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Publish at March 29 2022 Updated April 29 2022

When language and politics don't mix

Changing languages to enhance one's self-worth

In this first quarter of the year 2022 when Ukraine is experiencing one of the worst moments in its history, it is also a time to remember how language and nation are linked. Latin, French, German are all languages that have been decreed and that have served as a cement for nations. But in such a context, where the political and state balance is so fragile, can one also question one's linguistic identity?

As we saw a few weeks ago, the Ukrainian language is in a fog. Can one change one's language to enhance one's self-worth? Is the shift linguistic or political?

Kiev vs. Kyiv

The delicate situation in Ukraine right now has sparked a lot of controversy in the media around the world. Many of them, in support of the country with the yellow and blue flag, decided to adopt in their editorial lines the Ukrainian spelling of the capital: Kyiv, then abandoning the writing, yet internationally used, Kiev. The abandonment of this second spelling, of Russian origin, is a definitely political choice.

The French poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) said:"You miss one being and everything is depopulated", here, for this graphic change, we should rather say "You miss one E and everything is turned upside down". Indeed, when we, humble readers, first saw this "renamed" capital in our media, we all wondered: typo? Inattention? Que nenni, just back to the roots in good form!

In fact, writing Kiev implies a (passive) support for the Russification suffered by Ukraine. Indeed, the ex-empire of the Tsar had, at the time, sought to annihilate Ukrainian culture, starting with its language. Russifying the name of a capital city means changing the politics of one's country as well and imposing one's dictate for good.

According to Mariette Darrigrand, an eminent semiologist (specialist in the study of sign systems):"A territory is never just a physical land. It is a set of habits, a vision of the world and the concepts that govern it, in other words, a whole language."

Political act

Beyond the Ukrainian problem, one cannot help but think of colonization, which, too, has brought with it its flood of language imposition here and elsewhere. Whether by the British Empire (in India in particular), by Belgium (in the Congo), by France (in Africa), without forgetting the very controversial Conquistadors and their conquest of Latin America... All these countries have seen themselves change, willingly or forcibly, in their culture, their way of being but also in their language.

Having rubbed shoulders with many students of South American origin, few were proud of their Iberian roots. No, they all boasted of their indigenous ancestry, their original culture, their Mayan, Incan, Aztec forefathers... Of course, Spanish is their language, but not that of their ancestors. So they claim loud and clear the right and the power to continue to perpetuate languages like Quechua or Maya. The settlers brought and imposed their language, but were not able to take away their cultural dignity and their own linguistic identity.

Another concrete example is the Amish. Mostly from Germany, now mostly settled in Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the United States, they nevertheless keep their very particular language, called Pennsylvania Dutch, which is simply a mixture of German and Dutch...all on American soil, and this, for several generations.

If we go even further, we can say that although words do not carry truth, they carry a meaning that is always relative. The Bible itself suggests this idea, in the prologue to the gospel according to St. John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in God."


Finally, we can say that language, culture, and nation are intimately connected, even intertwined with each other. The best way to "own" and control a country is to hold it by what makes its people united and cohesive: its language.

In another register, nationalists, fervent defenders of their heritage, have understood this well, like that region that still resists the invader, the Basque Country, which prides itself on keeping the names of its cities in the Basque language (San Sebastian, for example, is better known as Donostia). Similarly, Brittany or Occitania are proud to display their language loudly in their signage and road signs.

Finally, to return to the example of colonialism, whether French, British or Spanish, linguists agree, however, that, if not inhibited in its languages, "the colonizing dimension contains above all today a very important creative hybridization". What about the Ukraine? Only time will tell...


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