ENDANGERED OR REVITALIZED

On November 9 Ukraine was observing Ukrainian Writing and Language Day. The Day also honors Nestor the Chronicler who was the first to mention the Slavonic tribes that lived on the banks of the Dnipro River one and a half millenniums ago. The observation parallels Language Days at the United Nations, which seek to promote equal use of six official languages throughout the Organization – Arabic (Dec. 18), Chinese (Sept 1), English (April 23), French (Mar 20), Russian (June 6) and Spanish (Oct 12). While Days of the UN official languages are celebrated, Ukraine doesn’t have much to celebrate. According to the latest statistics, 67% of the Ukrainians consider Ukrainian to be their native language. Less than 50% of all Ukrainians use it in public places. The main reasons are the colonial past and the post-colonial present of Ukraine. At the moment less than a third of television broadcasting time is assigned for Ukrainian programs, only 3% of all songs on FM radio stations are Ukrainian, only 17% of magazines and 13% of all books in Ukraine are are published in Ukrainian. If one takes into account that the main bulk of the Ukrainian cultural element is concentrated in the West of the country and the East keeps being “russified”, one may feel how divided Ukraine is. In such regions like Donbas or Crimea a Ukrainian-speaking person is an “alien in his own land.”

My acquaintance’s daughter goes to a primary school in Kyiv. The school is supposed to be a Ukrainian-language one. However, teachers speak Ukrainian only at lessons. During the recess time and right after school they prefer communicating with students in Russian. When the acquaintance raised the issue with the school administration, the daughter had a “hard talk” with the teacher who was displeased by the “leakage of information” about her language habits. The teacher trims her sails to the wind: the recent law on languages pushed through by the pro-Russian party of President Yanukovych marginalizes the Ukrainian language.

There are many of those in Ukraine for whom Ukrainian is an instrument of their national identity, as well as a symbol of their country’s independence and of personal freedom. They went on hunger strike in the center of Kyiv when the infamous law was adopted. Eventually, it’s due to them that Ukrainian Writing and Language Day had been established. On this day those for whom their mother tongue is not “mere sounds” write a radio-dictation (“Dictation of National Unity”) which is broadcast all over the country at 1:30 PM, and they send it to the Central Radio for checking.

It is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the 21 century. With them there will disappear half of mankind’s cultural wealth. Realizing this danger, native speakers of endangered languages come up with revitalization programs. The successful examples of the past may Hebrew, German, Czech, Finnish. Nowadays Irish, Welsh, Galician, Basque are being promoted – though with mixed success. I do sincerely hope that a Ukrainian pupil dropping in the mailbox his dictation addressed to the Central Radio will, one day, write more optimistic lines about the Ukrainian language than what I’m writing now.

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