Talk is deep

Ukrainian life is dominated by the Russian language. English is creeping into play, too, especially as Ukraine gears up for EURO 2012 tourists. Sometimes, though, everyone needs a good editor.

May 19, 2012, about 40 teachers, researchers and students gathered at the Ukrainian Catholic University’s graduate faculty to hear political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk address the new Journalism program’s first conference, the UCU Conference on Media and Identity.

Masters Program Director Igor Balynsky introduced Volodymyr Kulyk as the author of one of the most resonant works in the field, Discourse on Ukrainian. Kulyk responded, “This is the only place in the world where people call me the author of resonant research; it is worthwhile to write books to be introduced this way!” Kulyk discussed Ukrainian language policy and language practice with regard to its influence on Ukrainian media.

Kulyk dealt with not only the two languages of Ukraine, Ukrainian and Russian, but also English: he composed his PowerPoint presentation in English for me! (I was the only English-speaking participant.) I split my attention among his Ukrainian speech, his English visual presentation, and the wonderful simultaneous interpreter at my left shoulder. It was a multimedia extravaganza, and indeed his work resonated me as I enacted the schizophrenic nature of language in Ukraine to which he referred.

Kulyk identified language as a key dimension of identity, and North Americans can certainly agree. Kulyk stressed that in Ukraine, the use of either Russian or Ukrainian is a key and conscious strategy for signalling identity.  Further, our audience reads things about use in the language(s) we speak and the way(s) we use it.  We may or may not declare ourselves explicitly, but by using language we declare ourselves implicitly. Following language norms in a particular place or situation evokes no reaction from audience members because the language is transparent and the ideas break through.  However, unusual language use does provoke reactions among audiences.

The language issue in Ukraine arises in the context of state language.  Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine and is the state language.  Parliamentary business is conducted in Ukrainian. National announcements are delivered in Ukrainian. However, most of the population of Ukraine speaks Russian in their everyday lives. Ukrainians hold certain views about language and language use; the way they articulate their view is considered language ideology. Most Ukrainian media appears in the Russian language.

Media discourse contributes to implementation of language ideologies.  Media enacts language ideology intensively. Media audiences fall under the influence of language ideologies in their consumption of media in many spheres of their lives.

Media journalists have to take their audiences into account when they create their messages.  Their messages have to be not only clear or comprehensible to their audience but also acceptable. Distinguishing between comprehensible and acceptable or tolerable is critical in Ukrainian media for economic, political and ideological reasons.

The intersection that Kulyk describes fascinating. He describes a gap between what Ukrainian audiences find preferable and what they find acceptable with regard to media they consume. He says that this gap is significant when we want to understand Ukrainian media. The gap emerges as the key to understanding why most Ukrainian media appears in Russian.

In the foreground, a banner for EURO2012 hangs from a streetlight. Up ahead, a billboard erected for Victory (over the Nazis) Day May 9 evokes Soviet times by recalling the Great Patriotic War, even as Ukraine’s blue and gold flag forms the background. Schizophrenic?

Commercial media outlets need to attract advertisers to stay economically viable, and they attract advertisers by delivering as much of an audience as possible. Survey research shows that most Ukrainians, including those for whom Ukrainian is the native language, will tolerate consuming media in the Russian language; on the other hand, an aggressive number of Ukrainians for whom Russian is the native language refuse to tolerate consuming media in Ukrainian. Around L’viv, in the Galician area of Ukraine, people are much more ready to access Russian media (they don’t mind or don’t mind much) than Russian-speakers in, for example, the Donetsk region from which the current Ukrainian president hails (who mind very much). This gap is a major reason most Ukrainian mass media prefer to publish in Russian. Even most Russian-speakers who consider Ukrainian their “native” language and from whom Ukrainian is the “state  language” still often prefer to consume media in Russian.

“They have lots of choices,” says Kulyk. If they don’t get their Ukrainian media in Russian, they can consume Russian-language media from Russia or foreign-language media from elsewhere.

Language issues do not provoke any talk of separation in Ukraine – only 20 years old and still finding its way.  The region where most people support, use and promote Ukrainian is the former Galicia, the Western areas around L’viv.  They fought for an independent Ukraine for many year and would not consider separating from it now that it’s here, says Kulyk.  The Eastern part of the country also distinguishes itself as Ukrainian as opposed to Russian, even though residents speak the Russian language.  They would never consider separating or joining Russia he says. They are Ukrainian.




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2 responses to “Talk is deep

  1. paula

    Thanks for the great insights, Leanne. I am wondering if they also use texting ‘shortcuts’ , and if they are the same or different in Ukrainian and Russian…one of Gabby’s friends was amazed to come across someone who didn’t know the meaning of YOLO (you only live once), and commented that the person must have been at least 40 yrs old to be so clueless (LOL).

    • I will ask Adam to ask his friends about texting shortcuts. I don’t use them here because the people I am texting are not native speakers. (My mom and i just discussed the use of ‘texting” as a verb. We resolved the issue completely.)

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