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James Meek on Ukraine

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I am fascinated by the language situation in Ukraine and the recent article by James Meek in the London Review of Books  ( https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v45/n16/james-meek/every-field-every-yard) helps to feed this interest.

Meek refers to those who have changed from using Russiand to using Ukrainian and gives the example of a singer, Ruslan Kuznetsov, who used to sing in Russian but now usees Ukrainian.  He surprised Ukrainian speakers by using it so well so for many Russian speakers this change will be a challenge.

Meek also refers to the way that English is playing a more important role and how it might be more sensitive to try English in Ukraine first rather than Russian if a person only knows English and Russian.

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Zelenskiy and adapting messages to audiences

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 28 Mar 2022, 15:22

One of my students kindly sent me a link to this BBC article about the way Zelenskiy adapts what he talks about to his audiences:


It seems to me that this adaptation flatters the different audiences as well as helping him achieve his aims of trying to garner support.  For example, references to the Battle of Britain perhaps reminds British listeners of the time Britain stood up against tyranny.  It also makes it seem earth shatteringly important because someone so far away refers to it.  The same could be said of the mentions of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" for a French audience.  They may be flattered by the reference.

I am also interested by the way he presents himself.  He looks too busy to care about his appearance although he is probably quite mindful - he looks just "scruffy enough" (an interesting contract with Boris Johnson whose scruffiness is more over the top and seems contrived - there does not seem any purpose to Johnson's uncombed hair, for example).  He appears approachable and has been seen taking selfies with ordinary Ukrainians so probably seems "one of us" despite having the elevated role.  This contrasts with Vladimir Putin who is pictured at one end of a long table.

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More on Ukrainian, Russian and the invasion of Ukraine

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I greatly admired Ilya Kaminsky's long poem "Deaf Republic" and so I was interested in his views of language and writing about the situation in Ukraine at https://lithub.com/ilya-kaminsky-on-ukrainian-russian-and-the-language-of-war/

He refers to Russian speakers now choosing to use Ukrainian as a reaction to Putin's threats and of course what later turned out to be actions.  There is a sad account from a poet of how:

"I have never felt discriminated against because I spoke the Russian language. Those are myths. In all the cities of Western Ukraine I have visited, I spoke with everyone in Russian—in stores, in trains, in cafes. I have found new friends."

So, the language itself is not the problem and it was often a way of bringing people together.  This also undermines Putin's argument that he is protecting Russian speakers from discrimination (but, of course, this is just one account).

An even more interesting and tragic point is made about a Ukrainian poet:

"Just as Russian-language poet Khersonsky refuses to speak his language when Russia occupies Ukraine, Yakimchuk, a Ukrainian-language poet, refuses to speak an unfragmented language as the country is fragmented in front of her eyes. As she changes the words, breaking them down and counterpointing the sounds from within the words, the sounds testify to a knowledge they do not possess. No longer lexical yet still legible to us, the wrecked word confronts the reader mutely, both within and beyond language."

It seems that the way to express the broken world is to use language that is as broken as the world it represents.

Kaminsky then reflects on the issue of himself writing in English and presumably this reflects another angle and other ways of representing a perspective on the events.

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Language and the invasion of Ukraine

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 28 Feb 2022, 11:41

There has been much talk that the capital of Ukraine should be written in the style used in Ukrainian Kyiv rather than the Russian Kiev - see, for example 


I can see the argument for this but it also has to be considered that many Ukrainians are Russian speakers and many of these are also proudly Ukrainian.  I wonder whether insisting on the new spelling/pronunciation might have the unintended consequence of alienating some from their Ukrainian identities.

It is always difficult to compare language situations but Swansea are not called Abertawe in the Football League.  The supporters who speak English are no less Welsh than those who speak Welsh.  Using Russian for Kiev/Kyiv does not immediately seem to reduce support for the multilingual country of Ukraine.
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