Tag Archives: language

Thoughts on Language Politics

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the trend in some circles to transliterate the names of Belarusians in the Belarusian rather than the Russian style, despite the fact that Russian is more commonly spoken in Belarus than is Belarusian. In general, I confess that I am not a fan of linguistic nationalism, wherever it is practiced – be it Ukraine, Belarus, or the province of my birth, Quebec (which is in the process of passing a new bill further limiting the rights of English speakers). Outsiders shouldn’t pander to this sort of stuff, in my opinion. Unfortunately, some like to. I consider it a form of virtue signalling, with toxic consequences. Anyway, read the article to get my full thoughts.

The Foolishness of Linguistic Homogenization

In a new article for RT (which you can read here) I discuss Latvian and Ukrainian efforts to assimilate Russian speakers and to turn their countries into linguistically homogenized states. I note that many of the most successful states in the world have more than one official language, and that ‘that having a multiplicity of languages within a state is not a hindrance to being rich, stable, democratic, or anything else you might consider desirable. ‘

I conclude:

Successful multilingual nations such as Switzerland and Canada have learnt not only to live with diversity but to embrace and celebrate it. In the process they have turned it into a strength. Supporters of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution often say that they want Ukraine to be a “normal country.” They should think about what that means.

Happy reading!

Bad legislation

A lot of bad legislation has been floating around the world’s parliaments lately.

First up is a bill before the Russian Duma to decriminalize certain acts of domestic violence. As The Independent explains, if the law is passed:

… battering a spouse or child will become punishable by a fine of less than $500, a nominal 15 days of ‘administrative arrest’, or community service. Only broken bones or concussion, or repeated offences, would lead to criminal charges.

The bill  follows a Supreme Court ruling and previous legislation which seemed to punish violence within families more heavily than violence committed by non-family members. In seeking to rectify this apparent discrepancy, the bill’s drafters have gone rather too far, however.

Commenting on the bill, Vladimir Putin distanced himself from its provisions. ‘Look, it’s better not to spank children and not to cite any traditions as justification. There’s too little distance between a spanking and a beating’, he said. But he added that, ‘unceremonious interference with the family is impermissible.’

This would suggest that the legislation is not Putin’s idea, and that he doesn’t much like it, but also that he isn’t inclined to use his authority to stop it. That in turn rather undermines the theory that everything which happens in Russia is due to Putin’s personal initiative. It also suggests that Russia is perhaps a bit more ‘democratic’ than often claimed. But at the same time, it’s not a ‘liberal’ democracy, and if it were even more democratic, it might actually be even less liberal.

Second up is a bill introduced in the Ukrainian Rada by 33 deputies from a variety of political parties, including the ruling Poroshenko Bloc. If passed, this would strengthen the position of Ukrainian as the country’s sole official language. As Vzgliad explains, the bill restricts the use of Russian language to 10% of total output on TV and radio, and

… would make the use of Ukrainian obligatory in all spheres of state and social life, and also in the mass media. The document proposes a total Ukrainization – the Ukrainian vernacular would become mandatory for the organs of state power and for education, teaching in universities will be exclusively in Ukrainian … All mass cultural undertakings would be obliged to take place exclusively in the state language. Theatrical shows in other languages would have to have Ukrainian subtitles, the circulation of newspapers in other languages could not be greater than of those in Ukrainian.

The bill also proposes the creation of a language inspectorate which would impose fines upon offenders. It is expected that the Rada will vote on the bill in February. As various Ukrainian and Russian commentators have pointed out, if passed, the bill will signal that Kiev has turned its back on the idea of reintegrating Donbass. It could also further destabilize and divide Ukraine at a time when the country desperately needs to remain united. For these reasons, I would be astounded if the Rada was stupid enough to make the bill law. Most likely it is just a form of nationalistic posturing. We shall see.

Third, Mark Levine, a member of the California legislative assembly, says that he will introduce a bill ‘to change school curricula to include the role of Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election. “Students need to understand how Trump’s policies are colored by the way he rose to power”, said Levine.’ Again, I interpret this as political posturing rather than as a serious attempt at lawmaking. But, it is rather sad that democratic politicians think that they can dictate history curricula to suit their own personal agendas.

Finally, in December last year, Canadian MP Kerry Diotte introduced a private members bill to ‘designate the eighteenth day of May, in each and every year, as “Crimean Tatar Deportation (‘Sürgünlik’) Memorial Day” in recognition of the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.’ That this was a Russia-bashing initiative, rather than a matter of historical record, was clear from the speeches of some of the MPs who backed it. ‘This memorial day will be part of the international effort to counter Russian propaganda, which seeks to rewrite this region’s history and wipe out every trace of Crimean Tatars’, said Tom Kmiec MP. ‘Putin has embarked on a policy of imperial expansion into neighbouring countries and the rehabilitation of the cult of Stalin. Seductively beautiful Crimea has truly become a “Peninsula of Fear” for the indigenous people of this “Blessed Land”,’ said Borys Wrzesnewskyi MP. And so on.

Fortunately, this last piece of legislation failed when the House of Commons refused to allow it a second reading. Let us hope that a similar fate awaits the others laws above.