The words that you are reading now, the words that you might just have spoken to a friend or relative – those words are the component parts of a language that is fundamental to the way that we communicate with one another.
Language sets us apart from other animals. It reflects the shared history and culture of a particular community and is the glue that binds groups together, (not always for the good, of course). Stories that shape national identity, humour, literature – all rely on the fundamental power of language.
From the British to the Russian, from the French to the Spanish, empires have always understood and feared that power and have often used the suppression of native languages as a weapon of war and as a way of controlling the populations of occupied countries. Driven underground, language can become a weapon to be used by the dispossessed against their rulers – but its loss is always deeply painful and traumatic to native speakers.
Forced to use an unfamiliar foreign tongue, the memories, shared culture and everything associated with their own language is gradually overlaid with that of the invader, and the message is always ‘our language is superior to yours’.
As a passage in the law passed to ban the Welsh language from the courtroom in 16th century Britain expresses it, “the Welsh people … using a speech nothing like the natural mother tongue (English) within this Realm … [the law will] extinguish the sinister traditions and customs differing from the laws of this Realm (England)”.
Imagine for a moment that the Spanish had succeeded in their plans to invade England during the reign of Elizabeth 1, and having done so, had set about extinguishing the native language, religion and culture. There would have been no Shakespeare, whose work has added enormously to the richness of the English language. – ‘A wild goose chase’, ‘to be cruel to be kind’, ‘a foregone conclusion’ – just a few of the numerous expressions originating with the Bard. The works of English Renaissance poets and musicians, of Chaucer and the early epic of Beowulf – all banned. English would have been relegated to the status of an inferior language, spoken only by peasants and the working class.
Savage suppression of the native language
That is exactly what happened in Ireland. The history of the English colonisation of Ireland is one of sometimes savage suppression of the native language, religion and culture over many centuries. The 14th century Statutes of Kilkenny made it illegal for English settlers in Ireland to speak the Irish language. Traditional Irish dress was banned, as were all Gaelic games, and Irish minstrels were forbidden to enter areas settled by the English.
In later centuries, efforts to ‘Anglicise’ Ireland focused on the legal system, the seat of government in Dublin, and schools – the Irish language was banished from all public arenas.
The French, so proud of their own language and culture, were equally draconian in their attempts to suppress the language of the countries that they colonised. In Algeria, which was pronounced part of metropolitan France in 1848, it was forbidden to teach Arabic in schools, and French was the only language allowed in official communications. Educated Algerians spoke French as their first language, and after the country won its independence in 1962 the new government had to institute a crash programme of ‘Arabisation’ in schools and colleges to ensure that Algerians ‘rediscovered’ their own language and culture.
Schools have been forbidden to teach in Ukrainian
In the current war in Ukraine Russia has been deploying similar tactics, both on the battlefield and in widespread propaganda campaigns designed to convince the world that there is no such thing as ‘Ukrainian culture’ or the ‘Ukrainian language’. It’s all Russian, they would have us believe. Ukrainian writers and poets of past centuries have been claimed as Russian, and the language itself derided as an inferior form of Russian. Schools have been forbidden to teach in Ukrainian in the occupied areas and new schoolbooks issued carrying a ‘Russian’ account of history. Sound familiar?
The strategy extends to cultural symbols. By targeting national treasures like the National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Odesa, along with 30 other cultural buildings in the city, the aim is to deliberately destroy morale and ensure that a distinct Ukrainian culture ceases to exist. UNESCO estimated in July that more than 240 cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict, including 27 museums, 19 monuments and 103 cultural heritage sites. Centuries of history, artefacts recording the unique culture of the country, have been stolen or wiped out. Of course, the loss of lives matters more. But the Russians are attempting to ensure that even if Ukraine wins the war, the country that her fighters return to will have many of its memories expunged, a shared culture deeply damaged.
What can the world do?
A plea that President Zelensky made in a recent video conference was: ‘Don’t forget us’. Remembering, recording, countering propaganda that attempts to wipe Ukrainian culture off the map – those are all things that individuals outside Ukraine have it within their power to do.
At a basic level, making sure that we use the correct Ukrainian spelling for places and people. Sharing the work of Ukrainian authors translated into English; learning the words of that wonderfully evocative song ‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ [The Red Viburnam in the Meadow] so that we can sing alongside Ukrainian refugees, publicising cultural events organised by Ukrainian groups in our own countries – little enough, but these actions matter.
They tell Ukrainians that their language and culture will not be forgotten, that eventually an opera house can be rebuilt, with outside help. That this time an empire’s greed will not succeed in destroying the spirit and language of a people.
For details of events in Sussex celebrating Ukrainian culture, check out these Facebook pages: