Shevchenko Scientific Society gathering focuses on Ukrainian language situation

NEW YORK - The audience gathered at the Shevchenko Scientific Society (known by its Ukrainian acronym, NTSh) headquarters on June 14 heard an up-to-date analysis of the latest developments on the language front in Ukraine, as presented by one of the foremost authorities on the subject.

Dr. Pavlo Hrytsenko, director of the Division of Dialectology at the Institute of Ukrainian Language of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NANU), director of the Ukrainian Commission for the pan-Slavic Linguistic Atlas at the International Committee of Slavists, a member of the Ukrainian Orthography Commission at NANU, and a professor at the University of Lublin in Poland, delivered a lecture titled "The European Charter for Languages, or Who and What Threatens the Ukrainian Language Today."

Prof. Hrytsenko noted both positive and negative recent developments that affect the status of the Ukrainian language. On the positive side, he listed the parliamentary hearings at the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv on March 12, which were dedicated to "The functioning of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine." He appreciated the very constructive role played by the invited speech delivered at the hearings by the NTSh president in America, Dr. Larissa Onyshkevych.

The hearings went on record as declaring the shortcomings of the present language program in Ukraine and charged Ukraine's government with the obligation to provide sufficient funds in its 2004 budget for the promotion of the Ukrainian language. In October of this year the Rada will hold a "Day of the Ukrainian Government," designed to check the government's progress in fulfilling its obligations with respect to the language policy.

Furthermore, the Verkhovna Rada recommended to all branches of the government to work out a legislative basis as well as mechanisms for the regulation of the development of the Ukrainian language; to re-instate the Presidential Commission on Language, which was disbanded by President Leonid Kuchma; to assume control over mass media that are foreign-owned; to insist that a minimum of 70 percent of the programming on radio and TV be done in Ukrainian; to offer tax abatement for Ukrainian-language video and audio productions and to make the knowledge of Ukrainian obligatory for minority citizens of Ukraine. A project on the development and application of the Ukrainian and minority languages in Ukraine was to be prepared by the year 2010.

A shortcoming of the Rada's recommendations, pointed out by Dr. Hrytsenko, lies in their restriction to the territory of Ukraine - they do not address the linguistic rights of the Ukrainian minority in neighboring countries. This may be contrasted with the well-financed and proactive policy of the Russian government, which intercedes on behalf of Russian speakers everywhere.

Finally, the Verkhovna Rada recommended that the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages be deferred until such time as a proper legislative basis of the development of languages in Ukraine has been established.

The last recommendation, however, has become moot as of May 15, when the Verkhovna Rada changed its mind and ratified the charter, which was promptly signed into law by President Kuchma. This was done for political and commercial reasons, said Dr. Hrytsenko. In his opinion, Ukraine's acceptance of the charter undermines the position of the Ukrainian language and is detrimental to its future. Among other things, the charter mandates a full educational program in the languages of minorities and provides for the use of these languages in administrative offices, courts and mass media.

In Ukraine the charter's provisions apply to the languages of the following ethnic minority groups: Bulgarian, Belarusian, Crimean Tatar, Gagauz, German, Greek, Hungarian, Jewish, Moldovan, Romanian, Russian and Slovak.

Prof. Hrytsenko said that he finds it difficult to imagine a practical application of the charter to accommodate so many languages. The one language that will definitely profit from it, he said, will be Russian, whose already dominant status in Ukraine will now be further enhanced thanks to the new law. Because of the adoption of the charter, any chance for the de-Russification of Ukraine has now been diminished significantly, Dr. Hrytsenko commented.

Although in principle the titular language of a country need not be endangered by the enhanced rights of the minority languages, this is not true for Ukraine, where no legal mechanisms exist for the protection of the Ukrainian language. An expansion of the sphere of functioning of minority languages will further reduce the application of the Ukrainian language, also removing much of the incentive for the minority citizens to learn Ukrainian. With the adoption of the charter, the Ukrainian language has become even more endangered than before, concluded Prof. Hrytsenko.

The threat to the Ukrainian language derives also from internal factors, according to Dr. Hrytsenko. Among them he stressed the absence of a clear language policy of the government of Ukraine; the declaratory nature of the existing language programs, particularly during the pre-election campaigns; the denigration of all things Ukrainian in the eyes of the average citizens, when expressions of patriotism are judged to be archaic and irrelevant; and the demonstrative indifference towards the Ukrainian language exhibited by people in power. Finally, the science of social linguistics has yet to be developed properly in Ukraine, said Dr. Hrytsenko.

The lecture evoked a period of spirited discussion. In response to a comment about the perceived pessimistic tone of his talk, Prof. Hrytsenko replied that his intention was to rid his audience of complacency and instead to mobilize them for a continued struggle in defense of the Ukrainian language.

The program was opened by the NTSh president, Dr. Onyshkevych, and emceed by Prof. Vasyl Makhno.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 3, 2003, No. 31, Vol. LXXI

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