a little closer, shall we? Canada – or, more properly speaking, Quebec – held sovereignty referendums in 1980 and again in 1995, to sample the will of the Quebecois to separate from Canada and go it alone as a nation. Both failed, although the 1995 result was a cliffhanger. What both had in common, though, was a steady exodus of cash and prestigious head office movements out of the province in those years, owing to a perception of instability. The 1980 referendum had the effect of stifling immigration to Quebec as well. Some of the head offices and investors never returned after things settled down. Getting the population wound up tight over language rights has consequences far beyond the immediate.

Let’s review. Askold’s preoccupation with language rights appears to spring from a dislike of Russia, and a perception of Ukraine having been mistreated by Russia. There’s some basis for that, although recent discussion of the Holodomor suggests that issue should not be included. The French in Canada had periods in which they were preoccupied with language rights, owing to a perception of having been mistreated by English Canada; again, there was some basis for that. The mass deportation of the Acadians immortalized in Longfellow’s “Evangeline” certainly did nothing to advance the image of English fairness in French eyes (interestingly, many of the Acadians were deported to what is now Louisiana, and the term “Cajun” is a version of the word “Acadian”); as well, employment inequity between the English and French persisted until recently, to the disfavour of the French. Let’s agree that both the Ukrainians and the Quebecois have some substantiation for their grievances. However, as history and experience suggest, cranking everyone up about language rights is extremely bad for business and investment, both costs that will have to be borne long after the excitement has died down. A significant share of the population in both countries speaks the dominant second language, warranting constitutional protection. Finally, popular enthusiasm in both countries for further uprisings over official languages is somewhat to the left of weak. Like zero interest.

The expression on your face in the picture that accompanies your article does not encourage me to expect reason from you, Askold. You look like a guy whose mind is made up. But you’re on the edge of making a big mistake, assuming you could get anyone else interested, which looks unlikely. Maybe you want to sleep on it. Two languages can work well, Askold. Good for immigration, good for business. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Especially when, as the map from Wikipedia suggests, your “problem” is resolving itself naturally, peacefully and without the requirement for bossy nationalist interference. Think about it.

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16 Responses to Parlez-vous français? Так, я кажу українських.

  1. Russian as an official language makes sense in most of the former Soviet Union, and certainly the former “core states” of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. I suppose the issue is rather more complicated than just a comparison with Canada. Quebec’s rights might lead to the eventual destruction of Canada, but it doesn’t suppose a return to French rule. In Ukraine, there is this whole “near abroad” business and, suggestions that Ukraine could be “Russian” in some way could legitimize Muscovite meddling. (Although, so close to Russia and with so many ethnic Russians, I think Moscow has some perfectly legitimate interests in Ukraine.)

    • marknesop says:

      It is more complicated than a comparison with Canada, of course, because France is too far away to exert a paternal pull on Quebec if they wished to (although two small islands off the Nova Scotia coast, St-Pierre and Miquelon, still belong to France, they’d have a hell of a time setting up a power base from there with a province that dwarfs them). Obviously, the same dynamic doesn’t prevail in Ukraine, where a return to Russian rule isn’t nearly so inconceivable. However, my point was that there’s no particular reason to fear such an eventuality when the use of Ukrainian is steadily and broadly increasing in concert with the use of Russian as a second language. Bilingualism cannot but increase the country’s prospects, and I invoked the spectre of capital migration specifically because Russia is a major customer. That’d change pretty quickly if the Russian language were outlawed, or even cast in disfavour.

      I enjoy your blog immensely, and highly recommend it.

  2. Alexei says:

    There is another great reason for Russian being the official second language across the entire former Soviet Union, although its very rarely mentioned in all language discussions.
    Most people in these countries had their birth certificates, passports and various other official documents issued in Russian (when the USSR was still alive and kicking). The MESS that is created when these documents are then translated into another language…well lets just say that I myself never knew that its actually possible to misspell my surname in so many ways. As a result, when due to some legal or other matters, these docments are needed one has to spend weeks if not months just to prove that he is who he says he is, since his birth cerificate has one version of his name, marriage sertificate second version and passport third version.

    • marknesop says:

      I can imagine that is a problem, and every country likely forces you to have an “official” translation made at your own expense. I was married in Russia, and all my documentation such as birth certificate, divorce certificate and the like had to be officially translated to Russian from English. Once we were together in Canada (three years later; immigration was a nightmare), all our marriage documentation had to be translated into English – by a government-approved translator, of course.

      I doubt that’s the reason for all Russian children of the same father having the same middle name, but it removes at least one complication. Is that also true of other post-Soviet cultures? Have Ukrainian sons of Mikhail the middle name “Mikhailovitch”?

  3. Yalensis says:

    Great discussion, Mark. Because of my job I travel a lot, and I have visited your native country, specifically Montreal, in Quebec. Anyone who doubts that bilingualism is a valid option for a society should visit this amazing city. The women in Montreal are the most elegantly dressed and beautiful you could find, and the food is everywhere fresh and delicious. Sure, it’s a little extra work to have 2 official languages, but well worth the effort in the case where the population actually does speak 2 different languages. What about Switzerland, don’t they have 4 or 5 official languages? And nothing wrong with Switzerland.
    Ukrainian is a wonderful East Slavic dialect, in many ways more beautiful on the ear than standard Russian, but not as established as a mature literary language. Official bilingualism will actually help the development of Ukrainian as a unifying national/literary language, because both languages will model upon, and borrow from, each other, when official utterances need to be translated back and forth. Hence, the the Galician/Ukrainian nationalists are completely wrong in this issue. Also, they are not fooling anyone.

    • marknesop says:

      Yes, Montreal is a fantastic city – very cosmopolitan, and until I visited Russia I had never seen more beautiful, stylishly-dressed women anywhere. Montreal has a substantial Russian population; most immigrants tend to settle in the larger cities for available work, and Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are our biggest. Once a community is established, follow-on immigration seeks it out as a comfort zone where their language will be understood and where they can find support while learning English. It’s possible to get along in Canada without knowing either English or French, but such an individual will rarely be seen outside the immigrant community and would likely hold a pretty low-level job. You might also work outside Canadian labour laws, which protect such worker’s rights as minimum wage.

      I found Russian much easier to grasp because I already knew French – both are gender-based languages, they share a similar structure in that your verb changes dependent upon tense (past/present/future), gender and number (single or many), and if you speak French and English the meaning of even unfamiliar words is easy to guess; “Bibliotheque” easily translates to “Biblioteka”, for example. “Trottoir” means the same in both languages, as do “Magasin” and “Avocat”. Russian has more tenses than French and is overall a more complicated language, but an understanding of French makes it less of a challenge.

      I could understand concern on the part of Ukrainian nationalists if the use of Ukrainian was faltering or decreasing, but the reverse is true. Trying to stamp out Russian only discourages immigration and angers a major trading partner.

  4. Yalensis says:

    @Mark: By the way, I was fascinated by your discussion of French Arcadian history and how they were deported to Louisiana and became “Cajuns”. I must read the Longfellow poem you mention, “Evangeline”. Longfellow is one of my favorite American poets, but I have not yet read this particular work. My current favorite Longfellow poem is called “Excelsior”. It is a very inspiring, but also very sad, poem. Apparently Longfellow had suffered an intolerable personal tragedy in his family, which was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend his works to everyone to read.

    • marknesop says:

      “Evangeline” reads more like an observer’s diary; it’s very long, and covers the complete event in great detail. It has a sympathetic view for the French farmers, suggesting they hoped to reason with the English authorities and be spared the totally unnecessary deportation order. This is probably accurate, as they were not politically active and were completely harmless. The deportation was extremely hard on them, families were separated and many died.

      Grand Pre remains a popular tourist site, although there’s not much left except the church, which I believe is a restoration. There’s no real French presence in Nova Scotia any more, except for the area known as the “French Shore”, between Weymouth and Yarmouth. This area is still heavily French, but it’s not statistically significant population-wise. Part of New Brunswick is majority French, and most of Quebec.

  5. Igor, AU says:

    Thanks, Mark – interesting & informative post. (did not know that my favorite spice mix has French origin:)

    • marknesop says:

      Igor!! They said you were dead. Seriously, I hadn’t seen you around in awhile.

      I’m a fan of spicy food as well, and am lucky in that I don’t have ulcers or anything that prevents me from eating it as much as I like. I’m told Georgian food, very popular in Russia, is spicy too; is that so? I’ve never had it, although I had a dish called “Tobacco Chicken” in a restaurant in Vladivostok, called старый город, that was very spicy and good. It’s so called because the chicken is split and flattened in a tobacco press, not because there’s any tobacco used in the preparation.

      • Igor, AU says:

        ძვირფასო მეგობარო – თქვენი იყო არასწორი.
        Besides, which one of me-s had died? I have been (& will be for a while) a bit busy, true , but I do watch what is worthy of the time spent there is eg. your blog 🙂

        Among the people I had been with, Georgian food, some of the more expensive Georgian cognac (brandy) and mockery version of Georgian accent – were quite popular. (but I thought that “Цыпленок Табака” =”Tabasko Chicken” i.e. is a Mexican food.)

        The topic you touched – Ukranian vs Russians, is a needed one to be discussed – IMHO. I don’t think there is a problem there at the root level, though.

  6. rkka says:

    “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Especially when, as the map from Wikipedia suggests, your “problem” is resolving itself naturally, peacefully and without the requirement for bossy nationalist interference. Think about it”

    They have.

    Bossy nationalist interference is exactly what loony radical nationalists live for. The symbol is far more important than any reality, and when you try an appeal to reason, you’re fooling only yourself.

    • marknesop says:

      So it is with radical nationalists everywhere, yes, I agree. Unfortunately also, most can point to incidents in which immigrants have had a negative effect on the community. People who were born in the country have certain expectations of immigrants, and are angry when they don’t see their expectations realized – immigrants should be effusive in their gratitude for the wonderful opportunity to live in your country, and should say regularly how happy they are to have gotten out of the shithole they lived in. They then should proceed to learn your language so that they can speak it as well as you do in a couple of months.

      This makes no allowances for the possibility that immigrants are proud of the country they left, didn’t leave because they were desperate, and might want to retain certain aspects of their culture in their new country. Also, moving to another country must be a tremendously draining experience – moving to another town is enough of a drag for me, and every time I move I promise myself I’ll never do it again. It might be a little while before new immigrants feel excited enough to say how great it is to be here.

  7. rkka says:

    “Unfortunately also, most can point to incidents in which immigrants have had a negative effect on the community.”

    Um, most of the Russian-speakers we’re talking about were born in Ukraine. There isn’t much emigration from Russia to Ukraine.

    “immigrants should be effusive in their gratitude for the wonderful opportunity to live in your country, and should say regularly how happy they are to have gotten out of the shithole they lived in.”

    Relatively speaking, the shithole which people are “voting with their feet” to leave is Ukraine, not Russia. Russia has substantial net immigration. Ukraine OTOH, has substantial net emigration.

    I had it right the first time. Its loony radical Uke nationalists giving an emotionally satisfying but nationally counterproductive middle finger to Russia.

    • marknesop says:

      Well, I wasn’t really talking about Ukraine. I don’t know the language well, but I guessed that a move from Russia to Ukraine would be less of a culture shock than, say, a move from Russia to New Jersey. I was speaking generally of nationalists everywhere, who want to reserve the country for those born there. I agree, Ukraine isn’t quite the same thing, where you can be born Russian and grow up speaking it although you’re not in Russia.

      As far as “the shithole they left” goes, I was again speaking of immigrants who have arrived in a culturally different environment from somewhere else. Filipino immigrants to the United States, for example, are always assumed to have left their country because of poverty, and to be tripping over themselves with eagerness to forget where they came from. Again, not necessarily. I was speaking from the viewpoint of the radical nationalist, not from my own.

      I had some unrealistic expectations when my wife moved here as well, and I was initially irritated when she complained the milk tasted funny, and that you couldn’t buy dry cottage cheese. She should be glad to be here, I thought. Even though I knew she was proud of her country, and would miss it, it still annoyed me a little. I can imagine how such things grate on the radical nationalist who thinks his country already has too many foreigners in it.

      Again, not very applicable to the case you describe, in which the country was once part of the Soviet Union, and is not very different from Russia (at least as far as I can guess, having never been to Ukraine).

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