Eleanor Nurmi is seeking an MA in the Humanities and a BA in Slavic Languages & Literature (Russian Linguistics concentration), with a Human Rights minor at the University of Chicago. After graduation she hopes to teach English in Russia for a year or two and then consider pursuing translation work or a career in private philanthropy.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
Historical Context and Modern Demands:
Reinterpreting Linguistic Human Rights in Ukraine
By Eleanor Nurmi
The concept of human rights in an international context and on the scale that exists today did not come into being until the 20th century. The term began to gain traction after the atrocities of World War II, when the push for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began. However, the idea of “linguistic human rights,” a set of rights surrounding the use of language, did not fully emerge until later. While such rights were mentioned in early international human rights discourse, they only began to receive significant attention in the mid-1970s, culminating in several specific agreements in the 1990s. They have now become an accepted component of human rights, falling largely under the domain of cultural rights of minorities. However, over the past two decades, as linguistic human rights have gained increasing consideration, significant practical and theoretical problems with the definition and regulation of language rights have been revealed.
This paper will focus on Ukraine, a case that provides a particularly clear lens through which to clarify both the importance of and the problems inherent to the current conception of linguistic human rights. The country and its eponymous language have a long history, from the Russian Empire through the USSR to today, with language rights and conflicts. By examining this history, one can gain a better understanding of linguistic rights as a concept and the issues it faces today.
In order to grasp fully the meaning and value of linguistic rights, it is important to examine their emergence in the international rights discourse, starting with the advent of the concentrated human rights movement in the mid-1940s. In particular, to understand the situation in Ukraine today, it is important to place this overarching narrative in the context of the history of language policy in the Soviet Union, a factor that remains relevant to current language policy in Ukraine. The USSR also provides a clear example of the importance of protecting linguistic rights and the effects of disregarding them. Lastly, an examination of the impact of these two historical narratives on modern Ukraine and the government’s developing response to language issues draws into sharp focus the conflicts inherent to the linguistic rights regime that has developed over the past decades. These include the increased spread of “global” languages, difficulties with definitions of linguistic groups, inherent standard variant bias (the preferential treatment of a standardized dialect at the expense of non-standard language variants), and the practicality of policies rooted in the linguistics rights paradigm. As this paper will demonstrate, the development of these difficulties, particularly in a broader historical context, makes it clear that the future of linguistic rights will necessarily include compromise and a continual readjustment of policy to respect minority rights and social realities.
Linguistic rights, like most other sets of human rights, consist of both positive and negative rights. The complement of negative rights was expressed first in international law, which, from 1945, included provisions against discrimination based on language. However, language human rights also include the positive rights to identify with and speak one’s native language and to learn other languages. In addition, they include the right “to education and public services through the medium of [one’s mother tongue(s)].”
This set of rights is important in part due to the ubiquity of language and its import in daily life, particularly concerning education and children. Eerik Lagerspetz argues, “the right to use one’s own language can be justified by appeal to the practical role of language in human life. The ability to communicate effectively is essential for human autonomy and well-being[.]” Some people even argue, albeit debatably, that language itself shapes the way humans think, which would make a right to speak in one’s preferred language tantamount to the right to think in a particular way.
Linguistic human rights are often subsumed under general “cultural rights” because of the complex relationship between culture, nationality, and language. There is, according to Bill Bowring, a “generalized belief diffuse in our societies that language, as one’s mother tongue, is a natural sign of one’s ethnic identity.” This conflation means that protecting language rights is a critical part of protecting cultural identity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, enshrines this theory in the international discourse, declaring, “All languages are the expression of a collective identity and of a distinct way of perceiving and describing reality and must therefore be able to enjoy the conditions required for their development in all functions.”
After World War II, language emerged slowly as a protected category in human rights literature, as the international community struggled to define a new set of expectations about the concept of “human rights.” In the immediate post-war period, when the UDHR was being drafted, language was generally mentioned only in terms of a negative right—the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s language. The Charter of the United Nations, the UNESCO Constitution, and the UDHR, all of which came about between 1945 and 1948, included statements protecting human rights “without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” This grouping makes it clear that language was very much tied to culture, in particular minority culture. Nonetheless, it is significant that the United Nations, from its beginnings, established itself as fundamentally interested in protecting some form of language rights.
Language rights are inherently tied to education and the rights of children. It is therefore unsurprising that one of the first international legal documents to discuss linguistic rights extensively was the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, adopted in 1960. In Article 1, the Convention includes an exhortation against “any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on race, colour, sex, language…, national or social origin…, had the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality or treatment in education.” However, it qualifies this sweeping statement with the acceptance of “the establishment or maintenance, for religious or linguistic reasons, of separate educational systems…if participation in such systems… is optional and if the education provided conforms to such standards as may be laid down or approved by the competent authorities.” This exception made allowances for policies like those pursued by the Soviet Union in its earlier years (up until the late 1930s), in which the government established separate schools for national languages in order to promote those languages.
This Convention also included another major qualification of its protections. While it specifically states that, “It is essential to recognize the right of members of national minorities to carry on their own education activities, including the maintenance of schools and…the use of the teaching of their language,” which is a bold and new level of active protection in international code, the article continues that this right holds only insofar as it “is not exercised in a manner which prevents the members of these minorities from understanding the culture and language of the community as a whole and from participating in its activities, or which prejudices national sovereignty.” Such a sweeping exception allows for states to use arguments of governmental expedience and cultural cohesion to justify the suppression of minority languages.
The next development in international law regarding linguistic rights came with the International Covenant on Cultural and Political Rights, which came into effect in 1976. This covenant contained the first broad affirmation of positive linguistic rights. Not only did it protect the rights of accused persons to information about charges against them in a language they understood, and the rights of children to protection regardless of language, but it also stated that, “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” This language was repeated in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirmed “respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values,” and reiterated the right to “use his or her own language.” These clauses also mark the conception of linguistic human rights as not only individual, but also group or community rights.
In spite of the increase in discussion of linguistic rights, the concept did not truly come into its own until the fall of the Soviet Union. Starting in the 1990s, due in part to the ongoing messy redefining of national and cultural identities, language rights emerged as a topic of importance for international discussion. In 1992, the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities was written, marking a new era of consistent identification of linguistic minorities with national, ethnic, and religious minorities and vice versa. The declaration affirmed the rights of all of these minorities and asked countries to “protect the existence and… identity of minorities within their respective territories and… encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.” With the looming specter of the Yugoslav Wars, in which ethnic fault lines were reinforced by and in turn caused an increasing push for linguistic differentiation, such protections seemed increasingly urgent. The Declaration also reaffirmed the responsibility of states to ensure that “wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.” This was likely in response to the accelerating attrition of native language retention in states of the former USSR, a trend that began during the brunt of Soviet Russification policies, but had not reversed in spite of increased nationalism on the part of many of these states.
In 1992 the Council of Europe came out with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a document that includes strong protections for minority languages in all areas of public and private life. Soon after this, in 1996, UNESCO published the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights. While this document has no binding power, it remains an important mark of the increased attention and concern directed toward the concept of linguistic rights. Five years after the UDLR, UNESCO published the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which clarified the more philosophical underpinnings of linguistic and cultural rights, explaining that, “Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent. The flourishing of creative diversity requires the full implementation of cultural rights… All persons should therefore be able to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice.” This document also marked the beginning of an increased focus on “plurilingualism,” not just “multilingualism.” This distinction rests on the difference between a culture in which many languages are spoken (multilingualism) and one in which individuals are encouraged to speak more than one language fluently (plurilingualism).
From its inception in 1917, before all of these international protections were instated, the Soviet Union faced a particularly unusual problem with regard to linguistic rights: the large territory of the USSR encompassed many ethnic and national groups, with their own languages and strongly felt identities. While the USSR in some ways sought a post-national cohesive society, the fundamental philosophy of the founders of the USSR, particularly Lenin, rested on ideals of self-determination and respect for all cultures. Because of this, Lenin strongly believed that no language, least of all Russian, should have an official status of “state language.” The patchwork multilingualism of Soviet territory, however, constituted an obstacle to one of the main goals of communist leadership—the education of the people. In 1917, only 28.4% of the population of the Russian territories aged 9-49 was literate, a problem only compounded by the lack of written standards for many of the languages spoken in these areas. This was a critical challenge for the new government to overcome; because of the widespread lack of education, “even fundamental terms like communism and bourgeois were not just foreign words, but were completely foreign—and incomprehensible—concepts.” The Bolsheviks quickly discovered that their political ideals and goals were fundamentally inaccessible to the widely uneducated proletariat, and so establishing literacy became an urgent goal of the party.
The new government soon realized that regulating the languages spoken was just as important as pursuing general literacy. This question came up in the context of an ongoing discussion of the place of nationality in the new Soviet Union. The leadership established a policy of “nation building” as a part of industrialization. The Soviet government “entitled the nationalities with a well-defined political and territorial status—even for those which had not yet reached a pre-capitalist state of development—which led to a process of nation-building where political and territorial units were created on the basis of nations that constituted themselves as historical cultural communities during the tsarist period.”
However, in spite of the evident positive implications of such policies, two major issues arose. First, fundamental to such a project was the “practice of classifying… citizens according to their nationality.” These categories had not necessarily existed prior to the Soviet period, and so needed first to be constructed. Language became a critical tool of the Soviet government to promote this new sense of nationality; the Soviet language policies arguably “represented a conscious effort on the part of the Communist leadership to shape both ethnic identity and national consciousness through language.” The second problem, inherently linked to the first, lies in the sort of consciousness the Soviets were constructing. In order to preserve the most “authentic” culture, there was often a push to keep only certain aspects. In essence, there existed “a gradual policy of repression of national historical cultures that only preserved the most ethnographic and folkloric elements.” Such selection of only specific elements of a culture could be perceived as a form of cultural imperialism. In addition, the Soviets strategically employed this “folk culture” sensibility in many areas to provide a contrast between the old “backward” culture of the nation and the new modernism provided by the Soviets.
In order to carry out its language policy, the communist government created the Narkomnats [Narodnii Komissariat po Delam Natsionalnostei; The People’s Commissary on Matters of Nationality]. The Narkomnats was in charge of four main activities: the establishment of a standard variant of every recognized language “and its dissemination as a common language of communication;” the “modernization of the lexicon according to the needs of a modern industrial society;” the creation or reform of alphabets and written standards; and a “large-scale literacy campaign in the peripheral regions.” These were the initial broad goals of Soviet language policy, and they were evidently based on a tacit acceptance of minority languages. This stated equality of languages was “part of a larger policy of korenizaciia ‘nativization’… which was intended to educate the indigenous peoples and move them into the workforce.”
Soon after Lenin’s death in 1924, the government began to broadly reinterpret language policy, in part due to practical and fiscal concerns. At this point, the Soviet government developed a hierarchical classification of languages, based on several factors. There were four groups of languages: first, “small nationalities without scripts” which live scattered among larger nationalities and are “generally bilingual”; second, “small and medium-sized monolingual nationalities without scripts, which live as compact masses, are agricultural and not united territorially”; third, larger monolingual nationalities “using a traditional script and having a proletariat, intelligentsia and bourgeoisie”; and lastly, “economically and culturally developed nationalities that have traditional scripts and are territorially united.” Classification into these categories earmarked languages for particular resource allocations and legal allowances for development. The first, “least developed” group was to “conduct all education and create all literature in the ‘language of the federation,’” leaving no official room for these languages (and, correspondingly, cultures). The second group was allowed “primary schools, educational literature and mass political propaganda in the native language,” but everything else was to be in Russian. The third group was to conduct most activities in the native language, but was still required to introduce Russian “no later than the third grade.” Lastly, the highest group was entitled to conduct all educational and business endeavors in the native language, though they too were exhorted to introduce Russian “no later than the third grade.”
It is particularly interesting that the Soviets linked the economic and cultural development of a nation with its language. There are strong value judgments implied in the correlation of “economically and culturally developed” nations with long-standing and standardized languages. Likewise, the evident dismissal of languages without written standards as being associated with “agricultural” and generally less developed nations speaks to the perceived correlation between language and cultural development and complexity. As a whole, the hierarchical classification of languages calls to mind Stalin’s argument for “the ‘merging of the backward nations and nationalities…within the general stream of superior’ culture.” There is a clear sense of superiority inherent in making the sort of judgments implied by the language hierarchy; it is evident that Russian is treated not only as a special language, but as representing a special and advantaged culture. This also helps to clarify the discursive association between cultural rights and linguistic rights: dismissal of certain cultural heritages went hand in hand with the “disenfranchisement” of their native languages.
Starting in the late 1930s, the Soviet government effectively abandoned the original language policies in favor of overtly pushing for Russification. This goal was pursued in many ways. First, there was significant Russification of the native languages themselves; many “acquire[d] a vast number of Russian lexical items, and collocation and grammatical patterns, as well as… Russian orthography and spelling.” Some of this was the simple result of language contact, as officials speaking Russian spread throughout Soviet territory, and some was a result of concerted effort on the part of the Soviet government. The outcome was an incredible number of convergences between languages of the former Soviet Union and Russian. This is particularly evident in Ukrainian, a language that already had close historical ties to Russian.
On March 13, 1938, the study of Russian became compulsory for all Soviet citizens, marking the beginning of a new era of preferential treatment for the Russian language at the expense of native languages. This ongoing language policy had several clear results: firstly, “there has been an increased use of Russian across the board, and often at the expense of the minority languages,” and secondly, perhaps more subtly, Russian gained significant prestige “inasmuch as it was necessary to be fluent in Russian to participate in the government, to receive higher education and to work in most, if not all, skilled labor positions.” The combination of dismissive policies toward non-Russian languages and cultures, the implicit and explicit praising and advantaging of Russian language and culture, and the inevitable social results of making fluency in Russian a practical necessity for advancement meant that native languages often lost prestige as “backward” or “folksy,” while Russian gained prestige as a developed language of an advanced culture.
This problem was particularly pronounced in Ukraine, which had long faced a diglossic prestige question. For much of its history, Ukrainian had been considered a dialect of Russian, not a language in its own right. The educated classes in Ukraine spoke Russian in most situations. Russian was very much the language of the elite, and so Ukrainian had very low prestige. It was never an official language until 1919. As a result of this, the early Soviet years marked a special effort towards “Ukrainization,” with the result that by 1923, “over 61 percent of the elementary schools were Ukrainian.” However, in spite of an “official commitment to Ukrainization,” the 1930s were marked by “purges of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, including many of the leading figures in the pro-Ukrainian language movement,” which were evidently the beginning of a “concerted effort toward Russification.” This policy essentially continued through the remaining years of Soviet power, with the result that “within two decades (1959-1979) the percentage of Ukrainians considering Ukrainian their mother tongue dropped by 4 points.” This is particularly significant because it marks not only a shift in actual language use, but also in cultural perceptions: Ukrainian was losing status as a national symbol.
In 1991, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, along with ten other Soviet republics, passed a language law protecting its native language and aimed at counteracting the “effects of Soviet Russification.” The law, “On Languages in the Ukrainian SSR,” belonged clearly to the discourse on linguistic rights, using phrases like “free choice of language in education shall be inseparable Ukrainian citizens’ right,” and “Ukraine creates necessary conditions for the development and use of languages of other nationalities in the state.” It also included provisions against discrimination, stating, “lack of knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian shall not be the ground to refuse employment of a citizen.”
The law was very obviously in dialogue with extant international norms and marked the beginning of Ukraine’s attempt to formulate a language policy that would fall into line with its own needs and with international human rights norms. This document also clearly presaged the two major issues Ukraine faces today with linguistic rights: first, the conflict between a desire to protect and promote Ukrainian language as part of a cultural heritage and the need to protect and develop other minority languages in Ukraine, and second, the unique status of the Russian language in Ukraine and how to deal with it.
After the fall of the USSR, the Ukrainian government’s biggest obstacle to its stated desire to preserve cultural heritage was a simple lack of knowledge of Ukrainian. When the post-Soviet government of Ukraine began to consider language issues, it was faced with the fact that
“only 2.5% of children who went to schools in 1990 were previously educated in the kindergartens [sic] with Ukrainian medium of instruction compared to 14.5% when two languages (Russian and Ukrainian) were used. 95% of tertiary institutions (institutes and universities) were teaching in Russian. In such conditions Ukrainians were ‘losing’ their mother tongue.”
This disparity in education was reflected in the people; a striking half of the population “either did not speak Ukrainian at all or knew it only a little back in 1989.” How was the Ukrainian government to protect its language when half its people did not speak it? Equally critical, how were they to balance the need to protect the linguistic rights of all people, including minorities, with the desire to increase knowledge and retention of Ukrainian? These questions continue to haunt Ukraine and represent some of the most difficult issues concerning linguistic rights throughout the world today.
Thus far, the Ukrainian government has addressed these problems by granting Ukrainian the status of official state language, which gives it certain advantages and protections, but still guaranteeing constitutional protection of minority languages and cultural rights. Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution specifically states the government’s interest in “ensur[ing] the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life,” but immediately follows this with a guarantee of “the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities.” Interestingly, the major opposition to the governmental push for promotion of Ukrainian has also used rights language to defend their position, arguing that “it was an infringement of their rights to be expected to use Ukrainian at work or to have their children schooled in Ukrainian.”
Today, twenty years after the Soviet collapse, as a result of Ukrainian language policy, 67.5% of the population considers Ukrainian their “native language,” while 29.6% reports Russian as theirs. Nonetheless, there remains a significant incidence of asymmetrical bilingualism, in which “a higher proportion of ethnic Ukrainians are fluent in and actually use Russian in many communicative situations than ethnic Russians fluent in and using Ukrainian.” In addition, “the majority of schools in regions such as Donesk, Lugansk, Mykolaviv, and Odessa still have the dominating Russian medium of instruction.”
In 2011, the Ukrainian government released a draft law on languages for consideration by the Council of Europe. This law emphasizes “the value of strengthening the status of the State Ukrainian language as one of the crucial components of national identity of the Ukrainian people and a guarantee of its national sovereignty; [but also] consider[s] that only free development and equality of all national languages and high language culture lay the basis for mutual understanding, cultural enrichment and consolidation of the society.” The new law would make the state language mandatory for use in most official situations and promote its use in “media, science, culture and other spheres of public life.” The law would also contain an official acknowledgment of the status of Russian in Ukraine, saying that
“the free development, use and protection of the Russian language shall be guaranteed in Ukraine taking into account that Russian is the native language or language of everyday communication of the majority of the citizens of Ukraine, it is generally established along with Ukrainian as a language of inter-personal communication at the whole territory of Ukraine, and is one of the official languages of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, UNESCO and other international organizations. Command of the Russian language provides the citizens of Ukraine with a wide access to achievements of world science and culture.”
This is particularly interesting, for it echoes Soviet-era claims that fluency in Russian is pragmatically useful for advancement and generally represents a novel and practical approach to examining language rights, one which has in the past been lacking.
A revised version of this law was approved in July of 2012, to come into effect in September of 2012. The law, which includes specific provisions to instate Russian (among other languages commonly spoken in Ukraine) as an official “regional language” in areas where it is spoken by more than 10% of the population, has experienced significant backlash from the public. There have been widespread protests, and one citizen claims the new law aims “not to protect Russian, but to marginalise and ultimately eliminate Ukrainian.”
Also notable in the new draft law is a clause that places legal liability on the “public humiliation or disrespect, deliberate distortion of the Ukrainian or other languages in official documents or other texts [sic].” This clause brings up issues regarding the prestige of a standard variant of a language, particularly in a country with such dialectal variation. In fact, one major problem with the existing rights paradigm is its implicit acceptance of standard-language bias. One common technique frequently used to suppress or dismiss national languages is a refusal to acknowledge their existence as a language, not a dialect. In many situations, this arises from the fact that the “dialect” language emerged originally as a marked dialect of some predecessor language. In closely related languages, the comprehension spectrum makes delineating dialect and language very difficult, and current policy favors standard dialects of languages by extending protection to distinct and cohesive language groups. For example, the push to defend the Ukrainian language often means the dismissal of “mix” languages like surzhyk. Surzhyk, a mix language that falls between Russian and Ukrainian, emerged as a result of imperfectly implemented Russification policies and a widespread semi-bilingualism, in which certain syntactical, lexical, and phonological features of Russian were adopted into the Ukrainian language. Such dialects, lacking a corresponding cultural or ethnic identity, receive little protection under current rights paradigms, though some researchers suggest surzhyk at least is spoken by up to 18% of the Ukrainian population.
Another major problem with language rights as a whole is a pragmatic one; it is difficult to argue against the protection of minority languages and cultures, but the active protection of linguistic rights can both be expensive and cause significant bureaucratic bloat. In addition, today countries face “the recent pull of English as a global language,” or, in more general terms, the rising need for a global lingua franca. Globalism has meant that interaction and communication are no longer largely limited to one’s own speech community, a fact which has unsurprisingly been a force for the expansion of certain languages, English chief among them, and the suppression of other, smaller ones. Obviously, the protection of minority cultures is important, but should a government be expected to intervene in the free choice of a family to educate their children in a more globally “useful” language? This has frequently been a part of the argument surrounding the status of Russian in Ukraine. The Council of Europe’s response to this has been a promotion of plurilingualism, not simply multilingualism—that is, they stand by dual language education, or, more generally, the education of children with the aim of competency in more than one language. This too, however, raises its own questions: to what extent is it reasonable to provide bilingual education, and to what extent does it force unreasonable demands on the educational system, both financially and in terms of time?
These are all questions being considered in Ukraine today. Language policies globally are faced with increasingly complex situations. Governments are called on to simultaneously protect minority languages and linguistic human rights, promote their own historical, cultural and linguistic identity, and provide means for their citizens to participate in global discourse, not always conducted in their mother tongue.
The difficulties inherent in this challenge seem to highlight the need for a reconsideration of linguistic human rights. While it is important to reflect on the history of these rights, both in international and local contexts, it is likewise crucial to practically examine the situation at hand and formulate new responses to the problems of linguistic human rights. Ukraine has begun to undertake this process with its new law on language; however, it is clear that the process is only beginning, and significant work remains to be done. In addition, it is increasingly evident that there is no static end point. Rather, linguistic human rights will remain a part of an ongoing dialogue to carefully calibrate language policies to the needs of the people, while reconciling opposing societal forces.
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