Monday, June 18, 2007

Is a language simply a dialect, plus an army?

When I first began learning Ukrainian, I assumed that it was essentially a dialect of Russian. After all, Russia and Ukraine have a long history together, and the question of dialect versus language is a tricky one. Generally, it is agreed upon that if you understand perfectly, you speak the same language. If it takes some effort to understand, then you speak different dialects of the same language. If you cannot understand at all, you speak a different language. It's as simple as that.

Unfortunately, Ukrainian doesn't fit neatly into one of these three molds vis-à-vis Russian. The languages are certainly related; according to my professor, a Russian who has been exposed to Ukrainian can usually figure it out. However, the languages are sufficiently different that a Russian from, say, Siberia, who has never met a Ukrainian person before, will probably not be able to understand.

I have proof of this notion. A friend of mine at Pitt grew up speaking Russian with her parents in Brooklyn, but was never exposed to Ukrainian. When I asked her if she could understand Ukrainian, she said she could to a certain point, after which it becomes too garbled. According to her, a Ukrainian speaker sounds "like a Russian who has been punched in the mouth." On the other hand, her father, who grew up in Belarus, can understand Ukrainian perfectly.

The reverse is also true in theory - Ukrainians who have heard Russian before should be able to understand it, while those who have not, should not. But in reality, nearly every Ukrainian can speak Russian fluently, so it's not a very relevant point to make. Indeed, some of the only people in the world who know just Ukrainian are students like me, who have taken or are taking the language outside eastern Europe. My professor even warned us that our knowledge of Ukrainian may be more "correct" than many native speakers', simply because our ears haven't been tainted by Russian.

Another interesting point: because Russian is so pervasive in Ukraine, a sort of creole language has become popular in many parts of the country. My professor, who is from Kharkiv, says that this mixed language is mostly found in the east. In the west, there are more people who speak Ukrainian at home (as opposed to Russian, or the mixed language), so there are many more "pure" speakers.

Someone once told me that a language is simply a dialect, plus an army. In the case of Ukrainian's relationship to Russian, this probably isn't true. All modern linguists agree that Ukrainian and Russian are separate languages that diverged from a common source many centuries ago. (To be specific, during the 13th century, two major dialects of Rus began to arise. The northeast dialect was the basis for the future Russian language, while the southwest dialect was the basis for the future Ruthenian language, which in turn developed into Ukrainian.) Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, the Ukrainian language has served both as a galvanizing factor motivating people who believed in the need for an independent Ukraine, and as a source of contention for those seeking to diminish the prospects for Ukrainian statehood. What a unique, complicated situation.

Was it prudent for me to take Ukrainian this summer, given that Russian is often the more popular spoken language in Ukraine? If my goal had been simply to speak to people in Kyiv and Chernobyl, then probably no, it would have been wiser to take Russian. But I also took this class to get a feel for Ukrainian culture - how Ukrainians think, what to expect from the nation and its people. I am learning that, so I do not regret my decision.

Plus, as Ukraine becomes a more powerful nation, and more and more schools start to offer the language, and more and more students decide to learn it, then my Ukrainian skills should prove very useful - maybe even invaluable - in the future!


Reid said...

I believe you have made a serious mistake in taking Ukranian. Taking Russian would have been a wiser choice. What is it that makes you think that the Ukraine will become more powerful in the future? The other baltic states have more oil reserves and Russia continues to dominate the region.


Well Reid, Ukraine actually does have the potential to become a serious economic power, believe it or not. Sure, Ukraine has suffered from protracted economic decline, unemployment, and hyperinflation in the past, but things are looking up. Growth was 7% on the year, and Ukraine is preparing to enter the WTO. (Hopefully, it will happen later this year.) Last year, foreign direct investment increased twofold.

Another characteristic of Ukraine that makes me (and many others) speculate that it will become more powerful in the future is the fact that it successfully made the transition from a Soviet territory to a democratic state with a flourishing market economy. Ukraine is certainly not a perfect democracy, but compared to many other countries in the region (e.g. Belarus, which basically operates under a dictatorship), it's incredibly progressive. The Ukrainian Government has been determined to implement comprehensive economic reform, and Yushchenko has brought Ukraine closer and closer to the West. This is in marked contrast to many of Ukraine's NIS neighbors.

And Ukraine plays a larger role in the energy sector than you might think simply due to its geography. Ukraine has a very important role to play in the energy security of Europe; 80 percent of all natural gas that goes from Russia and Central Asia to Europe travels through Ukraine.

Dan said...

Hey Sarah:

The story about what language to learn and the complexities of communication are reminiscent of my brother's Peace Corp experience in Kyrgyzstan. The choice in that situation was, of course, between Kyrgyz and Russian. After spending 2 years there, he had a grasp on both (to one degree or another). I wouldn't be surprised if you walk away knowing more Russian than you thought, even though you didn't formally take the course.

I'd be curious to know in the future how pervasive the western influence is in the Ukraine. I haven't been to the region myself, but would be interested to see if major chains such as Starbuck's and McDonalds are located at every corner. For someone who is fascinated by culture and diversity, I am saddened by these situations, and would love to know your thoughts in time.

Glad to be in the conversation, with others, on this blog. Keep writing!

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