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.
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.
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…”)