Can One Language Define a Country? A Look at the New Ukrainian Language Law
As of February 23, Ukraine, a country that has faced four months of protest in bitter winter conditions, has been retaken by the people. The government, initially pushing ties to bring the country closer to Western Europe, raised the citizens’ ire when it cut those ties and showed signs of reopening relations with Russia, a country Ukraine declared independence from only 23 years ago. After increasing violence, protesters have succeeded in deposing the former president of the country, but new laws being passed by an interim president have ethnic Russian citizens – the largest minority in the Ukraine – on edge.
In 2012, Ukrainian law recognized Russian as a “regional language,” allowing Russian-speakers the right to linguistic protection in cities and regions where more than 10% of the population claimed it as their native tongue. Most of these counties were located in Western Ukraine, where it borders Russia. On the same day that Ukraine ousted the former president, however, a new law was passed recognizing Ukrainian as the sole legal language of the country, regardless of minority population. Rather than being viewed as a means of unifying the country, many ethnic Russians worry that it will cause divides, mistrust, and discrimination among the populace, as those seeking to firmly cut ties with Russia may target speakers of the language, as well.
Many fledgling countries, when fighting for independence or statehood, band together around a common language. Benjamin Franklin encouraged America to change British spellings intentionally to show a break from the old regime. India, upon gaining independence in 1947, passed a law recognizing Hindi and English as linguistic equals. Both countries, since their formation, have struggled with the question of recognizing and protecting minority languages, with the US refraining from naming an official language, and India naming more than 57 such languages.
So while it is quite common for countries asserting their unity to form a different language policy than had been in the past and then reopen the discussion when things have become more stable, the initial causes of the Ukrainian uprising could color linguistic policy to come.
What are your reactions to the new law? How do you think it will affect Ukraine and the ethnic minorities that live there?