The Politics of Language and Identity

This month we published Choosing a Mother Tongue by Corinne A. Seals. In this post the author describes an encounter with language, identity and politics on a visit to Ukraine in the winter of 2017.

While I was writing Choosing a Mother Tongue: The Politics of Language and Identity in Ukraine, I was constantly reflecting on language choice and use, especially when I would find myself at a Ukrainian community event with a Ukrainian language conversation happening to my left and a Russian language conversation happening to my right. However, the power of the politics of language and identity struck me particularly during a visit to Ukraine in the winter of 2017.

I had been in L’viv (Western Ukraine), traveled to Kyiv (Central Ukraine), and had just arrived back again in L’viv to the same hotel and same restaurants in which I had spent time during the first part of the trip. However, while I had been very conscious of my language use when first in L’viv (sticking to Ukrainian to align with the preference of most people in this city), I had just been in Kyiv where language choice and use was more fluid and where my hosts were Russian dominant speakers. Additionally, my trip back to L’viv had been during a snowstorm, and in an exhausted state I was not as conscious of my language use.

L’viv during the snowstorm

When I went to grab a quick dinner at the restaurant next to where I was staying, I was bemused by the insistence of the maître d’ that she couldn’t understand me. “Surely,” I thought, “there must be something I’m doing wrong if this hasn’t happened to me before.” It was then that I realized I had been speaking to her in Russian (due to having just returned from Kyiv), but I was in a Crimean Tatar restaurant in L’viv.

This context is significant, as the Crimean Tatars have repeatedly been displaced by both the Soviet and Russian governments in history and had just been displaced again from Crimea not long before my trip to Ukraine. Recognizing my major faux pas, I switched to Ukrainian and apologized before repeating my request in Ukrainian. The maître d’ smiled slightly, nodded in acknowledgement, and proceeded with our conversation.

A Ukrainian poem in L’viv about language and identity by famous poet, Lesya Ukrainka

Now, Russian and Ukrainian are similar enough that most people can at least loosely understand one if you speak the other. So, this was highly unlikely to be a case of not having proficiency in a language. Rather (and as further informed by our interaction), this was a political statement reflecting linguistic history and identity. It was more important for the maître d’ to uphold her linguistic principles than to make the transaction. However, my awareness and acknowledgement of this, as well as my subsequent linguistic alignment with her, meant that all was again equal.

This is one of many examples that speaks to the strength of connection between language and identity, as well as the importance of being aware of current and historical events related to language and politics wherever you are.

Corinne Seals (Mykytka), Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

corinne.seals@vuw.ac.nz

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language, Identity and Education on the Arabian Peninsula edited by Louisa Buckingham.

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