Talk on language choice in Ukraine

The lab’s Visiting Research Scholar, Dr. Irina Zaykoskaya, gave a talk at MSU on April 18, 2022 titled When native language is a matter of choice: The linguistic situation in Ukraine before and during the War. Irina provided some background on multilingualism in Ukraine, historical and 21st century attitudes to the Ukrainian language, and closed by discussing the phenomenon of language rejection. Anecdotal evidence suggests that since Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainians have symbolically given up speaking Russian through resistance or disgust. Irina compared this with German-speaking Holocaust refugees in the early 20th century who similarly gave up their language and in some cases lost it altogether. Irina touched on the ethics of gathering data from traumatized individuals, and cautioned that we cannot know the true linguistic situation in Ukraine at this time.

The talk was co-hosted by the MSU Sociolinguistics Lab and the MSU Language Policy and Practice Lab. It was delivered in a hybrid format. We were delighted that so many people could join via Zoom, in addition to the audience in Wells Hall. The talk abstract is below, and the slides can be found here.


Ukraine is a large and multilingual country, with Ukrainian and Russian especially dominating its linguistic landscape for decades. However, not only are the statuses of these languages different (i.e., Ukrainian being the official state language and Russian currently not having any formal status), but the attitudes towards them among the Ukrainian people differ as well. Even before the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Ukrainians, including those from the Eastern, historically considered Russian-speaking parts of the country, would demonstrate symbolic preference for Ukrainian over Russian: for example, in a 2020 poll, only 21.8% of Eastern Ukrainians admitted speaking Ukrainian at home but 44.3% of the same respondents named it as their native language, which implies the view of one’s native language as a matter of choice rather than a matter of chance. Now, Russian-speaking Twitter is getting flooded by tweets like “I want lightning to strike me so that I forget the Russian language”. This talk will present an overview of historical events and policies that led to the current linguistic situation in Ukraine as compared to a few other post-Soviet countries, such as Belarus and Latvia. It will also attempt to capture the ongoing shift in attitudes among Ukrainians, from recognizing Russian as the language the enemies speak to perceiving it as the essence of the enemy.

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