Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part VII

Dear Readers:

After some interesting discussions about the Science of Linguistics, it is time to come to a collective decision as to whether Ukrainian is an actual language (as the Ukrainian nationalists insist) or just a dialect of Russian (as the Russian kvass-patriots like Otto insist).   Now, everybody line up in an orderly fashion and cast your vote.  Because Science is all about Democracy.

So, I found a hook on which to hang today’s apotheosis:  This piece from a few days ago, showing Ukrainan Prime Minister Vladimir Hroisman celebrating the “Day of Slavic Culture and Literacy” on May 24.  This day traditionally commemorates Saints Cyril and Methodius, their missionary work among the Slavs, their creation of an alphabet, and their gift of literacy to the common people.  All of this is good stuff; but as a typical snarky Ukrainian official, Hroisman was not able to just say nice things about smart people, without also throwing in some barbs directed against Russia:

Hroisman:  “In spite of centuries of oppression that our language and our culture had to endure during the times of Russian colonization; in spite of all of that, Ukrainians have made a cultural break-through — not only have they stood up for their own national and cultural identity, they have given an impetus to the further development of their culture and language.”  Hroisman went on to express the opinion that “the Ukrainian language and culture are very much in fashion nowadays, are popular, influential, and much in demand all over the world.”  Following which utterance Hroisman was able to muster approximately 400 people for the traditional “Vyshivanka March”, in which Ukrianians don their embroidered blouses as a political protest against Vladimir Putin.

Lomonosov: Wrote about the divergence of the Slavic dialects

Readers, if you are interested in these issues, then I encourage you to bone up on Scientific Linguistics.  There are many popular books out there.  There are also tons of books and articles on the topic of Historical Linguistics and the history of the Slavic languages.  If you’re feeling lazy, you can just skim this piece from wiki, on the history of the Ukrainian language, in the context of the various East Slavic dialects.  These dialects, all closely related, have jelled over the centuries into three “official” literary languages:  Great Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian.

When it comes to distinguishing a dialect from a full-fledged language, the line can be fuzzy.  Rule of thumb:  If you can speak with somebody from the neighboring village and understand most of what they’re saying, then I reckon you’re speaking the same language.  If you can only understand about 50%, then possibly you’re speaking different, but related, languages.  Something like that.

Anyhow, the other definition of “What is a Language” is not always the scientific one, but more like the political one.  If in the course of human events the Ukraine had developed into a mighty empire, then Little Russian would be The Bomb, and Great Russian would just be a regional dialect.  But things sort of went the other way.

“I hereby declare you to be an official Language!”

Be that as it may, in the modern world, you can only be your own language if you have your own news channel.  You need your own TV and Radio stations.  You need a big printing press, and print lots of books and newspapers and magazines.  You need great writers and poets who do you proud.  You also need to have an Academy of Language which regulates such matters as spelling and grammar.  You need to have government employees who curate the language and make sure the unwashed masses don’t turn it into some degenerate jive-talk.  You need to have schools and teachers, who teach the “proper” use of language and literature to the little kiddies.

But most of all, you need to have a recognized Authority Figure who hands you a piece of paper and intones:  “By the Laws of Science and the Laws of Man, I hereby declare that you are an official language!  (Now go and pay your bills…”)


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4 Responses to Euronews Service Closes Ukrainian Language Channel – Part VII

  1. A.I.Schmelzer says:

    A pretty good quote concerning the distinction between dialect and language is the following:

    A language is a dialect that has an army.

    Linguistics is a pretty fascinating science. It may also interest you that quite similiar mechanism and algorythms are used in Bioinformatics/Biophysics (my field) and linguistics.

    Some new approaches to understand protein structure try to use techniques from machine based language learning.

    If you want to know why Protein formation is so complex, it basically goes like this: We know the underlying DNA code of a Protein. Each DNA segment consists out of 1 of 4 possible bases (A,C,G or T). 3 Such bases encode for an Amino acid, or for a stop codon, or for a start codon.

    In a linguists view, the amino acids would be letters or signs (Stop codon is kind of equivalent to a “.”). And you can see collation of aminoacids that do something specific (like anchor a pretty big protein in a cellular membrane) as “words”.
    Of course, while proteins are linear in a way, the underlying interactions are not. Letter 2 may have a strong interaction with letter 28976 because somewhere between letters 19982 and 26543, something encoded for a loop. Basically, All Amino acids in a protein chain can potentially interact with all other ones. Which basically means that the complexity of calculating a proteins formation the “hard way” is n (number of Amino acid) ! .
    Which gets out of hand pretty quickly.

    There are a couple of approaches to deal with this. One is to not look at “letters” but rather look at “words”. A couple of hundreds (or dozens, or thousands) amino acids make up a functional group which is a bit like a word. These can be pretty specific because they always do the same thing (but often in an unexpected way) . If one identify the words, one can reduce the problem by 2 or so order of magnitudes, meaning that calculating things by hard could be possible within the timeframe before the heat death of the universe. This is kind of a linguistic approach, because it tries to look at grammar rather then at syllables.

    Then there are also homology analysis. You look at proteins whose structures are known experimentally (a very delicate process which is sometimes hard to replicate. I overheard a discussion between two other grad students concerning the feasibility or adivsablity of sacrifcing a goat or two to improve their odds, would be a question which god is the god of proteine crystalization though), and check how similiar their underlying code is. If it kind of rhymes with yours, you may assume that your protein looks the same.
    In your linguistic example, imagine that you are a linguist, you try to learn Russian, and your translator only knows english and polish. Hilarity will most likely ensue but you probably will get something done.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, A.I., that is a fascinating comment.
      “A language is a dialect that has an army.” – ha ha, so true!

      Seems like Biophysicists are trying to “crack the code” of life, and when they do, we can expect some interesting products to result.

      Another approach you might want to consiider — I know very little about this, but I did read a monograph written by a graduate student doing her thesis on it — is to compare DNA/RNA strings with a Turing Machine (TM) tape. Like, the moving tapehead of a TM machine analogous to the additions and subtraction of proteins in a chain, as a mechanical algorithm.

      Apparently this Turing/Biology thing is a promising field. If it pans out it could potentially integrate 3 sciences: Biology, Linguistics (at the lower level of Recursively Enumerable languages), and Computer Science!
      Higher Linguistics (like, human languages) are still out of reach of mechanical algorithms, as Turing himself partially proved.


  2. Lyttenburgh says:

    “If you can only understand about 50%, then possibly you’re speaking different, but related, languages. Something like that.”

    Or, or!

    A) You are from St. Pete, with its “поребрики”, “парадная” and “шаверма”

    B) You are a hipster from anti-cafe going from барбер-шоп to хакерспейс for коворкинг while drinking смузи and eating митболы:


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