Students learning Russian as a second language can get tripped up by various grammatical subtleties – for example the difference between the prepositions В and На (roughly corresponding to English “in” and “on”, respectively). Trained linguists handle these grammatical nuances in a businesslike manner. There are historical and morphological reasons behind these grammatical distinctions, having nothing to do with political views, national sovereignty, or emotional attitudes.
For people without such training, however, these little grammatical matters can arouse emotions, and even lead to wars.
There are 7 billion human beings dwelling on Planet Earth, and, with the possible exception of just a handful who were born with defective chromosomes, every one of these carbon-based units speaks a complex human language, and also speaks it in prose, to boot!
And yet, here is the irritating thing: Only a small handful of these pesky humans has any formal Linguistics training, or even understands the basic mechanics of that which they do every minute of every day. They instinctively know how to yak yak yak, and yet are blissfully ignorant of the process which goes into their utterances. The level of ignorance is appalling. If you don’t believe me, then just turn to the person sitting next to you, and ask them, What is a phoneme? What is an allophone? What is a morpheme? What is a bilabial fricative sound? [inside joke among Acoustic Phoneticians!]
Odds are, unless this person took Linguistics 101 in college, they won’t have a clue what you are talking about. More than likely, they will start to spout some nonsense about the alphabet, about written letters. If they are an American, they will tell you that standard American English has 5 vowels. (In actually, there are more like 20 vocalic phonemes, depending on the dialect.) Or they will opine about what certain slang words mean. They simply don’t have a clue, how Language actually works, or what makes it tick. Which does not prevent them from being able to communciate quite effectively when it comes to other matters.
But I digress….
With that grumpy introduction, I bring you today’s piece from PolitNavigator, which is about the Ukrainian economy, about the possibility of foreign investment, and about the В vs На controversy.
If you recall: During the Soviet period, it was standard for Russian-speakers to say на Украине (“in Ukraine”, literally “on Ukraine”). There was no negative connotation in the choice of the preposition, this was just grammar, habit, and accepted usage.
Later, when Ukraine gained independence, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, it became a big deal among Ukrainian “patriots” to insist upon the usage в Украине (“in Ukraine”). Why was this distinction so important to the patriots? Verify, in sooth, I do not know. This piece gives some historical background to the dispute. Apparently, it was okay when Ukrainian national poet Shevchenko wrote:
Як умру, то поховайте
Мене на могилі
Серед степу широкого
На Вкраїні милій…
But when Russian President Vladimir Putin pronounced the phrase “люди на Украине” (“people in/on Ukraine”), this was a terrible slap in the face to the Ukrainian people. Something about, how if you are “on Ukraine”, then you no longer possess national sovereignty. Or something like that.
But I digress again…
Returning to the discussion on investments..
This past week Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin announced on his Twitter that, following discussions with his Danish counterpart, Kristian Jensen, Denmark plans to create an investment fund to assist small and medium-sized businesses “in/inside Ukraine” (в Украине).
However, Jensen himself put a slightly different twist to this story. The way he tells it, Denmark has no intention of funding Ukrainian small- and medium-sized businesses. Instead, the plan is for Denmark to offer 30 million Krones of credit to DANISH companies who want to do business or invest IN UKRAINE.
The author of the PolitNavigator piece, Alexander Dudchak, wonders if this is not the only utterance between Ukraine and the E.U. that was “lost in translation”. Since people “in the Ukraine” obviously expected much much more from the EU than they are going to receive.