Whether they call the conflict itself or speak of the opposite camp, Russians and Ukrainians choose the words they use. For linguist Nicolas Tournadre, the current conflict reflected in propaganda sometimes extends to the languages themselves.
On December 23, President Vladimir Putin held his important annual press conference. During this four-hour mass media, the Russian president and journalists uttered the word “war” a dozen times (way) referring to possible developments in the situation in Ukraine. Attentive observers should have taken the Russian president’s statements seriously, but most thought it was a beacon. The rest we know: on February 24, around 4 in the morning, the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine began, which the Russians often call Malorossija (“Little Russia”). As a linguist and former student in Kyiv in the 1980s, I have been following closely the information in Russian and Ukrainian in the media of the two countries at war for the past few years.
Since the beginning of the armed conflict, the word “war” to refer to the situation in Ukraine has disappeared from the Russian media and was initially replaced by the expression “special military operation in the Donbass” (vojenajaspetsoperatsija contra Donbasse). Given the extent of the war in much of Ukraine, the Russian media, in order to avoid an overly blatant inconsistency, were later forced to reformulate its description in “special military operation in Ukraine” (specific operations in Ukraine). In the media, the Russian government justified “special military operation” citing the need for “deazification” (denatsifikatsija) of Ukraine and the protection of the populations of “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk against the “genocide” (genocide) perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists and against the flags (banderovtsy) designating a historical movement of Ukrainians who sympathized with the Nazis.
Rhetoric against the enemy
Until the start of the war in Ukraine, a few rare independent media, in particular the Echo radio station in Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) and the Dojd TV channelthey continued broadcasting in Russia and describing the reality talking about the war, but they were quickly banned. It is interesting to note in passing that in the Chinese media the war is described as “special military operation” (tebie shijun xingdong) perpetrated by “Ukrainian nationalists” (wukelan minzuzhuyi fenzi), that is, the rhetoric is based on that used in the Russian official media. We can also see that the misinformation of the Russian media is reminiscent of the Gulf Wars used by the United States government, with its “surgical strikes” (surgical strikes) and his “collateral damage” (collateral damage), etc
In the present war, the Ukrainians, for their part, are no less in their rhetoric against the enemy, but show more innovation than their heavy neighbor whom they designate especially by the terms of“Russian Orcs” (Rosijs’ki orky). Orcs are sci-fi characters who designate a warlike and barbaric alien race. Ukrainian media also often use the term Rashist which is a compound corresponding to the telescopic contraction of the words “Russia” and “fascist.”
The current conflict reflected in propaganda sometimes extends to the languages themselves. For many years, Russian bloggers have expressed their deep contempt for the Ukrainian language on the Internet, which they call“Ukrainian” (ukrojaz). The use of a preposition is the object of a fierce symbolic struggle. We must say in Russian, as recommended by the Russian government: in Ukraine (literally: “in Ukraine”) or as recommended by the Ukrainians and the Russian opposition: in Ukraine (“in Ukraine”)? On the one hand, country names are often associated with the preposition v (“in a”). In addition, the most traditional variant with n / A (“where”) evokes the expression in Ukrainian (“On the outskirts, in the suburbs”), which induces a political reading.
Mixture of Ukrainian and Russian
From a linguistic point of view, it is worth remembering an essential point: the start of the war that actually began in 2014 locally in two cities in eastern Ukraine was linked to the issue of the languages. On February 24, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to repeal the law granting Russian regional language status in territories where Russian speakers make up more than 10% of the total population. The current situation of the war actually shows that the linguistic justification of the Russian-speaking separatists backed by Moscow was nothing more than a great deception. It is worth mentioning briefly the linguistic situation in Ukraine. First of all, it should be remembered that Ukrainian is a Slavic language halfway between Polish and Russian, but that it does not allow for mutual understanding with Russian (nor with Polish).
If Ukrainian is spoken by the majority of the population, among the ten languages spoken in the country, Russian ranks second (30% to 50%) according to opinion polls. But these figures do not take into account a very common third “language”, surzhyk(“mixture of cereals, especially wheat and rye”), meaning a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. Since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian media have covered the events of the mayors of the besieged cities and a wide variety of interlocutors.
The linguistic dimension is indeed a pretext
All Ukrainians are questioned in Ukrainian but answer, depending on the case, in Ukrainian, Russian or even surzhyk … Unlike Russians who do not understand the Ukrainian language, Russian-speaking Ukrainians generally understand Ukrainian very well. but they usually prefer to express themselves in their language. native language. It is not uncommon for the same person to switch from Russian to Ukrainian during their answers. Whatever language is used, the speeches are the same and denounce the horror of the Russian invasion and the bombing. Because beyond words, there is an aggressor country and an invaded country. Listening to the way Russian-speaking Ukrainians express themselves in eastern Ukraine (especially from Kherson to Kharkiv via Mariupol), it is easy to see that there is no difference in their assessment of the situation with their speakers. Ukrainian. The linguistic dimension was thus a pretext used by the separatists.
To conclude these reflections on the “linguistic dimension” of war, I would like, as a Russophile and a Ukrainian (and I would add Sinophile), that we should not take the wrong goal. It is worth repeating the obvious: cultures and languages can be deeply loved without complying with the authoritarian or dictatorial regimes of the countries in question.