Publication Spotlight: Politics and the Slavic Languages

Blog written by Dr Tomasz Kamusella. Dr Kamusella is an interdisciplinary historian of modern central and eastern Europe, with a focus on language politics and nationalism. Politics and the Slavic Languages is now available for pre-order from Routledge.

Dr Tomasz Kamusella

During the last two centuries, ethnolinguistic nationalism has been the norm of nation building and state building in Central Europe. The number of recognised Slavic languages (in line with the normative political formula of language = nation = state) gradually tallied with the number of the Slavic nation-states, especially after the breakups of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But in the current age of borderless cyberspace, regional and minority Slavic languages are freely standardised and used, even when state authorities disapprove. As a result, since the turn of the nineteenth century, the number of Slavic languages has varied widely, from a single Slavic language to as many as forty.

During my years in academia, I have run into questions about methodology and language classification regularly. While working in the Institute of East Slavonic Philology (Instytut Filologii Wschodniosłowiańskiej) at Opole University in Opole, Upper Silesia, Poland, I had an enlightening discussion with a master’s student who was completing her thesis on the East Slavic language of Rusyn. This student told me that she was a bit apprehensive about the research seminar where she was expected to present her research at later that day. In order to ease her into the flow of the required scholarly discourse, I was interested to hear her opinion on the salient differences between the categories of language and dialect. Soon we came to the conclusion that there is no linguistic basis for distinguishing between these two terms. Extralinguistic factors—such as political decisions—are responsible for according one speech variety the status of a language and another of a dialect. From the perspective of linguistics, such decisions are arbitrary and mainly reflect the power relations extant in the human groups concerned. Usually, in the West, a polity’s dominant group (typically, with its power center located in a polity’s capital) poses its speech as a language, which subsequently is standardised through writing and is often declared the sole legal medium of written and oral communication in public. In turn, speech varieties of non-dominant (‘regional’) groups residing across this polity are classified as dialects of the dominant group’s language. Political domination is translated into sociolinguistic and conceptual domination of the top group over subordinate ones, though members of the latter can try to renegotiate their subaltern status by situationally switching between the dominant group’s state language and their own ‘dialects’ (or ‘non-languages’).

We had a really good conversation that cleared a lot of methodological confusion. At least it appeared so. When I met the same master’s student a week later I asked her how the seminar went. Her mood was a bit subdued. She explained that ‘for the sake of objectivity’ her supervisor had asked her to refrain from using the term ‘language’ in reference to Rusyn. The student was coaxed to speak about Rusyn as a dialect of the Ukrainian language. She was pragmatic and followed the supervisor’s suggestion. It was time for the student to graduate and get a job. There was nothing to gain from arguing about the ‘obscure methodological point,’ otherwise the defense of the student’s thesis could have been delayed, or even not permitted. No one in her shoes would risk such problems over a mere question of terminology.

In this way, as required by ethnolinguistic nationalism typical to central Europe, universities in this region make sure that the unpacked black box of language and the unquestioned dogma of the nation pass swiftly from one generation to another. A thinly veiled threat of ‘problems’ or the inability to graduate is usually sufficient to put any intellectually adventurous students back in line. But questions of language classification continued to interest me and led to researching and writing my new monograph Politics and the Slavic Language. Through the story of Slavic languages, my book illustrates that decisions on what counts as a language are neither permanent nor stable, arguing that the politics of language is the politics in Central Europe.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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