Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Countries with Large Russophone Populations Need Country-Specific Russian to Block Moscow from Using Language as a Weapon, Kamusella Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 9 – The Russian language is the only “big language” whose home state claims to control it, opposes the development of country-specific varieties, and uses ethno-linguistic language to promote Russian influence not only in the former Soviet space but more broadly, Tomasz Kamusella says.

            That attitude and the policies it generates, the University of St. Andrews historian says, “stand in sharp contrast to other ‘big languages’ of the world: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese are not a seen as an exclusive property belonging to a single ‘mother’ country” ( and

            The Russian notion and claim to a “linguistic empire” over time has come to be “increasingly and unabashedly Russian in an ethnic and political sense” and must be opposed not only by negative steps such as bans and restrictions but by the positive one of promoting a nationalized Russian.

            A dozen years ago, Moscow established the Russian World Foundation, “ostensibly to popularize the Russian language worldwide in emulation of the British Council or Germany’s Geothe-Institut but in fact copying “China’s Confucius Institute” and “weaponizing language to overhaul the soft power of culture into a rapidly hardening instrument of projecting power.”

            Moscow used ethno-linguistic arguments with effect when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, Kamusella continues.  And such arguments “could easily be extended for justifying any grabbing of the eastern halves of Estonia and Latvia, together with the two countries’ heavily Russian-speaking capitals.”

            Most of the countries with sizeable Russian-speaking populations have struggled to “de-weaponize” the Russian language as “an instrument of hybrid warfare,” most often by restricting publication in Russian, insisting that Russian materials are viewed as foreign, and working to counter Moscow television. – and are “insufficient.”

            Such negative measures along, Kamusella argues, are often counter-productive – they anger Russian speakers and spark international criticism by Moscow and other governments who see them as a form of unacceptable discrimination. “Proactive ones must complement them, especially” in places with large Russophone populations.

            One of the potentially most effective but as yet little developed is the promotion of a codified and “country-specific” Russian. In 2014-2015, some in Kyiv called for that as a means to separating Russian speakers in that country from Moscow. “But this idea was pushed to the back burner and forgotten.”

            Codifying a county specific Russian “is increasingly easier and cheaper with the plethora of online resources available for automating this process,” and “no budgerary concern justifies not following down this easy lane, if it could effective de-weaponize the offensive potential of monocentric Russian.”

            To show what he believes needs to be done to nationalize Russian, he gives Estonia as an example. “First of all,” Kamusella says, “a governmental Institute of the Estonian Russian Language should be founded in Tallinn, complete with a team of scholars and experts knowledgeable about Estonian, Slavic languages, English, and online linguistic solutions.”

“Second,” he continues, “a corpus of such a country-specific variant of Estonian Russian should gather vocabulary and phrases employed in publications, radio and television programs produced on the territory of Estonia during the last two or three centuries, perhaps beginning with Muscovy’s seizure of the Swedish provinces of Estland and Livonia in the early 18th century.”

And “third, on this basis an authoritative dictionary and grammar of Estonian Russian need to be compiled, alongside bilingual dictionaries, pairing this language with the national and official language of Estonian and with English.” Such an Estonian Russian could even be written in Latin script and its syntax could follow Estonian and pre-1917 Russian patterns.

“Republishing all the pre-1917 Russian-language classics for school use in Estonia could be another useful measure for enriching Estonian Russian. During the Soviet times all the re-published literary texts from the imperial period had to be “modernized” in order to comply with the new revolutionary spelling.”

And, Kamusella suggests, “yet another way of bolstering Estonian Russian could be drawing at the cultural and linguistic resources of nearby Belarus. The 1995 introduction of Russian as a co-official language in this country effectively pushed the national language of Belarusian to social and cultural margins.”

“Luckily,” the St. Andrews scholar argues, “the considerable tradition of Belarusian-language literature and other publications produced between the late 19th century and today is meticulously preserved, researched and made available both in print and online.”

Indeed, “what is all too often forgotten is the fact that, until the mid-20th century, Belarusian-language writers and publishers regularly used the Latin alphabet, alongside Cyrillic. As a result, like in the case of Serbo-Croatian, Belarusian also boasts its own two parallel alphabets. All the country’s intellectuals know the Belarusian Latin alphabet, or Łacinka.”

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