Is Ukrainian a language or a dialect? It depends on who you ask and how the war ends | world news
Most people who learn Ukrainian are probably unaware that there is a long-standing controversy on this particular form of speech. On the one hand, Russians and Ukrainians are “a person“, and the opposing party does not.
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Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. The difference between a language and a dialect depends on who you ask.
The linguistic angle
Many linguists base their determination of language or dialect on whether the forms of speech are mutually understandable. Simply put, if two people speak different dialects of the same language, they can probably understand each other. However, if two people speak different languages, they probably won’t be able to understand each other.
Some spoken forms sound very different when pen is put on paper. For example, Serbian is written with a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, like Russian, while Croatian uses a form of the Latin alphabet, like English. Nevertheless, many linguists would consider Serbian and Croatian be dialects of the same language, because it is the comprehensibility of spoken forms it usually matters.
Humans have been talking for a very long time, but we’ve only been writing things down for a few millennia. Moreover, of the approximately 7,000 known living languages only about 4,000 have a writing system.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Russian people in Russian, while delivering other speeches in Ukrainian and English.
The policy says something different
For political scientists, the difference between a language and a dialect is not based on mutual understanding, but rather Politics. For example, Hindi and Urdu are separate languages because the governments of India and Pakistan say they are, even though the colloquially spoken forms of the two varieties are surprisingly similar.
Max Weinreich, a Yiddish scholar, popularized the idea that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” In other words, a government can promote the idea that a dialect is a distinct language even if not in linguistic terms.
Moldova, for example, maintains that Moldovan is a separate language, even though it is almost the same to Romanian. Although Romania was concerned about this linguistic rebranding, according to Article 13 of the Moldovan Constitution, the official language of the country is Moldovan and not Romanian. Thus, the two are separate languages - at least politically.
Ukrainian soldiers walk through a combat zone in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
To give official status on a particular spoken form not only encourages its use in government, including the courts, but it also generally means that a spoken form will be taught in schools, thus ensuring that future generations share a common language – even if she was invented for nationalist purposes.
As a dialect with an army and a navy can be considered its own language, a language with an army and a navy can call other languages simple dialects. For example, the official language of the People’s Republic of China is Standard Chinesewhich is often abbreviated to simply “Chinese” and is sometimes – controversially – named Mandarin. However, it’s not the only form of speech that can be heard across the country.
Cantonese is widely spoken in and around Hong Kong, but it is often treated as a dialect of “Chinese”. However, spoken Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. Thus, in linguistic terms, these two forms of speech would not be considered dialects of a single language, but rather separate languages.
In order to strengthen the power of the central government against separatist sentiment, the Chinese government has long promoted a linguistic unification program. The intention is both to create a common means of communication for the country, but also to minimize the linguistic and cultural differences that exist between the different communities. To help spread the adoption of Standard Chinese, as defined by the governmenttelevision and radio professionals are subject to strict and can even be fined for using incorrect pronunciation.
Throughout China, local forms of speech are eliminated as teaching aids in schools in favor of Mandarin. Many of these forms are now declineand some may endangered. Such efforts do not necessarily mean that these types of speeches are not “real languages” in the linguistic sense.
But politically, the difference between a language and a dialect is what China says it is. This is even reflected at the international level, as many organisations, such as the The United Nationsrecognize “Chinese” as the standardized form of speech promoted by the Chinese government.
resolve the conflict
So, is Ukrainian a dialect of Russian or a separate language? Linguistically, Ukrainian and Russian are about as different as French and Portuguese. Although French and Portuguese both descend from Latin, they have now diverged enough to make understanding each other difficult. Likewise, while Ukrainian and Russian share a common ancestor, their current spoken forms are now sufficiently different that there are strong linguistic arguments for them to be considered separate languages.
Politically, however, whether Ukrainian is a dialect or a language will partly depend on how the war ends. If Ukraine remains a independent country who considers Ukrainian as a separate language — it is a separate language.
If, however, Russia ends up controlling all of Ukraine, completing the process it began in 2014 with its annexation of CrimeaRussia could promote the idea that Ukrainian is just a dialect of Russian, in order to reinforce Ukraine’s diminished status as part of Russia.
In short, not only the territorial integrity of Ukraine is threatened, but also the independence of a unique and distinct cultural community.
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Joshua Holzer does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.